Kuro no Ken: Blade of the Darkness Review

Blades Against Dragonity

I don’t get a lot of time for non-portable gaming these days, so I try to make the most of those times when I have the apartment to myself and nowhere to go for a few hours. It’s a simple matter to pull out the old PlayStation 3 and some random item from my backlog, and for the past nine months, that item has been Kuro no Ken: Blade of the Darkness. It’s only a 20~30 hour game, which made it easier to keep track of what was going on between hiatuses, but it’s still a chewy turn-based JRPG experience for those who like to import.

The current kingdom of Kreitzen is built upon the graves of the past. A thousand years ago, the continent was devastated by the terrible Dragon of Darkness, and to this day the surviving descendants of the old kingdom bear the damage upon their bodies, land, and soul. In more recent centuries, the new kingdom was founded by aristocratic colonists from across the sea. In the here and now, ancient conspiracies, class conflict, and modern greed have come together to disturb the Dragon’s slumber, threatening the lives of everyone in Kreitzen.

There are only two playable characters in this game, and the plot follows them individually at first before bringing them together at the end of the effective second chapter of the story. Shinobu is a ninja sorceress from a distant land who has come to the kingdom of Kreitzen in search of the one worthy of bearing the Blade of the Darkness, the accursed sword made to defeat the Dark Dragon. Kaiess is a wandering swordsman who finds himself on a trajectory towards magic, mayhem, and tragedy as more truths of the Dragon’s existence are revealed and more innocent people suffer death or worse from what is clearly a high-fantasy allegory for heavy ionizing radiation. Kreitzen is not a large place as RPG settings go, and its locations are revisited many times over the meandering course of the plot, so the not-so-gradual depopulation of entire towns, always as a result of something the heroes have failed to prevent, hits hard.

This could be any mountain valley in any SNES game ever.

This could be any mountain valley in any SNES game ever.

Blade of the Darkness began existence as a PC-98 title before an upgraded version was released on the PlayStation in 1997. Its developers definitely found their inspiration in the SNES generation, with spritework that would have been decent for late in that console’s lifespan.  The map screens and locations are typical of the SNES, but the artwork and narrative splash pages are in a style that is unmistakably mid-90s fantasy anime, with some resemblance to titles such as Bastard!! or Fist of the North Star. Rippling muscles, chiseled jawlines, and frequent instances of not-quite-nudity are the norm here.

It is in the heat of battle that Blade of the Darkness is at its most interesting, as it looks nothing like any turn-based game I’ve ever seen in either the SNES or PSX generations. Allies and enemies are presented as animated combat sprites that exchange blows in a more dynamic manner than the simple ‘swing sword, do damage’ model. Depending on the speed, agility, and defense of the combatants, a standard physical attack may hit multiple times, to be blocked, parried, evaded, or countered, but when the blows do get through, they are definitely felt. Kaiess and Shinobu learn a broad variety of skills in their respective disciplines, and enemy encounters often require some trial and error in order to find what works best in the current situation.

Kaiess knows how to make the most of his bladework.

Kaiess knows how to make the most of his bladework.

One area in which this game shows its age is in the general menus interface. The font in Japanese is large and blocky, as is common for games made with CRT screens in mind, but the kanji level of the text is high enough that rarer and more complicated symbols appear. Many of those have fine lines and details that cannot be seen as anything but a big, white mess. It’s readable if one is already literate in Japanese to a decent degree, but it’s not so friendly to those who don’t know enough to be able to infer words from context and general outline.

As well, the items and skills lack any form of in-game description or support.  While the use of some items and skills is readily divined from the name, others are not, and the game’s physical manual is necessary to figure out how some things are meant to be used. Unfortunately, the manual does not have the space to list out all of Shinobu’s spells or Kaiess’s sword techniques, so guesswork is still necessary late in the game.  This also applies to the plot at times, as the game requires a good command of Japanese reading just to realize that a plot clue has been dropped, and the game’s tendency to revisit almost every location at least once makes backtracking when lost a frequent strategy.

On the other hand, Blade of the Darkness was ahead of its time when it came to hit point management and recovery. Health and mana restore at a set percentage per turn in battle.  It’s not enough to mitigate a bad hit or fully compensate for resource shock after prolonged fights, but when combined with defensive play strategies, it’s possible to recover the necessary HP to hold on or the MP for a major attack without resorting to one’s stock of recovery items. In the field, health and mana replenish naturally while walking. There is an option to hold down the circle button to recover faster, but this also runs the risk of attracting monsters. Despite the game’s limited party size and an increase in monster difficulty during the late game, everything is quite manageable due to these recovery options.

This is representative of the game’s art interludes.

This game has fully-voiced story scenes, but the voice tracks are not actually synched to their accompanying dialogue boxes. It is possible for a character to continue on talking ahead of where the player is reading or, if the player has skipped several text boxes ahead, then the game will make them wait until the voiced section is complete before allowing the text to continue to the next character in the conversation. The voice-acting is also in keeping with the overly dramatic mid-90s fantasy anime style, with deep, brusque male voices and higher-pitched female voices using outmoded feminine Japanese grammar forms.  In many games of this period, there was often an issue of the voices being drowned out by the soundtrack or other audible effects, but here it’s balanced well with the generic fantasy RPG background music and is audible at all times.

Kuro no Ken: Blade of the Darkness provides an interesting look into a time when small-scale or independent game studios were still a creative force on the PlayStation. It is at times traditional, straightforward, even simplistic, while at other times it takes interesting risks with its narrative and variations on turn-based combat mechanics. While it would never hope to outshine some of its better-funded contemporaries, it makes a surprisingly strong showing for itself. Those looking for an interesting import experience will find much to enjoy.

    
    
    
    
    
    
'Good' -- 3.5/5
20-40 HOURS

Stretches its worldbuilding surprisingly well

Unique combat graphics

Ahead of its time on health recovery options

Aimless at times

Poor documentation of practically everything

You may also like...

Leave a Reply