There’s nothing quite like battling for victory while teetering on the precipice of defeat. It’s that adrenaline-inducing moment in virtual time that’s made everything from driving simulators to fighting games so consistently engrossing. A sliver of health. Increasingly ill-favoured odds. But when you win, despite it all, it’s a sense of achievement quite unlike anything else. Boreal Blade, from the makers of the Trine series, takes this concept to its very heart, with every encounter often coming down to two or more warriors circling one another, blades in hand, one blow enough to seal victory for either side.
In principle, Frozenbyte’s latest project plays like a cross between For Honor and Absolver. Whether you’re playing in a free-for-all Deathmatch or one of its many team-based modes, every encounter comes down to the same principles. Use your movement and position to find an opening, then strike. Much like Absolver – which focused on hand-to-hand combat styles rather than weaponry – Boreal Blade demands you appreciate the importance of planning ahead. Sweeping you blade downwards might be enough to clip your enemy’s head, but it means you blade will now (by default) have to swing upwards from that position for your next blow. Does that put you at a disadvantage? It depends on the context, and that context can change in the blink of an eye.
Your avatar’s stance never resets after a swing, so you’re having to anticipate in which position a swish of your blade will leave you. You strike with ‘ZR’, but you can use ‘ZL’ to both feint and re-position your weapon by adjusting the right analogue stick. Certain weapons (such as the basic sword) can be slow to swing, so ensuring you’re moving your implement of death in the right direction becomes a key tactic. You can even use your blade to flick your opponent’s weapon to one side and move in for a quick strike, but that’s an advanced trick that takes a while to perfect. Even blocking is freeform. There’s no actual block button – Instead, the position of your sword or shield will soak up incoming blows.
So in practice, Boreal Blade is far more freeform in its combat model than For Honor with its specific stances and character types. But while it can be a little intimidating for new adopters, it fosters a lot of room for creativity. You can fling certain weapons to cause large amounts of damage, and even kick enemies (including off cliffs, 300-style). Arenas vary in size, but most offer enough space and verticality to get the drop on an opponent or manoeuvre when facing more than one foe. There are four fighting styles to choose from, but it felt – to us, at least – that there’s no real advantage to using one over another. Whether you’re fighting with a one-handed weapon or a two-handed blade, it’s all about finding the right build.
As you level up, you’ll unlock new cosmetic items for your warrior avatar, as well as three armour classes, each with their own properties that affect your movement and stamina in battle. Even shields come in different sizes, with their own unique durability levels and sizes. For instance, taller shields are ideal for protecting against headshots but can be far more cumbersome to wield against a faster opponent. Part of Boreal Blade’s long-term appeal is experimentation; seeing which armour and weapon combinations work best, and testing strike combos to see which ones offer the most agreeable outcome.
The learning curve in Boreal Blade is quite steep, though. Even if you’re a dab hand in games such as Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice or Bushido Blade of old, learning to balance weapon positioning, momentum and spatial awareness means you will die a lot early on as you swing your blade randomly while running headlong into a melee. There is a training mode and a very brief tutorial, but you’re better off using the free demo on the eShop as a testbed to really see if the game's freeform battles are for you.
Mode-wise, Boreal Blade comes with five different ways to play. Team Deathmatch and Deathmatch hardly need explanation by now, but to complement those vanilla game types you can also play the far more exciting Boreal Battle and Boreal Claim modes. In Boreal Battle, two teams of three go up against one another in a battle to the death, while Boreal Claim has more of a Domination feel with teams fighting to attack or defend a banner. There’s even a 1v1 duel mode. Unlike For Honor, however, there’s a tight time limit so you’re not stuck spectating on a match for too long if two players with equal skill are locked in a game or feint and strike.
There’s also a demo you can play, which, while limiting in its options, enables you take all your progress into the full game. It’s a feature we’re starting to see more and more these days, and it’s a neat move that won’t penalise you for learning the minutiae of its combat and grinding away in the demo. The servers are also pretty well populated at the moment, so there are plenty of players to team up with, especially in larger-scale modes such as Boreal Battle. It also matchmakes you with players who own the full game, rather than just those playing the demo, so you get an accurate representation of the community skill level – even if you're playing for free.
There are, however, some real teething problems at launch. We lost count of the number of times we were either kicked from a match or were perpetually stuck within one, with some matches that refused to end despite us racking up the maximum number of kills. Lag can sometimes be minimal, or so bad you swing at a player only for them to warp five feet away, over and over again. It’s not an issue with every match, but it happens enough that you’re often kicked from a game or forced to quit, thus losing any XP you might have earned had the match concluded naturally. Developer Frozenbyte really needs to address these issues if it expects an online-focused title to thrive on Switch.
As a melee-focused, multiplayer experience, Boreal Blade is sure to be a divisive experience. Some players will love the nuance of its freeform combat, revelling in the joy of the moment-to-moment swordplay. Others will be turned off by the steep learning curve which comes with mastering even the simplest of weapons. However, either group won’t appreciate the connectivity and matchmaking issues that affect one too many matches. Every online game has its problems at launch, but if Frozenbyte can address them early on, Nintendo Switch has a Scandi-themed alternative to For Honor on its hands.