Content of the article: "Severance: Blade of Darkness (2001) – An Interesting Action RPG I Probably Won’t Finish"
BoD is a 2001 RPG that I checked out because I heard it described as a "proto-Dark Souls" somewhere. It definitely fits the bill. It's a very hard dark fantasy game, that involves skulking around dilapidated semi-linear castles, and fighting enemies in melee combat with a lock-on system and stamina management.
The combat is actually quite unique. Your basic attack has no combo, but by combining directional inputs with the attack button, you can do different attacks, and by inputting a new attack right as the old one ends, you can string together many different attacks very quickly. As you level up, you also unlock new attack string combos, some of which can do many hits in quick succession, and various weapons have a unique combo attack. Enemies also have locational damage – hitting an enemy's head with an overhead swing deals way more damage than a limb hit, and if they have a raised shield you can use the low attack to hit their feet, etc. Attacks use stamina, which increases as you level up, so you can't just string together an infinite combo. If you run out of stamina you're immobile for around 2 seconds which is extremely deadly. There are four characters who each have "favoured weapons" so they have different combos available, but I haven't tried out characters other than the knight yet. What's more, the game has a gore system where you can hack off limbs. It's satisfying to combo someone and have his arm and sword fly away as he falls into a pool of blood. Killing enemies rewards XP, and leveling up gives a free full heal, and increases your maximum health considerably. There aren't really any RPG mechanics beyond that. Your stats and progression are entirely determined by which character you select at the beginning, and there are no NPCs, shops, or currency.
The combat's not perfect though. From what I could tell, the side dodges weren't that useful and your side strafe isn't that fast, which is annoying when many enemies have horizontal swings that hit in a very wide arc. Enemies with shields are particularly annoying, because hitting a raised shield stuns you for a second, and they tend to have very fast attacks. I didn't find an effective way to deal with them other than being very cautious and going for ankle attacks and attacks from their unshielded side. The player can use a shield, but shields have their own durability, and I found they tend to break very quickly, so I ended up never using the shield block option. The game has a fair few weapons, but you're only ever able to carry four at a time, and even worse, there are two mandatory weapons that I found, the bow (useless in combat as you can't move and shoot, and there's no aiming guide) and the "Queen's Blade", so you're really limited to two. This game invented the two weapon limit before Halo did! I found the best option is to keep one "sharp" weapon and one "blunt" as skeletons take sharply reduced damage from sharp weapons.
You can carry a few healing items and a power up potion for increased damage and defence, but the inventory system is extremely limited.
Presentation and storywise, it's very generic. There's some evil force and you have to power up a sword using gems etc. etc. The levels are often dark and moody and foggy, and the lighting system and shadows are amazing for a 2001 game, and the textures are pretty sharp. The problem is that the levels have no visual flair. I went to a dwarven mine and then an ancient dwarven tomb, but there was nothing about these places that made them look any different from a recently occupied human mine and tomb. The enemies are also nothing you haven't seen before. You've got human knights, orcs, goblins, skeletons and zombies. The only enemies with memorable designs are these gross little anklebiter enemies and the Vampire boss. There are a handful of unique bosses but also some that are just stronger versions of regular enemies with no special attacks. Keep in mind I haven't finished the game, but looking at an FAQ it looks I've already seen the majority of the enemies.
The game is also quite difficult, as advertised. If any enemy gets multiple hits on you you can lose quite a bit of health and get your own head or arm chopped off. As in DS you have to observe the enemy's moves and make what attacks what you can in the openings you have. Luckily enemies can hit each other and will even retaliate in a limited manner, so big groups of enemies will often wear themselves down for you. However, enemies that kill each other don't reward you XP, so if you rely this you could conceivably underlevel yourself. Undead enemies also seem to give no or very little XP. This seems to be intentional as in the dwarf tomb level where I killed 25+ skeletons and zombies, the two bosses gave me enough XP to level me up 3 times after a long stretch of nothing.
The game employs a save anywhere anytime system with 6 slots. The catch is that your save for each level is given a rating from heroic, down to awesome, normal, cautious and overly-cautious. This seems to be determined by the number of saves you use in each level. So if you save only once or twice per level you can get the high "awesome/heroic" ratings, but if you save the game after each successful fight, you'll be deemed "overly-cautious". The levels are fairly long and involved, so dying without saving often could set you back quite far. It's an interesting system because it involves the player "choosing" their difficulty as they go via their save frequency. I started out as "overly-cautious" and after a few levels was able to maintain a "normal" rating without too much trouble.
Everything was tough but fair until I got to the Vampire boss on the 5th level. This motherfucker attacks faster than you, has a horizontal swing, can teleport behind you, heals himself on successful hits, and hitting his shield damages you. Even once his shield is destroyed he's not much more vulnerable. The Queen's Blade has the ability to drain health and does quite a bit of damage to him, but he can easily reverse any gains you make by hitting you a few times and getting back all the damage you've done to and healed from him. I truly don't know if I have it in me to beat this guy, and considering how uninspiring the story and visuals of the game have been I don't know if I'll bother.
The game was on GOG until 2017, but is no longer available for purchase anywhere. Many now consider it abandonware. It has a fair number of mods available, including extra weapons and gore effects, playing all levels as all characters, and a lighting system rework. The game isn't very well known, but it has a cult following and I can see why. Had I played this in 2001 as a younger man I might've become obsessed with slowly conquering it. I imagine beating the vampire would be quite a rush. If you're interested in lesser known action RPGs of yesteryear you should definitely check this out.
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