Getting the combat just right in an action game is so important, and I imagine incredibly difficult. So often when getting up close and personal the feel of that melee fighting just doesn’t feel right, whether it’s because the impact of hits not feeling weighty enough or the parry timing being a little off. When it feels right though, that’s just video game magic. Bleak Sword DX might not look like our typical action game, but damn does it nail that combat.
In this lo-fi fantasy world, everything has pretty much gone down the toilet. The king has been betrayed and murdered using the titular Bleak Sword, and darkness has descended across the realm. Now nowhere is safe, and the only one who can change that is our white pixelated hero and his sword fighting skills. As you can probably imagine the story isn’t supposed to be the star of the show here, but it certainly sets up your time stabbing in this desolate locale nicely.
There’s not a whole lot flashy about the combat in Bleak Sword DX, but everything it does, it does perfectly. Your character has a light attack for quick strikes, a heavy attack for extra damage, a dodge roll and a block – and that’s it. It’s how you use these abilities that matters though, and how you manage the stamina meter that drains once you do use them. You’ll need to master parrying and countering attacks, dodge rolling out of harm’s way and knowing when to time your strikes if you want to survive the simple square stages, and even then you’ll probably die a lot.
Although each level takes place on a single screen, there’s a nice variety throughout Bleak Sword DX. Some stages feature fog that obscures your foes, others have wind that’ll blow you about a bit and impact your ability to dodge, and the best of all are the horseback stages. You can’t block on these tricky scrolling levels, but instead can jump to dodge incoming logs or attacks. These variations in the environment might not sound like much, but it makes a huge difference to how you play.
If the different levels don’t excite you though, the enemy variety will. Every single foe (be it a basic bitch grunt or a big ole boss) in Bleak Sword DX requires a different strategy to deal with, from spiders that lunge at you at top speed to flying demons that throw spears at you from afar. Working out which attacks you can block and which require a well timed roll is just as important as your ability to time your attacks and blocks, so make sure you fight smarter not harder.
If you’re really struggling with a certain stage though, you can always go back and grind on some earlier easy battles. You earn experience for every level you complete, and every time you level up you can choose to upgrade your attack, defence or maximum HP. These stat upgrades make a huge difference, and going back to previous worlds after a few levels up will make you feel like a god.
Alongside getting experience, there’s also a chance you’ll find an item when you beat a level. You can hold two items at once, and they come in the form of equipment that boost your stats and consumables that health your hp or provide a more temporary boost. If at any point you die though these items will be taken away, and if you die a second time when you go back to beat the stage to retrieve them they’ll be gone forever, along with any experience you have towards your next level up. It can feel a bit harsh when you lose a load of XP and some particularly good items, but it worth remembering you don’t actually need any of the buffs they provide to progress.
If you’re able to beat the campaign of Bleak Sword DX, you’ll unlock a whole host of extra difficulty levels and modes to dive into for more slashing action. Boss Rush and The Arena are fairly self explanatory, but the mode I enjoyed the most was the randomiser. This mode shuffles the enemies you’ll encounter on your quest entirely, and is a whole lot of fun if you don’t mind the balance being thrown out the window.
One aspect of Bleak Sword DX I wasn’t sure I’d appreciate at first was the visuals, but after playing for a little while I realised just how much they add to the game. The simple three colour palette and chunky pixel aesthetic really suits the dark fantasy setting, and also ensures that you always know exactly what’s happening in the heat of battle. I’d advise that you don’t judge this book by its cover.
Bleak Sword DX takes simple action game mechanics and polishes them to near perfection. The combat is immensely satisfying, and the enemy and level variety keeps things interesting from start to finish. How much you get punished for dying can feel a little harsh, but as long as you become a master of the sword and board you’ll save the kingdom and feel great doing it.
Combat feels incredible
The enemy and stage variety is wonderful
The lo-fi aesthetic is appealing and functional
Loads of unlockable modes and difficulty levels
Is a little too punishing when you die