Blades of Time came out almost seven years ago, but it looks and plays like something much older. As a sequel to its so-so predecessor X-Blades, Russian developer Gaijin Entertainment took one very interesting mechanic – the power to manipulate time itself – and surrounded it with ideas we’d seen and played ad nauseam before. The controls were a little tighter, its levels a little more diverse in design and its heroine wasn’t quite so scantily clad as she was before. It was, however, still a bit of a mess, and that interesting mechanic at its heart simply wasn’t enough to forgive its myriad sins.
For reasons unbeknownst to anyone outside the walls of Gaijin Entertainment, Blades of Time has been repackaged for a new generation, with all the single-player action and co-op content included as standard. It's based on the visually superior PC version of the game and offers Nintendo Switch adopters access to a revamped multiplayer experience that transforms its PvP component into a MOBA-style arena battle more along the lines of Smite. It’s an oddity to say the least – more so now than ever – but is it intriguing enough to warrant a purchase?
You’ll spend your time in Blades of Time as the acrobatic adventuress, Ayumi. Presumably designed as a cross between Lara Croft, Dante from Devil May Cry and a Harley Quinn cosplayer who ran out of money part way through their costume, Ayumi has travelled to a mysterious island filled with treasure and dangers alike. You start off with your basic melee moves – including a basic strike and a cartwheel kick of launching air combos – but soon you’re adding ranged weaponry to your arsenal and magical spells unleashed with certain inputs. As you progress, you’ll unlock more powers – such as the ability to flit between glowing plants for some quick-fire platforming moments – and while its myriad combat models don't really gel, you rarely feel underpowered.
While the single-player story is passable, offering enough enemy types to contend with (ranging from broadsword-swinging knight statues to poisonous bugs that keep spawning their own backup), the lacklustre platforming and the wooden delivery of Ayumi's voice actress makes this a far cry from the fine-tuned experiences seen in the likes of Devil May Cry and God of War, two games Blades of Time tries as hard as possible to emulate. Only its time manipulation mechanic offers anything remotely ‘different’ to what we've seen before a million times already. In a similar vein to Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, you can use this power to undo an untimely fall to your doom; alternatively, you can utilise your past self to activate a two-point switch for a door or double up your strikes against a boss. The frustratingly unresponsive controls rob this time-related malarkey of some of its allure, but it’s a rewarding mechanic when it works.
'Onslaught' mode has been reworked into a MOBA-lite model, where you’ll battle other players online in a simple setup that takes the rules of the genre and simply sticks to what you’re expecting. All the items you’ve unlocked from the story carry over, including the gems which serve as a microtransaction-based currency for buying new gear, such as outfits for Ayumi. Matches don’t do much to deviate from the standard MOBA formula, so don’t expect anything with the kind of customisation and tactical nuance as Smite. It’s a better use of multiplayer, but it’s still hampered by Blades of Time’s painfully inaccurate combat engine.
For all its lofty ideas and good intentions, Blades of Time still struggles on a technical level. The original version failed to do its own combat system justice, with combos often failing to come together because of laggy input issues. When married with the consistent problem of slowdown, the game’s original release too often stumbled over itself. Today, on Nintendo Switch, the game does run a little better (there’s some slowdown, mostly caused by too many enemies being on screen at any one time, but it’s not as much of an issue as before), but pulling off melee combos and unleashing spells is still largely a game of potluck. Some actions randomly don’t work, such as the ability to heal and strike (arguably two very important functions in a game such as this).
The decision to split ranged attacks off into their own stance – where you’ll press the right analogue stick in to pull out a rifle and use ‘ZL’ and ‘ZR’ to aim and shoot respectively – makes for a needless disconnect between long-range and melee strikes. The only way to disengage from the aiming mode is to press the right analogue stick in again or press the jump button, so if you want to strike an enemy that’s closed the gap or dashed away, you’ll need to manually drop out of the stance before you can do so. It’s so disarming a distinction that you’ll likely die needlessly in boss fights where mixing either combat style is necessary.
As hard as it tries, Blades of Time rarely comes close to emulating the success of any of its obvious muses. Its mixture of third-person melee combat, environmental puzzles and platforming are entertaining for a while, but they lack the nuance of Capcom’s long-running Devil May Cry series or Sony Santa Monica’s refreshed God of War. Only the ability to control time, creating a co-operative element as you team up with your past self, offers something truly rewarding to use in battle or as part of a puzzle solution. The MOBA-style overhaul of the game's Onslaught mode offers an improved take on multiplayer, but the wonky combat and lacklustre presentation are impossible to overlook.