Bleak Sword DX Review

What makes a “soulslike”? Most gamers would assume the genre to be mainly composed of action RPGs emphasizing corpse-running gameplay mechanics, explorations, and stamina management melee combat. Bleak Sword DX aspires to deconstruct the genre and distill the experience to only tense melee combat.

Every aspect of Bleak Sword DX is simplified to emphasize its reductionist interpretation of the combat experience of a soulslike. The sprite and 3D polygon hybrid graphics using monochromatic visuals and the utterly simplistic combat further illustrate More8Bit’s goal to simplify the genre to its absolute bare minimum.


This was originally a basic Apple Arcade game designed for mobile devices but has been revamped with more features and content. How far can minimalization be taken before it becomes hollow? Find out in this Bleak Sword DX review!

Bleak Sword DX
Developer: More8Bit
Publisher:
Devolver Digital
Platforms: Windows PC, Apple Arcade iOS (as Bleak Sword), Nintendo Switch (reviewed)
Release Date: June 8, 2023
Players: 1
Price: $9.99 USD

Bleak Sword DX makes no pretenses about what it is and is very honest about its intentions immediately. There is a story and it’s very plainly intended as an excuse to have the player character face all kinds of pagan monsters, giants, necromancers, and burly armored guys.

There is not much in terms of lore or meaningful themes. Bleak Sword DX is focused on direct action and having gamers experience the scenario in the moment. Most of the time, cutscenes are for environment transitions or boss introductions.

Anyone who is expecting to get immersed in the atmosphere or environmental story-telling will be left wanting. Bleak Sword DX is incredibly sparse with its narrative. The plot is not much deeper than you’re the guy with the sword and are tasked with vanquishing the evil monsters. It isn’t like Castlevania where the Belmonts are depicted with Christian imagery to convey an idea; in Bleak Sword DX, the story could be anything.

Anyone coming in looking for an arcade-like experience will find that Bleak Sword DX delivers immediate action and wastes no time. This is primarily an overhead action game where the focus is on battling foes in a series of arenas. The difficulty steadily rises with each victory and the hero gains experience points upon victory and players get to choose to level up one of their stats. Sometimes there is a power-up or consumable item won after the fight.

The experience is casual and very hardcore at the same time. Battles can begin as quickly as they end since foes can be utterly relentless and bite massive chunks from the hero’s life bar. It is easy to drop onto a stage and go to war with a group of wargs and obnoxious spiders.

Bleak Sword DX is refreshing for how easy it is to get invested in the battles and not stress over minutiae like inventory, min-maxing, or fulfilling some side quest for Lady Higginbottom. It is almost like a fighting game in its simplicity. However, in fighting games there is usually a cast of fighters to play who all have varied moves. Bleak Sword DX has only one character and he has an extremely limited moveset.

The Bleak Sword DX protagonist can dodge-roll, parry with a shield, and has a basic combo. A successful parry will give the hero the chance to do a powerful counter-attack or will reflect projectiles. This is the extent of the abilities at the player’s disposal. The challenge of Bleak Sword DX is how well these limited options can be used to survive and its credit, you can get very far with it.

Minimalistic, though it may be, the barebones combat does get boring after a while. Bleak Sword DX is best experienced in small doses because the utterly spartan gameplay can become tedious. There is no exploration and every stage is a tight diorama that sometimes has hazards or traps.

Bleak Sword DX put a lot of stock into its austere combat, but it isn’t that good, to begin with. The stamina management mechanics work fine, but the parrying window feels too small for having a delay that is a few nanoseconds too long. It feels more like gamers will have to anticipate an attack as opposed to reacting to an attack to block.

After adjusting to the questionable parrying mechanics and being able to mentally track how much stamina the hero has, Bleak Sword DX feels empty. A major contributing factor to the game’s barrenness is its visual design which doubles down on the stripped-down philosophy that drives the game’s ethos.

Every character is an abstract monochromatic sprite that barely represents what they are supposed to be. The stark simplicity was cute at first, but it got old very quickly when the stark arcane visuals start to wear on the eyes. Bleak Sword DX is not pretty; in fact, it is largely hideous and borders on amateurish.

Some sprites are hard to read. It is not always clear what you are looking at and in battle, not being able to read enemy tells can lead to a dirt nap. The protagonist doesn’t even have a head, which makes it hard to tell which direction he is facing, and when he is so small and made up of only a few pixels, it becomes hard to take the game seriously.

The graphics for the environments work best. They have a chunky and rough, low poly look with monochromatic colors; it is like combing the retro flavors of the first PlayStation and the first few Ultima games. It is a very unique style that has its atmosphere. It is a shame that there are no towns or dungeons to explore.

For its price, Bleak Sword DX does offer a decent amount of bang for your buck. As modest as the core game design is, the amount of content is very generous. There are a lot of levels to go through before reaching The Bleak itself and there are more added since the vanilla release when this was on iOS.

On top of a very punishing main game, there is also a randomizer mode. This unpredictable addition makes an already spicy game even hotter and even more frustrating. It is like playing Russian roulette because it is very possible to get hit with powerful, late-game bosses at the very start.

Having better, more detailed sprites in color would not have hurt Bleak Sword DX. The 3D environments are already inexplicably more detailed and have appealing designs. If the characters could look as good as the settings, then some of the annoyances of the fighting might have been addressed. The gameplay would still be mind-numbingly basic, but at least it won’t strain eyeballs.

Bleak Sword DX falls short of greatness due to its questionable adherence to minimalism. It comes close to being interesting, but the lack of variety keeps it boring. Bleak Sword DX‘s strengths are its low barrier to entry and how it pushes the player forward with its casual design.

Bleak Sword DX was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a code provided by Digital Devolver. Additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy can be found hereBleak Sword DX is now available for Windows PC (via Epic Game Store and Steam), and Nintendo Switch.

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The Verdict: 6

The Good

  • Rugged retro visuals and dense atmosphere
  • Highly tense battles and vicious enemies
  • Lots of content and modes for your buck
  • Quick reloads and retries

The Bad

  • The monochromatic graphics are hard on the eyes after a while
  • Parrying delay demands players anticipate attacks instead of reacting to them
  • Barebones gameplay

About

A youth destined for damnation.


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