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Review: Blades of Heaven

This game is difficult to review, not only because my opinion of it improved significantly while I was playing, but also because the fact that it was made in RPG Maker 2000 needs to be taken into account. Of course, this detail wouldn’t excuse any flaws if it’d be a commercial title, but Blades of Heaven is a free game and yet there are moments when it seems to go beyond some limitations I considered inherent to this version of RPG Maker, at least based on what I could remember from all the time I put into trying to use it to make a game myself back in the day.

Unfortunately, the first part of the game is likely to cause many to stop playing, as it “features” all the issues you’ll experience throughout with few of the massive improvements brought by the interesting characters, skills, enemies, locations, items or twists in the tale found later. Any elements that may make a difference are too few and unimportant early on to counter the impression that Blades of Heaven is a rather childish attempt at an otherwise unremarkable game, filled with clich├ęs, constrained by obvious limitations and plagued by writing that’s painful to read, especially for those who put a high emphasis on story and atmosphere.
If you don’t let that first part stop you, however, the more you’ll advance, the more your opinion of the game is likely to improve, and you will also probably begin to realize how much effort was put into some of the mechanics. This is obviously most noticeable during boss fights and some other more difficult battles found later in the game, where interesting abilities, special moves and scripted events can go a long way towards overcoming some of the otherwise strict limitations that this version of RPG Maker places on enemy AI, making proper use of the increasingly complex items and equipment the characters may have crucial. Some attributes, the skills that are only available while certain items, at times only in a specific combination, are equipped, and a small number of particularly powerful items that may be used an unlimited number of times may at first appear to simply be meant to make things slightly more interesting, but many will soon become particularly useful and some eventually absolutely necessary for survival, forcing the player to make some difficult choices when other options become available and to quickly adapt when, at certain moments during the story, some of these items will need to be given away, destroyed or otherwise lost… Or when the characters you relied on will no longer be around.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I was at combat and skills, so I’ll also add that I rather liked the way in which the characters announce the use of every skill, as well as the comments some occasionally make when facing certain enemies or groups. Sure, it quickly gets repetitive, but it’s a step towards giving the characters more of a personality and allowing them to be slightly more than the sum of their attributes and abilities. Not that some of those abilities wouldn’t be quite interesting on their own, mind you.

Moving past the combat, which I’ll say again tends to get more interesting the more you advance, I should also mention that, while otherwise quite typical, some of the puzzles aren’t bad either, and thankfully the particularly tricky ones that require speed can be skipped in the earlier parts of the game. In addition, the Fog and, much later, Back Soul skills will prove to be particularly useful, and in certain situations even necessary, though sometimes it may take a few tries before you’ll realize it, as you may be tempted to assume that ending up trapped or too weak to return means you failed in some way. Conversation can be nice as well, though its purpose is largely to make up for the lack of a journal or quest log, while the skills that double experience gain in the final part of the game are crucial for certain characters to catch up.
As for the story, as strange as it may seem after what I said above about the writing, in itself it’s quite decent and features some interesting twists, though the biggest shock doesn’t quite make sense. Definitely nothing to write home about and what is there will be quite a chore to pick out of the often childish writing plagued by typos and grammar errors, so it may be a matter of the developer still having some difficulties with English at the time this game was made, but either way he did put some effort into it and there are a few good moments to be found. Would help if you wouldn’t have to guess what the last word on the line is supposed to be when the text doesn’t wrap correctly though, as it happens a few times, most notably during a particularly long and important conversation taking place when the fourth character joins the party, when nearly every line has this issue.

And now that I got to specify exactly what’s wrong with this game, I must also point out how annoying it is to have items, at least a few of them quite necessary if you want to have a chance, hidden in so many completely random tiles, or things only appearing if you return to previously explored areas that you’d normally have no reason to return to. The game actually tracks how many such treasures and secrets you find and at the end gives you the percentages and a rank based on them, but that probably makes it even more annoying, not less, as it gives the impression that the most important thing wasn’t to, well, actually complete the game, but to check every patch of flowers, pillar, table, rock or even more or less random trees or otherwise unremarkable parts of walls, just in case something may be there.
Another annoyance is that the game is artificially lengthened by requiring the player to keep going back and forth, and that’s without counting the search for these secrets I just mentioned. There are several moments when it seems the developer made a point of designing objectives in such a way that any advancement will take the longest possible amount of time, whether by creating problems that can only be solved by traveling back halfway across the world, or by placing access points particularly inconveniently, or a couple of times by requiring items that rarely drop or even capturing a creature that has an extraordinarily low encounter rate.
That’s only for the cases when you actually know what you’re supposed to be doing, mind you, because some puzzles may require knowing how RPG Maker works and taking advantage of certain “tricks” to complete, while some quests will leave you completely in the dark, with no logical solution or any clue as to what to do next. There were even a couple of key moments when I was very thankful I was able to find a guide, because I doubt I’d have been able to figure things out on my own, and optional quests are even worse, as making a lucky guess can be the only way to best solve quite a few of them, while one or two others have no obvious solution simply because they apparently have no solution at all, having been left in the game despite being incomplete.
Last but not least, the final part can be quite sadistic in difficulty. Granted, considering the situation the characters will find themselves in at the time, that’s quite understandable, but there are moments when the design is completely unfair and “cheap”. No matter what your opinion of anything else is, I’m quite sure you’ll agree with me on this when you’ll reach the third temple (Korka), where you absolutely need to save after every few steps you managed to take without dying, since it’s absolutely full of traps you have no way of detecting without first being killed by them, plus that you’ll likely need to repeat the boss fight several times due to being unable to save until you also get past some other particularly tricky things that happen after it. I won’t give more away, but it was utterly infuriating.

In spite of all of that, however, Blades of Heaven remains quite an achievement for a game made in RPG Maker 2000 in terms of mechanics and combat. Sure, you’ll still see the limitations, including for example the fact that Frankie’s Berserk only checks outside combat and doesn’t correctly update with continued damage even then, but there are moments when you’ll forget about them and those moments will probably be increasingly frequent the more you advance. It may at times feel like a chore to do so, however.
Unless you’re a fan of this type of games and got too used with some of these issues to care anymore, the first part may seem poor or even dreadful, the childish and simply bad writing will be a major problem, the cheap tricks used to artificially make the game longer will likely prove annoying and the moments when a lucky or even crazy guess is the only way to find the correct solution will definitely be infuriating. However, there are still things to like in Blades of Heaven, most of them having to do with the interesting boss fights and some other more difficult battles, as well as with the skills, items and other mechanics available. Plus, it’s free and a guide is only a quick search away.

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