Though swords were only a functional weapon of war for a very small window of time, they are forever symbolic. And forever badass. You can’t swing a Dual Shock by its cord in a Gamestop without hitting 40 different games that feature collecting bigger and better swords as their whole jam. I mean, think about it: Developers are only limited by their own imaginations when it comes to creating new ways of shredding through video game villains. And yet, gaming culture keeps chasing the dragon of cool sword combat. With good reason. A game that features fun blade-based fighting, especially if those blades look and feel amazing, will always rise above the rest. So why resist? There really is nothing like a great sword fighting game! In no particular order, here are five we think feature the best swordplay you can master on your couch.
1. Soulcalibur II
Weapons-based fighting games are a subgenre unto themselves, and even among them, the Soulcalibur series always felt more of a kind with its stablemate franchise, Tekken. Where other fighting games have characters in their roster who happen to wield weapons, Soulcali‘s contestants embody what they wield. To use a common trope, their weapons have become a part of them. Sometimes literally!
The first Soulcalibur was a killer app for Sega’s Dreamcast. Each sword-wielding character felt as distinct from each other as Dhalsim does from Blanka. When the sequel proliferated onto all consoles, it even included exclusive characters to each system. Fighting game fans marveled at how varied the roster was. The dual-wielding pirate, Cervantes fights with a staccato pace, while Sophitia’s graceful movement and added Aegis shield serve as his foil. You can even feel an important distinction between the game’s two samurai: Mitsurugi and Yoshimitsu. Both fight with Katana, but where Mitsurugi is all about timing short, fluid combos, Yoshimitsu favors baiting and canceling. And this is to say nothing of all the sword fighters between, from Yunseong to Nightmare. The series has withered since Soulcalibur 6, but any fighting game that is planning on arming its characters would do well to look to the quintessential second entry for inspiration.
Bloodborne‘s star rose quickly in the action RPG sky, and only shines brighter in the years since it’s release. Fans clamber for a sequel with the kind of knowing sense of irony usually reserved for Half-Life 3. Bloodborne features just a handful of weapons overall, and only a fraction of those are swords. And yet, Bloodborne‘s dynamic and aggressive combat make the most of a small armory. Despite the massive size of most of the game’s weapons, the fluid movement and short sidesteps make mastery a difficult, but manageable challenge. The most rabid fans of Bloodborne will agree that it took pushing past a difficulty spike to realize that it is a game of skill. However, Bloodborne is so perfectly balanced that once you’ve become an aficionado, you forget the game is considered hard at all.
The swords of Bloodborne all land in your foe’s flesh with sickeningly satisfying feedback. The hulking saw cleaver let’s you time deep-cutting single swings. The chikage requires a user with fleet thumbs, and Ludwig’s Holy Blade cuts a swath between. Combined with a minimal-but-important riposte mechanic that uses an offhand firearm, Bloodborne boasts a form of swordplay unto itself. Once you’ve caught on to its rhythms, it doesn’t matter which blade you choose, the beasts of Yharnam lose.
3. Vagrant Story
Where the excitement of sword fighting in action games comes from the joyous act of timed movement and button combos, RPGs need to find the crunchiness of their combat by other means. A genre more defined by selecting from menus (especially in its earlier years) than by nimble controls, RPGs employ haptics, sound effects, and graphic animations to illustrate the might of your sword. The sound effect of Cloud’s Buster Sword landing its basic slash in Final Fantasy VII had me hooked for months on doing nothing more than pressing O.
A few short years later and Squaresoft was on an absolute tear. The pinnacle of the developer’s hot streak from Final Fantasy VI-X is arguably a little-played game called Vagrant Story. Sure enough, it is still a menu-heavy game. Vagrant Story tasks you with micromanaging your inventory of swords in order to deal efficiently with its different monster types. You’ll want at least a couple unique blades for each. And for each sword, you can fine tune its construction down to material components. Once outside the crafting menu, however, even the best-made blade won’t save you if you lack rhythm. See, Vagrant Story takes the menu-diving of RPGs and pairs it perfectly with the timing skills needed in action games. Vagrant Story calls this chaining, and in order to do it well, the player needs to understand the pace of each sword’s attack and the hit confirmation that comes with each successful swing. Where other RPGs let you play armchair quarterback, Vagrant Story requires you to demonstrate skills more associated with action, fighting, or even rhythm games to boot. Seek it out if you can. It’s a terrible shame Square Enix hasn’t remastered this game for modern TVs.
Developer Supergiant’s games all take one or two ideas each and polish them to absolute perfection. And among those, how to approach combat is paramount. In all of their cases, you might come for the wonderful writing and presentation, but stay because you’re hooked on their fighting systems, or vice versa.
And Like a masterwork sword, honed to a micron’s sharpness, Hades will cut into you before you know it and bleed you of your free time. Though only one of protagonist Zagreus’ weapons is a sword, it does a wonderful job of introducing you to the deceptively simple combat of the game. The Stygian Blade is your first weapon, and unlike other action games that would have it become quickly outclassed, Zagreus’ trusty sword is robust enough to be the only tool you reach for. Of course, that would lock you out of a lot of story beats the game has in store!
Crossing steel in Hades is so simple that it’s almost a two-button operation. The game wouldn’t feel out of place in an arcade cabinet or played on a retro controller. That simplicity quickly gives way to a heady dodge rhythm, combo system, and intricate leveling process. Add to it the unique qualities any of Zagreus’ godly family can bestow on your sword and you have one of the most satisfying combat systems ever, much less among sword fighting games!
Shout out to an earlier Supergiant game, Transistor, which is so focused on its sword combat that the game is named after its eponymous blade!
5. Ghost of Tsushima
Probably the biggest difference between AAA games and everything else is the sheer number of systems they attempt to coordinate. Indie titles – and really any game that isn’t intended to be a developer tentpole – are better off doing one thing and doing it well. I think that’s what makes Ghost of Tsushima so special. Like all other Sony exclusives, it’s bubbling over with cool ideas and ways to play. Crucially, however, Ghost of Tsushima, like the samurai who populate its cast, lives and dies by the sword.
Like Bloodborne, GoT only gives you a small handful of weapons to practice with and level up, and all of them play perfectly. This being a samurai tale, though, means extra care was given to the methods the player can employ with a katana. Multiple stances, stealth, honorable duels, crowd control: You and your avatar, Jin, can handle them all. I spent long breaks between story chapters just roving the Tsushima countryside looking for Mongols willing to duel. Ghost of Tsuhima‘s showdown duels are uniquely enjoyable and are addictive simply by asking you to recognize a single tell from your enemy before drawing your sword and subdividing him with a single button press. As your dueling improves you can continue to cut through your opponent’s entourage before the fight devolves into a total scrum. Albeit a scrum that doesn’t stand a chance!
Have you played any of these five? Which stand-out sword fighting games should have made the cut? Tell us about your swashbuckling down in the comments or come join our Discord!
Featured Image: Sony
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