May 25, 2024
After seemingly disappearing, Die by The Blade has finally found a release. Can the dueller hold its own or should it die honourably? The Finger Guns review:

Update: Die By The Blade Patch 1.0.3. has been released, and with it unlocks everything mentioned in the review as being behind unlockable progression. Which, in retrospect, renders my initial grumble obsolete. However, the online side of it is a ghost town so I feel some vindication in that.

You may remember, back in the post-EGX round up that Sean and I did, that I said Die By The Blade was my game of the event. Yet since then, in a move absolutely targeted solely at me, the game went quiet. No updates, no ETA… and then suddenly it was playable at the latest WASD (so I’ve been told), and it’s finally being released on PC. Well, sometimes we like surprises.

A game that looks the spiritual successor to 90’s tactical stab-fest Bushido Blade (let’s not tiptoe around it, it does), Die By The Blade is a thinking man’s game. Part the above, part For Honor, DBTB is a different kind of “fighter” in this time of Street Fighter’s and Tekken’s.

So, is it worth the wait? Has the quiet development and lack of attention-gathering make up for it, or should it fall on its own sword? Have at you, en garde and whatnot, as we find out.

Die By The Blade review

There Can Be Only One… Maybe

When I review games, I like to start of with what’s what. The story, the motivation, the raison d’etre: what is the purpose of the game to make us play it? So, would you like to know the intricate reason for swordfighting in Die By The Blade? So would I.

I’m all for minimal storytelling through exploration, a la Dark Souls or Hyper Light Drifter, but Die By The Blade seems lacking of anything. For one, there’s no Story Mode or otherwise on the main menu. All the game’s blurb gives us is “dive into a samuraipunk world and wield Japanese weapons to determine your moveset”.

So, from that offset, we can at least see that it’s futuristic, stylish, and… that’s about it. Whilst I get that story in fighting games is more a recent thing, at least in a fleshed-out sense, it would still be nice to know what stake these fighters have in this. At least we know how to take them down.

Die By The Blade review

Swish and Flick

When I say a thinking man’s game, I don’t mean to imply that Die By The Blade has a complex control scheme, or that you have to be a Mensa candidate to understand it. Quite the opposite, the controls are fairly straightforward. No, it’s a strategic game in that in employs a one-hit kill system (mostly), and that players have to be careful. See, that’s where the Bushido Blade comparison comes in.

The control scheme itself is pretty simple, if you’re playing on a controller (which the game heavily recommends, as do I): left stick to move, right thumbstick to change stance. There’s three stances: high, mid and low, with the right bumper being horizontal attacks, whilst the trigger is vertical. But then it gets interesting.

Say you’re holding it in a middle stance, and you hit RB. Fine, a nice horizontal slice at waist height. But then you change the stance to high and hit the vertical attack, we get a downwards slice. However, move it to low stance and hit vertical, you’ll get an upwards slice instead. On paper, easy enough, but this is where the duelling comes to life.

Die By The Blade review

Sudden Strike

Now, you might be thinking “I’ve played For Honor, I know what to expect”. In some regards, you might be right. The concept is the same, trying to outflank your opponent’s thinking and gain the upper… slash, as it were. Instead, think Nidhogg, where every slash is fatal. That works both way, mind.

Players have a stamina bar, which means every slash, dodge or roll will consume that. So for one, it means no spamming attacks without consequence. It also means patience is part of the tactic to winning, waiting for the opportunity to strike. Is your parry timing good enough to take a hit and then reposte, or would you rather roll to the side and take advantage that way? That’s up to you.

There are combos to pull off, which are fiddly at first, but act as barrages to keep your opponent on their toes. If one hits with the final move in the sequence, players will be rewarded with MK Brutality-like Finishers, for some extra flare. It’s very risk/reward, and entirely up to you if you want to play conversatively or full-on Errol Flynn.

What it does have in its favour though is speed. There’s no elaborate loading times between rounds, just straight back in (for however remaining lives you have left).

Die By The Blade review

Not Spoilt For Choice

Whilst the combat of Die By The Blade sounds fun, and it is, the game itself is absolutely crippled by its progression system and limited characters. It’s not uncommon for fighting games to offer a smattering of brawlers before unlocking more (or rinsing us for Season Passes), but usually there’s a decent range to get used to. Here, you get two.

And it is literally as binary a choice as you can get: male or female. What makes it doubly bare bones is we aren’t given anything to go on about either. Does Yoshi have personal beef with Butterfly? Are they both from the same clan, fated to go all Highlander and be the only one left? Did one kill the other’s parents, or are they both massive weebs in over their heads? No idea.

There are more characters to unlock, but here’s the rub: they’re all level-based, and that in itself is an arduous grind. Whilst the game hands out experience points for practically anything, the level cost is so staggeringly high that unless you’re smashing ranked matches (which I can’t do pre-embargo), it’s going to take a while to unlock anyone/everything.

Dye By The Blade

Which is a shame, because there does look to be some awesome customisation options to mess around with. Different costumes and accessories for the duellers, new weapons and the option to make custom blades all sounds really appealing. But given that, at time of writing, I’m only level two and the earliest unlocks are still a few levels off which makes me feel despondent. At the moment, Butterfly has a demon mask, that’s all my budget allowed.

However, masterful seque, it doesn’t help that Die By The Blade is not the most polished of games to look at. Oh, don’t get me wrong, it’s functional in its combat: cleaved limbs react accordingly, bloody spray sufficient and whatnot. Defeated foes die in a reactive way, rather than just ragdolling onto the floor. The arenas you fight in are well realised, giving that Kurosawa/Tarantino-like visual feel to everything.

But the characters look… waxy, if that makes sense. That vacant expression of “this is your player model” rather than a character with its own life. If this were Early Access, I could be more forgiving to Triple Hill, but this is a full release. The only hope is that cycle of “hoping it sells well on its core mechanic to warrant updates” which, whilst not great, is more common nowadays.

One Must Stand, The Other Hits Retry

In summary, because there isn’t really much more I can extrapolate from my review code, Die By The Blade has the potential to be great. From what I can play, which is pretty much Versus matches until I hit a few more levels, it’s fun. The matches are quick, the effects flashy for what is essentially a more violent Rock, Paper, Scissors with sharp things.

But I think the biggest strength of the game (and the weakness from a reviewing standpoint) is playing against other humans. As is the case with any fighter, the highs and lows come from landing that fatal strike and demanding a rematch, respectively. The problem I’m having is that I have none of that to experience from a purely critical perspective. When the embargo’s up, at time of reading this, I will be jumping online to see how badly I suck at it. That’s where the game will come alive.

As it stands, Die By The Blade is a great concept, one not seen since Bushido Blade in the mainstream, that has a solid gameplay mechanic. The swordplay is fluid, and when it clicks with parrying, feints and the like, it’s rewarding to act out your favourite Inigo Montoya monologue as you decapitate someone.

But without that spit and polish to its graphics, or much of a single player concept, or any kind of narrative impulse, it falls short of reason to get invested. One can only hope that positive reviews and word of mouth can get behind this, because it has potential. As it stands, it’s all killer, no filler.

At its heart, Die By The Blade is an addictive and brutal swordplay dueller that will definitely appeal to those that like lightning-fast fights. But without any real narrative and a snail’s pace rewards progression, it falls short in what should feel like a full release title. Let’s hope time proves us wrong on this one.

Die By The Blade is available from 16th May on PC via Steam, and is compatible with Steam Deck. A console release has not been confirmed yet.

Developer: Triple Hill Interactive
Publisher: Grindstone

Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.

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