What is it? Martial arts battle royale with melee and ranged combat.
Expect to pay: $20/£18
Developer: 24 Entertainment
Publisher: NetEase Games Montréal
Reviewed on: Intel Core i5-9600K, 16GB RAM, Nvidia RTX 2070 Super
Multiplayer? 60-player battle royale, plus a deathmatch mode
I didn't take Naraka: Bladepoint seriously at first, and it didn't give me many reasons to. In its tutorial, the melee-focused battle royale game teaches you to combo by clicking repeatedly—no problem, I love clicking—and then introduces its weird countering system without really explaining it. After that, it sneakily matches you against bots for your first game. The bots behave like mosquitos whose brains were recently transplanted into human bodies, and even with our Australian player glued to the ground by lag, we won our first trios match easily.
A few games later, however, the true nature of 60-player martial arts battle royale showed itself. One moment you're Donnie Yen, and the next you're scrambling to find the 'pick up' prompt for the longsword that just flew out of your hands in a whirl of particle effects. It's too late, though. As Fist of the North Star badass Kenshiro would say: "You are already dead."
Clearly, martial arts battle royale cannot be mastered in one tutorial session. Skills often transfer between shooters, but picking up a new melee combat game sometimes means suppressing everything you learned in the last one. For me, that last one was Chivalry 2, in which medieval fights happen at a chilled-out 90 bpm and attacks consider things like weapon weight, swing direction, and torso rotation. Naraka is more or less the opposite of that.
Humbled, I went back into the poorly localized menus to find the training mode, which is a little ramshackle but does the job, and the Narakapedia, a useful guide that introduces ideas the tutorial skips entirely. As I grew from a Naraka: Bladeboy into a Naraka: Blademan, I started to see a complex, sometimes erratic but also sometimes elegant game of skill.
The first thing I learned is that those basic combos are easy for good players to counter. You can be tricky and end a combo early, though, or use charge attacks, which are less predictable and can be cancelled. There are other complications and tricks to learn, and once you do, the mind games I enjoy in Chivalry 2 emerge. They're just hard to follow, because everything in Naraka happens in visually dazzling flurries influenced by the magic and physical lightness of Chinese wuxia fiction. (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is probably the most mainstream example of the genre.)
The animations are fast and weightless, and the timing game is about memorization more than intuition, which feels a little old fashioned. Close-range fights are a test of how much you know about each weapon's attack patterns—there's a katana, greatsword, longsword, dagger, and spear—and whether you can predict when your opponent is going to throw a counterable attack (or if you can take advantage the fact that they're waiting for you to do the same).
Not every fight is cerebral: spamming attacks works sometimes, and that classic fighting game frustration, where you're mashing dodge but your character is being stunned repeatedly by a combo, is well represented. But there are also beautiful moments when patience and cleverness score the win. Old-fashioned or not, it's fun.
There's also a great, modern-feeling outcome of Naraka's genre inspiration: the absence of fall damage. What a relief it is to be able to move freely, double jumping, grappling between buildings (and other players) with a hookshot, and climbing trees and towers (you've got all the Assassin's Creed parkour skills).
Naraka is a fast, aggressive battle royale. You can be stealthy, but crouch-walking isn't strictly necessary when you can't be killed from a bush 200 meters away (there are bows and firearms in Naraka, but nothing comparable to a PUBG rifle). The freedom to play fast and loose suits the seven heroes and their special and ultimate abilities. Wandering monk Tianhai's ultimate transforms him into a six-armed giant, for instance; he's not someone you'd expect to find hiding in a bathroom.
Shooting and looting
As much as I like not being sniped, the ranged weapons leave something to desired. The non-firearms are fine: a repeating crossbow with a comically fast rate of fire, which is useful for finishing off retreating enemies, and a regular longbow. The latter isn't the most satisfying bow I've used in a game—a Team Fortress 2 Huntsman headshot still surpasses it for me—but I'm fond of the little starburst effects and satisfying pwing sounds that indicate increasing power as you pull back.
The firearms, a pistol and a musket, haven't been much of a factor for me. The pistol can be charged to fire multiple shots at once (you know, like you do with pistols), and that adds a little risk and tension, but the chunky bullet spread is unsatisfying in a game full of fast, lithe characters. The musket behaves like a bolt-action rifle and similarly feels out of place. One advantage it offers is a bit of zoom when you aim down sights, but its straight-flying bullets move too slow to reliably hit leaping, grappling enemies. It's effective against players who are looking at their inventory, but not a videogame weapon I find interesting.
You'll probably never be stuck with a weapon you don't like, though, unless you're in a dire situation. The loot-gathering part of Naraka is pleasantly simple, which encourages getting into fights rather than skulking around looking for better stuff. There are no ammo types to worry about. Ranged weapons are reloaded with the same consumables that repair worn-out melee weapons, and they're common. There's just one kind of healing item and one kind of armor repair item (with multiple rarities), and they work fast, meaning that if you can escape a fight, you may be able to fully reset before dashing back in.
I do somewhat miss the thrill of finding mundane treasures; I remember being ultra-hyped to find any kind of scope in PUBG's early days, and I don't get that feeling much in Naraka. There are a few silly late game drops that spice up the final circle and make competing for Nakara's equivalent of PUBG airdrops worth the risk: a flamethrower, a high-speed rocket launcher, and a spinning blade wielded like a battering ram. Souljades, little charms you can store in your inventory for special effects, also add a little fun to the loot game, but more often than not the super rare ones I find don't suit my needs. Mainly, I just want armor, a spear, and a bow at the highest rarity level I can find, plus however many inventory upgrades I can find.
Down the menu hole
The loot you can collect between games, on the other hand, is not simple, with a comical number of progression tracks and currencies. There's a battle pass with a basic premium track that costs 1,360 Gold, which is of course just a little more than the 1,200 Gold you get for $9.25, so you either have to add 240 gold for $1.85 or buy 3,000 for $23.15. Costumes, which are pretty cool, can be purchased directly, too, again for just over 1,200 Gold. There are also non-premium currencies and daily challenges and loot crates that I can't be bothered with. I like Naraka, but I don't need a new outfit enough to click around collecting taxes from each district of the menu every time I log in. It's worse than Rainbow Six Siege in that respect. (Although I admittedly have spent money on Siege costumes, so maybe I'll change my tune).
Parts of this chaotic menu do modify in-game capabilities, though, adding maintenance chores and pointless uncertainty to the game. It's not 'pay-to-win,' but unlocking a -2.40% dash energy cost modifier has never made anyone smile. It just doesn't need to be there.
I noticed some surprising framerate drops when I first started Naraka, but I must've tweaked something correctly in the graphics menu, because it runs perfectly fine now on my RTX 2070 Super. It's not a stunning game, but looks nice enough: simple color schemes and shapes are welcome when you're trying to pick out little martial arts heroes, and it's nice to see temples and shimmering snakeskin energy fields rather than Russian and American industrial and commercial complexes.
Naraka is most popular in China, where it was developed, and some players complain of laggy region-hoppers. An Australian friend did get stuck or move erratically now and then when we teamed up on North American servers, and it's too bad latency isn't handled more gracefully, but I haven't personally noticed high ping players dominating. Some players have reported specific issues with framerate drops or lag, though the developer has been paying attention to them on Reddit—that's no guarantee they'll be fixed, but it's at least heartening to see that communication.
Even if it's less popular in the US than elsewhere, I'm hardly the only player in California. One cool feature: local leaderboards. I'm the 17th best Tianhai in Oakland, apparently, although that's only because he's not popular, and because it thinks I live 40 miles to the north. It needs some tweaking, but I love the depth of the stat recording, and Naraka surprises with other extras, too. You can create custom private matches, and hero faces can be customized with a powerful character creator (possibly too powerful). There's a deathmatch mode, too, which is pretty fun.
There are other disappointments, but they're interesting disappointments: novel reminders that Naraka is an unusual game. For instance, one potential surprise for battle royale FPS players is that Naraka works best in solos, where you won't end up in impossible 1v2 and 1v3 melee fights. I'd still rather play trios with friends, but I love the tension in big solo free-for-all fights, where everyone wants to get a kill but is always also on the verge of running away to heal, simultaneously playing cat and mouse. When it gets down to two healed-up players stalking each other through the trees, Naraka's thrills match the genre's best.