The world of Swordsman Online is a different place, an ancient China filled with magical warriors who have honed their prowess with martial arts and self-discipline. Martial arts schools battle openly for power and prestige across the countryside and the player is pulled into a strange world of intrigue and black magic.
Published and developed by Perfect World (Perfect World Entertainment in NA), it runs on the Angelica III engine and uses its own in-game animation/models to produce stunning (as well as cheesy but enjoyable) cut scenes. In 2013, Swordsman Online was one of the most anticipated games for Chinese audiences and now it’s been released to Western audiences.
The game Swordsman is based on the iconic novel by Louis Sha. Its story takes place during some indefinite period of ancient Chinese history (potentially during the Ming dynasty) that follows the wax and wane of dominance between different martial arts schools. The result is an interesting wuxia-styled game that does a good job of delivering many expectations from an Asian-import MMORPG.
The game is currently in beta, but will officially launch on Tuesday, July 29th of this year.
Keep reading for a hands-on first impressions of the game and what you can expect to see in Swordsman Online.
Sound and Graphics: A beautiful Chinese cultural styled world with fine animation
The character creation in Swordsman is going a direction we’ve been seeing trending in modern fantasy MMOs. With a gallery-up-front setup and a hidden advanced system behind that allowing fine tuning of features using sliders.
Swordsman does not go with a simple set of faces, hairdos (with colors), eye color, etc. or an up-front set of sliders to adjust various features. Instead, various components of the features and face are displayed with portraits of each effect: of course, there’s a set of hair plus color (can’t do that any other way) but when it comes to nose and mouth and details (such as scars and lipstick) this gallery model really makes a difference.
The gallery-up-front, sliders-in-back presentation is similar to ArcheAge’s character creation (also an Asian-themed fantasy MMO) and it gives players an incredible amount of control while also simplifying the production of a fairly unique-looking avatar.
Swordsman is voiced entirely in Chinese and there are English subtitles for everything said aloud. Like the usual RPG, most NPCs are not voiced but instead speak in English talk bubbles. The immersion of listening to a game done in a different language is excellent—and it fits that this game remains in a non-English language; Swordsman Online is set in an ancient China setting.
The world building is excellent and the locales are both breathtaking and beautiful. The game really understands that it’s working with a locale and a culture with a lot of interesting architecture. In fact, it does a lot of nods to wuxia Chinese fiction with rooftop chases, where characters lightly land on struts and leap in long arcs.
The very animations of the martial arts weapons and fights has a strong wuxia component, elegant, disciplined moves with weapons designed to look similar to fighting moves. The character I chose took to an order the uses a longsword and watching her draw and sheath her sword is a joy.
The music in this game is good enough that I never felt the need to turn it off. It’s an interesting set of different Chinese musical ensembles that fit nicely with the rest of the Chinese cultural and thematic elements. Players from a Western culture will have very little exposure to Chinese culture except through popular movies and books that reflect the productions of that culture and this game does a lot to fit nicely with that.
Gameplay mechanics: Third-person MMORPG with targeting, hotbar skills, and combos
Players get to choose how they access Swordsman’s movement mechanics between Classic Swordsman, a mouselook mode with actions triggered on keyboard—3D RPG mode that uses WASD to position the character—and Action, an expert mode that combines mouse motions with keyboard presses to trigger skilled strikes.
In most of the modes there’s skilled hotbar attacks from 1-4, “Q” is used for a primary strike, “E” is used for setting up combos; and F1-F4 with more possible key mappings. In combat, positioning can be quite meaningful as enemies have similar abilities that are sometimes telegraphed that can knock down, throw into the air, knock aside, stun, and inflict other control effects (players as well can wield these powers to control enemies.)
The order (classes, see below for more) chosen changes how the different skills and combos function, as well as modify how players approach combat. I went with a swordsman with the Splendor class, giving me a lot of up-close fighting with a longsword, but I could have gone with the Five Venoms to give myself more ranged strikes that could inflict damage-over-time attacks.
Alike other Asian-import games, it’s also possible to click on the name of a mission NPC or zone target and have the game auto-pilot. Good for when first in a city and I don’t know where anything is situated. This can be extremely useful for when a new quest turn-in is outside of the range of the minimap or an area hasn’t been well learned yet.
And, if I happened to have a mount and the autopilot needed to take me a great distance, my mount would appear and my character would hop on.
There are myriad of classes to choose from each conforming to their own weapon and martial style. Shaolin, wield a cudgel for melee DPS and tanking (and this is a men-only order); Wu-Tang, wield a large sword (a claymore) and use high HP and AoE for tanking; Splendor, is a beautiful style using a longsword and elegant swordsplay for DPS and fast combos; Infinity, fast moving, rapier fighter for single-target, pressure DPS and rapid movement; Harmony, weaponize a Zither (a musical instrument) to do melee assassination; Sun and Moon, wields daggers for pure DPS and self-healing via combos; Five Venoms, wield poisons and deliver ranged attacks with whips (this is the women-only order); Zephyr, use fans to strike at range with weaponzied wind; House Tong, use guns for control attacks and ranged strikes; and the E’mei, finally provides a healing class, with a lot of support, and wield a quarterstaff.
With so many orders to choose from, the class decision can be dizzying.
Fighting isn’t difficult in the least—no matter what mode is chosen—with the different hotkeys and capabilities learned, the game from levels 1-10 is certainly designed to drive the story through cut scenes and quests. Using the hotkeys with the two (Q and E) as well as mouse presses allows for a lot of variety in attack and recalling the different control effects that a class might have access to can change the tide of battle tremendously.
Freemium: Item marketplace with a premium currency
Swordsman Online is published by Perfect World Entertainment and buying the premium currency is integrated directly into the Arc launcher (which also allows players to download and play other PWE games.) The premium currency is sycee, an interesting gold/silver ingot currency used in China until the 20th century, name derived from a Cantonese word meaning “fine silk.”
The store contains a set of mounts right now: a black ox, a fury stallion, a snowcloud steed (all horses) as well as an umbrella. There’s also a number of aesthetic items for dressing up with lovely costumes. There’s also a certain amount of quality-of-life options present for various amounts of premium currency.
However, what’s a little bit potentially worrisome is the addition of refinement resources to the online store (similar to how Neverwinter Online works), which are useful for bettering current equipment. While this isn’t out of line for the usual free-to-play MMO game it does tend to weave further into the pay-to-win territory that’s ever feared by players. Economically this represents a division between published for Western vs. Eastern gamer audiences—games that come from Asian communities tend to be more accepting of this sort of monetization, whereas Western audiences tend to be more wary.
Conclusion: Swordsman Online is an action-oriented wuxia-styled MMORPG with beautiful settings
This is a gorgeous game that uses its own graphics engine in order to produce narrative cut scenes and leads players on a merry chase around ancient China. When compared to other games on the market that use very similar motif (e.g. ancient Chinese wuxia gameplay) Swordsman feels like a current-gen approach that manages to make a game that’s a spectacle all the while being something that’s easy to play.
Levelling from 1-10 in this game is quick and easy and it provides significant and fun training in how the targeting system works. Playing with friends is easy and there’s a lot of space to wander around in (few highly aggressive monsters.) During one of the segments I even got to fight a giant spider that proved to be a surprising challenge.
Players who find themselves pulled into the story will likely keep coming back. Players used to games published for Western audiences might have a bit more of a learning curve, but the design is set so that it’s not difficult to get in and actually have a great deal of fun.