Bleak Sword is a puzzle game
At first glance, Bleak Sword’s graphics look bad. Really bad. I’m addressing this right out the gate because this first impression has probably kept many players from giving the game a shot. The logo is literally just a stick figure with a sword and shield, for heaven’s sake!
Yes, the low-color sprites are supposed to look retro, and they do look retro. There’s nothing wrong with a retro look, but indie games have been doing the retro look for so long that it’s no longer a novelty. Plus, when you try to look as retro as Bleak Sword is going for, the graphics look bad first and retro second.
It’s a shame that this is the first impression that everyone will get of Bleak Sword, because beneath the bare-bones exterior is some of the best action gameplay that’s ever been imagined for mobile platforms.
The plot is about as bog standard as RPG plots get — there’s an evil immortal king, three magic stones, and prophesied hero, so go kill the bad things. It’s all told with a sense of foreboding and gravitas that feels a bit out of place at first. The slideshow cinematic that sets up the plot tells its classic tale of betrayal and woe using stick figures, and it’s hard to get invested in the fate of a kingdom when your first impression of a place is that it’s drawn by a five-year-old.
Yet the game pulls off something tricky as it shuttles players through its multiple various decaying, monster-filled environments: it begins to feel like it earns that gravitas. Its combat captures a sense of succeeding against all odds by the skin of your teeth, and it turns out that the art style is actually fairly effective once you look past the cave-painting-esque look of the player character.
There’s a spattering of atmospheric lighting and environmental effects that hammer home the bleakness that the game’s title none-so-subtly points at, and the simple art has just enough detail to hint at the grotesqueness of the creatures while leaving enough to the imagination to let the players’ minds fill in the gaps. Add on top of this all some eerily fluid animation, and players could find themselves believing the story if they hadn’t already forgotten about it by the time they reach the end of the starting forest.
The boss fights make the best use of this style, with massive, intimidating sprites that dwarf the player and evoke a sense of fear as you mentally try to figure out what exactly it is that’s hunting you around the battlefield and trying to smash you like a pancake.
What’s frustrating is that a game doesn’t need retro art to achieve this effect. I get that indie game developers like more bit might not have the budget to spring for high-fidelity character designs, but I can’t shake the feeling that if the game didn’t star a pixelated stick figure knight, it’d have become a huge hit that people simply wound’t be able to stop talking about.