Severance: Blade of Darkness

A brew of various genres packaged into one action-adventure.

Snap19After four years in development and getting passed through two or three publishers, it’s almost a miracle that Blade of Darkness (a.k.a, Severance) ever saw the light of store shelves. The game’s main selling points were its hand-to-hand fighting mechanics and jaw-dropping shadow effects. It also borrowed ides from a wide spectrum of genres – standard first-person action adventures, RPG elements with four playable characters, a beat ’em up style combat system, and no small strategy melded within the subtleties of the core gameplay. It was an ambitious project.

At its heart, Blade of Darkness is a castle and dungeon crawl – sometimes repetitively so – intertwined with a perpetual key hunt and search for six runes, hidden in secret locations within the game’s 18 levels. This journey across a traditional fantasy world overrun by orcs is made palatable by an eerie lighting system and some amazing injections of sound that cause the tense atmosphere to drip from the stone cold walls of each new location.

Technologically, Blade of Darkness has some nice details and killer real-time shadow effects, though the graphics aren’t quite as refined as those of, say, the UnrealEngine-powered Rune. In building a tense atmosphere of danger in every single environment, the sound in fact offers the winning grace. As you enter one cathedral area, decked with demonic iconography in its stained-glass windows, a rousing Gregorian chant drowns you. Elsewhere, the ambient sound is unobtrusive, and footsteps sound different on various surfaces, showing a keen attention to detail.

All this detail serves as a backdrop to the combat itself, which is an intriguing, carefully constructed affair of thoughtful thrusting, slashing, and parrying. Each of the four character classes — Dwarf, Amazon, Knight and Barbarian — has its own attack styles and weapon preferences: the Barbarian wields two-handed weapons with ease, for example, while the Dwarf is at home with axes and hammers and the defensive aid of a shield.

The characters also have unique special moves, pulled off using combos akin to those in a beat-’em-up. The quirky control scheme doesn’t let you strafe at all unless you’re in a combat stance–achieved by hitting the Tab key to lock-on to an enemy, at which point you can strafe around in a dance routine of jabs, swipes, and poetic combos. Some more powerful magic weapons have their own specific combo options

Snap51All these fighting features sounds wonderfully compelling until you discover just how hard it is to pull off the super-power combos. The ability to nail the super-powered special attacks makes a huge difference, particularly in the later game, when you’re faced with enemies sporting several thousand more hit points than you. But these attacks are tough to complete and frustrating in the chaos of battle, as your combos run together and quickly sap your stamina bar. At least when you do land special moves, you’re rewarded with a colored glow and increased damage

You’ll be fighting orcs, knights, skeletons, zombies, and golems, each with their own combat styles. Each encounter plays in a unique way. On top of that, multiple enemies will work together, with the strongest coming forward first, though nothing will inflame your ire more than a near-dead orc swigging from a full health potion it’s carrying while you’re dodging his buddies’ swipes. There’s a standard save-anywhere system, though no quicksave / quickload keys, so reloading a game is a bit tedious.

Snap38Blade of Darkness can be long and winded, but it’s encouraging that the designers seemed to keep the best for last, with the final levels featuring the most impressive boss enemies, and the most detailed and inventive level designs. It will be a hard journey getting there – from start to finish, Blade of Darkness will test your mettle, resourcefullness and, occasionally, your patience. The melee combat system and controls might not be for everybody, but for the seasoned action-adventure fan this is a journey worth taking.

System Requirements: Pentium II 400 MHz, 64 MB RAM, 8 MB Video, Win95

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