Bleak Sword DX is the latest Apple Arcade game to make its way over to consoles. This Devolver Digital-published title was always an admirable and interesting effort to take the core tension and taut action of the Souls “genre” and make it work on mobile devices. It did work and to this day remains one of the more compelling Apple Arcade titles, but it also doesn’t benefit from being on a platform where you can compare it to the actual Dark Souls itself.
One of the great things about Bleak Sword is that it breaks the Souls formula down into bite-sized levels, so it can be played for a minute at a time. Each level takes place in a small, enclosed space, and over the span of a minute or so, you need to defeat all the enemies that spawn and immediately start to attack you. Things start simple enough with bats that languidly move around before attacking relatively slowly and predictably. Those are easy to counter and put down, but it doesn’t take long for those bats to become fast-moving spiders or hard-hitting demon-things, and the rapidity with which Bleak Sword amps up the difficulty is almost intimidating. If you do manage to defeat all the enemies, then you can move on to the next level and swarm, but soon enough that “if” is going to be very much the question at play.
If you die – and you will a lot – then all that happens is you lose all your experience (back to the last experience level) and drop whatever items you were carrying. You then get one shot to try and complete the level that you just fell at. Achieve that and you’ll get all that loot back. This is a good way of cribbing the consequence of death that a Souls game has without making it feel too onerous if you fail to succeed on that second attempt and lose everything. At most, you’ll just need to grind back one or two earlier levels to get your experience and items back. It’s a five-minute detour on your quest, at most.
Because this was originally a touchscreen game, Bleak Sword has exceedingly simple controls. There’s an attack button, a dodge, and a block. Time your block right and your opponent will be momentarily stunned, meaning you can get a brutal counter-attack in. This is the essence of the Dark Souls combat tone and structure distilled down to be as bite-sized as the aesthetics, and it does work. Unfortunately, by its nature the only way the game can scale difficulty in one way, and that is by becoming increasingly testing of your twitch reflexes. Where a “proper” Souls game will find new and tactically interesting bosses to throw at you, Bleak Sword’s only recourse is to make the nest boss even less predictable and even more damaging than the last one. It’s impressive how intimidating some of these bosses are, given how small the sprites are, but the later levels are more of an exercise in frustration than patient learning and tactics.
The biggest issue with the game isn’t how reliant it is on twitch play, however. It’s that there is absolutely no narrative context powering it. The Souls games are well-known for offering a limited direct story, but a narrative that could fill multiple volumes worth of lore. Through that law simply exploring the world became an intense storytelling experience. Bleak Sword has little meaningful lore. Divorced of that, what’s left is a game that looks the part thanks to its grim aesthetic, but fails to give the aesthetic the critical context that it needs. Without that context and intrigue, it’s difficult to become too engrossed within the gameplay.
As far as Apple Arcade ports go, there is a fair amount to the Switch release. There’s the base game itself, and a good suite of material that wasn’t in the mobile original as a bonus. Complete the main game and you’ll be able to enjoy an infinite mode, and there’s also a boss fight gauntlet for really skilled players to test themselves. Given the difficulty, it will take most players a fair while to work their way through it, though given that the difficulty also comes in a reasonably frustrating way and there’s no story or narrative to incentivise pushing through it, I also suspect that a large number of people that buy this will never actually get around to finishing it.
If you do like your twitch action games, though, it’s hard to fault Bleak Sword for offering that to a very pure degree. Those times when it all clicks together and you’re deftly dashing across the level, weaving between enemies and parrying their attacks with precession feel really good. The aesthetics are also spot on. Bleak Sword is a well-made game, and it plays nicely on Switch.
However, for all the good, the reality is that Bleak Sword is in serious need of substance, and the novelty of a “lo-fi Soulslike” on mobile is lost a little on a proper console.