The retro pixel art presents a rustic, aberrated look to the player, but with wonderfully fluid animations and a high frame rate, Bleak Sword ultimately feels right at home in 2020.
This ‘less is more’ approach is felt in everything from presentation to mechanics, and all the way through to the victory screen that truncates each quick-fire level. This screen is often where you’ll pick up an upgrade after toppling a carefully selected squad of beasts and acquire the XP necessary to level up; often a very simple statistical bump to your attack power or defence.
It’s impressive how well Bleak Sword gathers up the main elements of the Souls-like genre and presents them in a stripped-back mobile game. Any muscle memory from Dark Souls and its ilk remains useful here – constant rolling and patience until you find a proper opening is key – but it’s been seamlessly warped into a top-down experience that feels right at home in your pocket.
Modifiers are thrown into the fray as the game progresses and you move between each world, with status effects inflicted by cobwebs and other environmental traps making the whole thing feel much more claustrophobic and challenging. This claustrophobia is perhaps Bleak Sword’s most effective feature, managing, as it does, to create a similar pang of adrenaline felt in a more standard Souls-like title.
With some subtle screen shake effects, Bleak Sword makes every attack feel impactful, as if you’re plunging through your enemies with each strike. Enemies toy with your expectations, like quadruped red-eyed canines that race across the map and then pause for a breath, forcing you to both react and think before hitting back.
Paired with some of the game’s more robust (or exploding) enemies and impassable environmental objects like trees and rivers, your route to victory is constrained and figuring out the puzzle of combat becomes a brain-tickling treat. It’s like trying to navigate a haunted Animal Crossing town full of murderous leeches and skull-wearing forest spirits.
Boss encounters feel grandiose, dropping behemoths and Goliaths armed with unavoidable attacks into the arena, each undone with extra-careful swipes and taps. A thrilling, aesthetically unique mobile Souls-like with all the flair of its console stablemates, Bleak Sword is a welcome addition to your home screen and an ace in the hole for Apple Arcade.
Encountering projectile-throwing enemies mixed things up nicely. Part of the fun was figuring out that getting close to them would see these once-static foes engage in melee attacks, adding yet another layer of complexity to proceedings.
Providing haptic combat puzzles in the comfort of your hands, Bleak Sword is a terrific alt-Souls-like.
Format: iOS (tested)
Price: £4.99/month (Apple Arcade)
Release: Out now