Truth be told, I’d never heard of Bleak Sword prior to the announcement of Bleak Sword DX. As an Android user, I’ve become a bit secluded about what games are exclusive to Apple’s devices unless they make their way over to other platforms like Mini Motorways, Shovel Knight Dig, or even WHAT THE GOLF? has. Now, Bleak Sword DX is a tri-color RPG of hardcore action you could find similarities to Dark Souls , but it’s got enough going on to be its own thing. A game built for Apple Arcade only loses translation to other platforms in that you should absolutely play this in short sessions. I’ve oddly found that playing this for extended periods is detrimental to the experience. It’s certainly the first time I’ve felt this way for a game that’s come over, but Bleak Sword DX is still a must-play for its gripping gameplay and Gothic horror influence.
Playing Bleak Sword DX consists of moving, light attacks, heavy attacks, blocks, and dodge rolls. What seems simple on paper, is not so easy in practice. There’s a tutorial that helps ramp you up before throwing you in the thick of it. But the practical application of learning the nuances doesn’t come until you do just jump right into the campaign. As you engage in combat, you’ll find that getting hit and rolling interrupts stamina regeneration, so you’ll have to take that into consideration as you work to avoid hits and find opportunities to strike. The game goes a long way before it upgrades your weapon, so you’ll have ample time to master what you start out with. It’s great to use the environment and other enemies to your advantage, each arena you enter is an opportunity to turn it against them. Your enemies can die by your blade, but incidental deaths can occur because of projectiles, barriers, and even mine carts. It’s no less hilarious each time it happens, and you feel like a cunning mastermind every time.
There are twelve total levels, and with twelve stages per level, is a staggering amount of content and combat. Though this can get pretty exhausting by the end of it, as the DX campaign contains all of the DLC and expansions since it released in 2019. You can expect to spend anywhere from six to eight hours on the campaign, which of course depends on difficulty chosen and your skill. The game has this classic arcade feel, with segmented levels for each area. These play sets are handcrafted levels, that go from forests and swamps to horseback and even catacombs, castles, and mines. Some levels have neat twists where you’re engaging in combat from horseback, or walls slowly close in adding undue pressure as you fight to survive. It’s all really clever and interesting locales, like when you’re being pushed around from the wind atop a snowy mountain.
For each completion of a level, you’ll earn experience points. After enough accumulation of experience, you’ll gain a level. When you attain a new, odd-numbered level, you get the choice between increasing your attack or defense points. On even-numbered levels, you choose between health or defense points. Interestingly, you cannot increase your attack stamina. It’s a meter that must be carefully preserved and monitored during combat, and is good to know this up-front. Now, if you die before reaching a new level, your experience and items are temporarily lost. If you fail to beat the level you died on, then your XP and gear is lost for good. Whatever level your character was, remains, but the experience progression is reset. Thankfully you don’t have to play through the whole game without dying, you just need to optimize earning XP to level up before death. And if the game does get too hard, you can replay earlier levels to grind for XP and level up to make the later stages easier. It isn’t a requirement, but since the game allows for it, I do recommend it.
There are items that will drop randomly during play. These often are consumables that restore various amounts of health, or equippable items that boost base statistics. For instance, I ended up wearing both a Blood and Demon Ring that bolstered my attack power by +3. There’s no currency in the game, so there’s no shop to buy these items, you gotta hope they drop at some point. Alternatively, there’s no respec system, so you can’t reallocate points if you’ve accidentally spent it on something you didn’t mean to.
There’s not much of a story in Bleak Sword DX , but you get some breadcrumbs along the way to guide you. A short, but sweet series of cutscenes depict a journey your character is on. It’s delivered in a piece meal way that does enough to carry you along, but belabors any important bits.
Each time you defeat a new enemy, it’s added to the bestiary. Some of them can feel a bit samey, but with 48 of them to learn, it’s rather surprising how you learn each enemy’s movement and attack patterns to reduce any incoming hits to you. There are some enemies that only take significant damage via charged attacks, or ones that are only open to attack if you dodge away from them first.
Once you complete the campaign, you unlock the Randomizer mode, Bleak Difficulty mode, Arena, and Boss Rush modes. Each of these are pretty self-explanatory, but I’ll get into them anyway. Randomizer will give you a random set of items, gear, bosses, and even levels on a new run each time. Bleak Difficulty mode is an absolutely astonishingly hard mode. Boss Rush is a gauntlet of trying to beat all of the bosses back-to-back. And lastly is Arena, where a single arena run places you against enemies for as long as you can go.
The game’s pixelated lo-fi look remains rather technical. It sports bloom, and even has ultrawide support. The three colors that dominate the game’s color pallette: white, black and red give off this “lost Virtual Boy” game vibe that I just can’t shake. It’s a gorgeous and highly performant game.
Bleak Sword DX is the rare instance where it does overstay its welcome, but if played in small bursts, is brilliant. While it doesn’t run out of new ideas, it does drain the player through its numerous arenas and modes, it’s an exhaustive amount of content that it never runs dry on. Playing something so challenging that originated on Apple Arcade, but now expanded and reworked for PC and Switch shows that it has a home on these new platforms. The dioramas that encapsulate the arenas to fight on are some of the more unique elements, to include its visual and enemy design, makes Bleak Sword DX easy to recommend.
A Steam code was provided in advance by the publisher for review purposes