Review: Of Blades & Tails
There are a few types of games that will always grab my attention. Old-school CRPGs, games with retro aesthetics, stories with cute critters embarking on fantasy adventures… so it was inevitable that I’d take a look at Of Blades & Tails. Developed by Felix Laukel and published by Pineapple Works, Of Blades & Tails promised tactical turn-based action and exploration, but I just had to ready my sword, dust off my armor and see for myself how it held up.
Of Blades & Tails was released on November 9, 2023 for Steam and GoG. The Steam version was played for this review.
Across Hill and Dale
Of Blades and Tails takes place in a world where humanity once prospered long ago, until one day they all vanished. In their absence, magic flourished and granted the beasts of the land speech and the use of their hands. While they’ve tried to build something better, there is always the fear of repeating the mistakes of their predecessors.
You play as Reik, a member of the fox tribe. What should be a simple foray to retrieve your mentor reveals that the insects of the world (wild and basically to the beasts what they used to be to humans) have started growing more aggressive and using magic of their own. To seek answers, you embark on a quest to the great lair on the far side of the land, passing through the lands of the other tribes as you go.
There’s a bit of an old school RPG approach to the story, in that once you get your initial quest it’s going to be a bit before that goes anywhere. That said, each tribe you come across is basically a chapter of its own, with their own problems that must be resolved before you can cross their land, forming a bunch of smaller stories along your quest.
One thing that struck me while I was playing was how the writers avoided the low hanging fruit for this kind of setting. You have a number of different civilizations, of different species to boot, in a fantasy world. It makes for easy conflict to have racial tensions flare up and drive the plot… but instead they’re largely cooperative with each other. Well, friendly at least. They’re all mostly concerned with their own problems over the plight of their neighbors, but they wish them well and are happy to accept a strange traveler into town. Maybe I’ve just been playing a lot of darker games lately, but it felt like a breath of fresh air.
As far as the writing quality goes, I’d say it’s firmly “not bad.” A lot of it is fairly cliche and surface level, but the characters are charming and varied enough. That said, the intro does a fantastic job of setting up the world without dragging on, and I was quite pleased with how the final section turned out. If only the lengthy middle could be up to the same quality as those, I’d consider it stellar.
Testing Your Skills
Gameplay is top-down turn-based combat on a grid, reminiscent of early CRPGs and especially the more faithful roguelikes. Though, here I’m referring purely to the gameplay style of Rogue rather than “procedurally generated with permadeath” like the term usually refers to. While your options begin fairly limited, as you level up you’ll earn skill points that can be used to unlock new abilities and drastically improve your options. It is this system that is both a blessing and a curse.
Early game is hell. Part of this is due to having few, if any, abilities outside of basic weapon attacks, and part of it is that a lot of the early game areas are wide open spaces like plains and forests. A common experience for me was catching the attention of something around my level, it bringing along a few of its friends, and getting swarmed and dying. This was on easy, mind you.
Once you have some abilities, things tilt the other way. Improved movement options allowed me to get out when I found myself in a jam. A combination of stealth and ranged attacks allowed me to take enemies out before they could even notice me. And simply being able to tackle enemies that dropped better loot meant that I could more easily afford healing items. Indeed, the mid-game wound up feeling a bit too easy at times… and then endgame rolls around, your build is likely quite specialized at this point due to a lack of resources, and I had a fair chunk of both easy and difficult encounters based solely on whether my particular build was suited for it.
I definitely feel the difficulty curve should be a bit less like a rollercoaster, but this is an indie title (and I believe the developer’s first one at that) so I do think it’s commendable that they were able to get as close as they did to a satisfying difficulty. The endgame, at least, felt perfectly where it should be and really made my build choices matter.
Speaking of which, one thing I really liked, and wish that more RPGs did, was that tailoring things to suit your build was remarkably painless. The game uses a Diablo-style loot system, but you can take bonuses off one item and slap it on another to make the perfect gear for you, and re-speccing your stats and abilities just takes a minor fee and a small trip. You’re given all the tools you need to succeed, leaving success or failure purely up to your skills.
So, not gonna lie, the aesthetics are a huge part of what caught my interest. There’s a good variety of races to run across, and each NPC has their own detailed portrait, no matter how minor their role, which I thought was a nice touch. The sprites for the main gameplay are well done and easily recognizable, and while it’s going for an old-school look, it does make use of dynamic lighting and particle effects to enhance the scenes.
The one thing that did bother me a bit was the little bobbing around that the sprites do. It’s a bit too smooth to fit the “90s CRPG” vibe the graphical style and gameplay have, and robbed of that retro aesthetic the fact that it’s a static image bouncing around just looks cheap. Either making them stand still or doing a few frames of animation would help it avoid the valley it’s fallen into.
A Pleasant Surprise
While it certainly exceeded my expectations in a number of areas, Of Blades & Tails still has quite a few areas it could improve on. It’s an awfully rough start and the middle needs some work narratively, but it nails the landing.
With over 20 hours to beat, a charming aesthetic, and a variety of ways to tackle combat, there’s a lot to sink your teeth into here. I just wish this wasn’t a case of “Yeah it gets good ten hours in.”
Review copy provided by Pineapple Works for Steam. Screenshots provided by reviewer. Key art provided by Pineapple Works