I'm so enthusiastic about sword-fighting game Hellish Quart that I'd better start with a disclaimer. This is an Early Access game, and it's pretty rough right now. The menus look like placeholders, the planned story campaign is absent, and the only way to play online multiplayer is streaming through Steam Remote Play Together or Parsec, which can be pretty crappy.
That out of the way: Hellish Quart is so fun. I played it for hours last night, even though all I can do is spar AI fighters given that I don't have anyone around for local multiplayer. (I tried using Remote Play Together to fight Chris, but the lag bothered him. You may have better results depending on your internet connection.) You can watch two of my bouts with the AI in the video above, which is also on YouTube.
How it works
The goal of this 1v1 dueling game is, obviously, to slice or stab your opponent to death, or at least to strike their dominant arm hard enough that they drop their sword. It's possible to cut off their hand, too, though it takes a very lucky strike.
There are hidden health bars here, but like PS1 classic Bushido Blade (a great game), it only takes one hearty blow or gut stab to end a round. A lot of rounds end in draws, too, since it's possible for both fighters to strike vital arteries at the same time, or even one after the other. It doesn't necessarily matter that one fighter is spurting blood and the slow-mo death cam has already kicked in. As they die, their body is going to finish whatever it was doing, which can include landing their own killing blow.
Sometimes, rounds end with a scimitar in someone's head within two seconds, but a quick resolution isn't a given. If the AI and I both survive our opening gambits, a round can go on and on as we trade nicks, shove and block, and dash in and out of range.
As in real fencing matches, footwork is a big part of Hellish Quart. The animations can be a little janky and unclear, but the idea is that your sword must connect with the other player model to score a hit. To do that, you've got to force your way into range, and then use the right attack for the moment to sneak your blade past theirs. There are two high and two low attacks which can be modified with movement, as well as a distance guard stance that modifies the high attacks. To fake out your opponent, any attack can be cancelled by pressing back on the analog stick. (You can play with a keyboard, but a controller is the way to go. It supports fight sticks, as well.)
The characters apparently have special moves and combos, too, but I'm not sure whether or not I've discovered all of them because the move lists in the pause menu are currently placeholders.
Blocks are handled automatically, but if you block too much, your opponent may cut through it. At close range, where it's impossible to swing a sword properly, regular attacks automatically become blunt kneeings and elbowings that push your opponent back with a brief stun. It's also possible to manually push your opponent's sword hand away, although I rarely manage to pull the move off. Harder yet is to land a grab on the AI, which results in an automatic round win—a decapitation move, for some characters.
Because blocking is automatic and there's a degree of flukiness to killing blows, you can get by alright with button mashing when facing the AI fighters in any of their three combat modes: passive, maneuverable, or aggressive. Once I became better versed in the attacks and how to modify them, I started winning regularly, and had to seek out a challenge by intentionally mismatching characters. It can be tricky to get the big swings of Isabella's heavy long sword past a scimitar, or to avoid one of Marie's rapier jabs to the gut while slicing with it. (I'm playing as Isabella in the gif below, and fighting Marie in the gif above.)
Against another player, I imagine you'll get something like the tension that used to come from great Bushido Blade matches, and that you can also find in Nidhogg and other fighting games: The constant uncertainty over whether to make the first move, or to try to bait a move out of your opponent.
Early Access plans and current limitations
Without someone to play local multiplayer with, Hellish Quart probably isn't complex enough at this stage to keep me coming back for much longer. The auto-blocking is fine as a concept, I think, but as I get better at the game I'm starting to desire a finer level of control over my stance and the motions that initiate my attacks. Sometimes when I have a clear opening, I just can't find an attack animation that takes advantage of it, and it's a letdown not to be able to do what I think my character would do. I'd also love a more skilled AI to fight, and there's some general jank and unruly camera behavior to sort out.
Hellish Quart has just one developer, Jakub "Kubold" Kisiel, whose résumé includes animation at People Can Fly and CD Projekt Red, where he worked on Geralt's moves for The Witcher 3. I won't pretend to know how exactly Kubold can refine Hellish Quart without overcomplicating it or otherwise mucking up the fun, but he's clearly good at this, and perhaps Early Access feedback and experimentation will lead to some breakthroughs.
Future plans for Hellish Quart, which Kubold expects to be in Early Access for a couple years, include more fighting styles and characters (with the help of mocapped fencers), more AI types, more arenas, a story campaign, and full Parsec integration for multiplayer.
As for the story campaign, right now there's just a teaser cutscene, and you don't get the sense that it'll be the game's strong suit. No big deal: I'd be happy just to see refinements to the fighting system, and eventually to get those new characters and styles. Beyond that, I think the biggest thing limiting Hellish Quart's appeal is the lack of standard online multiplayer, although it's understandable that Parsec and Steam streaming are the choice for now. I can only vaguely imagine how challenging it would be to build netcode for a physics-heavy fighting game like this, and Kubold's background is in animation.
Speaking of animations, though, one of my favorite things about Hellish Quart is the victory struts, such as the one at the end of the gif above. There's a modern feel to them that cracks me up—you can imagine an audience going "ooooh"—although, who knows, maybe that's how 17th century Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth folks really behaved after winning a duel.
If you want to try Hellish Quart without spending $17 (it's on sale for $14 at the time of writing), there's a free demo available on the Steam page.