Bleak Sword DX Review – Retro Gameplay, Modern Frustration

    Title: Bleak Sword DX
    Developer: more8bit
    Release Date: June 8, 2023
    Reviewed On: PC
    Publisher: Devolver Digital
    Genre: Action Roguelike

Whether you’re looking for love at a pigeon-filled high school, jousting with your unmentionables, or ruling a kingdom with the gameplay you’d be more likely to find on a dating app, you can find a game published by Devolver Digital. Bleak Sword DX stays true to the rest of the games in their lineup, though, unfortunately, unique isn’t always better.

Bleak Sword DX is the re-release of an action-roguelike game originally launched on Apple Arcade. The DX version has been updated for PC, offering better controls, changes to gameplay, 3 additional chapters, and a few game modes for when you want to switch it up. Finding a balance between Bleak Sword’s mobile-friendly gameplay and console-friendly controls is challenging, and I’m not sure where this game truly fits.

In Bleak Sword DX, you find yourself on a monster-filled adventure equipped with a sword, shield, and occasional consumable item. It’s up to you to lift the curse of the Bleak Sword and bring these battlefields peace, one chapter at a time.

The first thing you’re likely to notice when launching Bleak Sword is the combination of retro graphics in a diorama setting. I get what Devolver Digital is trying to do here, but the novelty of making games how they used to be in the good old days isn’t what it was 5 years ago. While the stage settings looked cool at times, my blob of a knight became more of an eyesore than anything else.

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You’ll encounter a variety of enemies throughout your playthrough. And while the monsters you face will change, the way you fight them won’t. The gameplay is simple. Playing on the PC with a PS5 controller, I could perform a light attack by pressing square, while holding the same button resulted in a heavy attack. Hitting X allows you to dodge, and pressing L1 to block at the right moment will parry (sometimes).

Every action requires stamina, and you’ll find yourself running out after a few attacks. It’s a mechanic I’ve enjoyed in plenty of games, but the simplicity of Bleak Sword’s gameplay makes stamina usage a cause for frustration. The parry system can be fun, although it’s rendered useless in most of the game’s more difficult battles. Many enemies have unblockable attacks, which led to me spamming dodge-roll in a hit-and-run style. Because of this, I found myself slogging through boss battles just to get back to lesser enemies that required more strategy.

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Levels you complete earn experience points for your character. Gain enough XP, and you’ll level up. This allows you to upgrade stats from a pool of health, defense, and attack, but you’re forced to pick between two out of the three. This is definitely a case where the best defense is a good offense because if I found myself regularly getting hit, I’d be dead anyway.

Here’s where the roguelike gameplay rears its head. Anytime you die, you’re sent back to the world map and can retry as much as you’d like – with one condition. Your experience points and items are gone. I’m familiar with those mechanics from similar games, though Bleak Sword approaches it in a way that just feels bad. It was common for me to start a new level with virtually no health, die, and make it through the next time around. I’m not sure why health levels are maintained from stage to stage, and the best strategy I found was to treat each new level as a disposable training exercise rather than actually caring enough to finish it on the first try.

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Those are the main problems I faced in my playthrough of Bleak Sword DX on PC. In an arcade where I hang out with friends, I’d throw a quarter in and enjoy my time. It’s quick, it has fun moments, and it’s certainly unique. At home, when I have more than a minute to put into a game, though, I’d pick 90% of Devolver Digital’s other titles before I’d launch Bleak Sword again. There’s just nothing to keep my attention from stage to stage.

The world progression in Bleak Sword is divided into stages that are part of larger chapters, reminiscent of games like Super Mario World. How much time you’ll spend on any given stage depends on your skill, and I found myself finishing most levels in less than a minute. The pickup and play style is a significant reason why Bleak Sword performed so well in its original release on Apple Arcade in 2019. It’s the perfect type of gameplay when you only have a couple of minutes, but it doesn’t feel quite at home as a fully-fledged game on PC.

I wanted to write something about music. The fact is, though, there’s not a lot to write about. It was passable. I don’t see myself humming Bleak Sword’s soundtrack anytime soon, though. That being said, the sound effects were decent enough for me to keep my volume high. In fact, the sound and feel of chaining a perfectly-timed parry into a counterattack is just about the only reason I’d pick up Bleak Sword for another playthrough.

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Bleak Sword DX has its moments. Utilizing the parry system and mastering the stages to take no damage after dying moments earlier makes for some genuinely enjoyable moments. Unfortunately, that’s about where my fun ended. The repetitive structure and increasing challenge fueled by a stamina bar that depletes faster than my 12-year-old dog’s weighed on the experience. There simply wasn’t enough reward for the difficulty, and the retro aesthetic couldn’t do enough to keep me engaged.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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