Every man has his breaking point. Little smiley faces were mine.
I wasn’t there in the beginning, but I imagine that the marketing for early MMOs consisted of the following: “It’s a 3-D game you can play with people on the Internet, any time you like.” That was it. End of sales pitch. In 2000, that was all you needed and hundreds of thousands of people would fling their money at you. Tack on a popular license, like Star Wars, and it was even easier.
A big reason for that was lack of choice. With only a handful of MMOs in the early, pre-WoW, days, you played EverQuest and if you didn’t like it, you could go play… EverQuest. Or maybe, if you were really bored with EverQuest, you could play… EverQuest. Or, like, go outside. But who did that?
MMOs could have a lot more warts then and still be hugely popular because there was nothing else. Sure, you can note that World of Warcraft and its follow-ups have made MMOs easier, more convenient, more accessible, whatever you like, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe it’s a bad thing.
But even the most jaded, old-school players with the thickest of rose-colored glasses have to admit that there was some seriously messed-up stuff (this is a pseudo-family-friendly website) in those early games. Nowadays, you’ll fling a new title aside if you don’t like the nose shape choices in the character creator. If a game launched with some of the things that old MMOs (and old MMO players) boasted of, you’d torch it on Reddit with all the flames and fury of rioting World Cup fans.
On to the real point of this article: The characters in Swordsman Online have nice noses. In fact, the game is very pretty, visually, giving you a clear notion of where you are – that being an old world China-esque setting, with striking architecture, elaborate outfits, and a suite of flashy special effects to accompany your attacks. You’ll select from one of 10 fighting styles early on and practice it to deadly efficiency, slicing your way through countless foes.
Swordsman will invariably be compared to Age of Wushu, Snail Games own wuxia-inspired MMO. I found Swordsman to be a fair bit easier to understand, as opposed to Age of Wushu’s “pop-up spam” that accompanies the early levels. The menus are better laid out and simpler, too, and I never lacked for knowing what I was supposed to do or where I was supposed to go. Translations were, as usual, spotty, but that’s pretty much inevitable when dealing with this type of imported game.
“This type of imported game” pretty much sums up the experience, though. Swordsman Online is what it is: a grindy, tepid adventure that has its charms but is so rooted in archaic conventions that it’s a struggle to keep going. Enemies with ironic names like “Ambushing Swordsman” stand around passively waiting for you to attack them. If you have action controls, you have to quickly tap Ctrl-click to get a cursor, and then tap again instead of a sensible solution like holding the Alt or Ctrl key. There’s no invert Y-axis option, a necessity for many gamers, myself included. You can double-jump but it’s not really necessary; enemies hit like wet paper and the cool cinematic action is done in cut scenes with no player input required.
Already having a grand time, as you can tell, I finally came upon a quest where I had to do a kneel emote in front of an NPC. I pulled up the emote menu and was greeted with 50 cute little faces. None of them screamed “kneel” to me and there was no hover-over text. I tried a couple, to no avail. I then decided I had better things to do than go through the other 48 and shut down my game, never to return.
And that’s the point of it. If Swordsman Online had launched 15 years ago, even with lesser graphics, it would have been the biggest thing ever. Now, though? There are literally hundreds of other MMO choices out there.
If you like this style of game, and want a Chinese flavor added to it, you might like Swordsman Online. If you don’t, you won’t. That’s really all the analysis needed. I don’t need to get into PvP and dungeons and all that to learn this. It drove me away in its first four hours. Maybe that makes me a bad reviewer, but isn’t the goal of a reviewer to try a product until he’s come to a decision on it, whether that takes four hours or forty? I know some people will shout “It’s only alpha!” but we’ve all played enough alpha/beta/early access games by this point to know that not much significant will change. And we also know that so many of those games are just marketing exercises, meant more to get you to like that game and interested in spending money than in actual testing. And what I saw of Swordsman Online simply isn’t good enough to make me want to play it over all the other options I have available.
That’s subjective, of course, and there are people who will absolutely love Swordsman Online. It apparently has 80 million players in China, and even in my brief time, I saw people advertising for high-level group content in chat. You can try it for yourself on July 3, when the open beta begins, but don’t go in expecting a revelation. You’ve already played this game before. You’ll love it to death, grow tired of it quickly, or grow tired of it very quickly, as I did. You already know the answer. Let that be your moment of zen.