I was not aware that game developers were legally permitted to make action on mobile games that’s as good as the fighting in Bleak Sword. When it comes to games, touchscreen controls are a thing that we just kind of deal with in the hopes that someone comes up with an ingenious use for them, like with The Room series of games. Barring that, most just settle for fine – rare is the truly bad touchscreen control scheme these days, but few are exceptional. This is doubly true for precise, intense action games – touchscreens are just not the best input medium.
At least that’s what I used to think before Bleak Sword, an Apple Arcade game so good I’m furious I have waited so long to upgrade my ancient iPhone, with its battery that lasts maybe three hours if I ask nicely. Developed by Spanish developer Luis Moreno Jimenez, also known as more8bit, with music by Jim Guthrie and sound design by Joonas Turner, Bleak Sword is a black-and-white (and a little red) action game that casts you as a little pixelated warrior in small isometric arena, assaulted by all manner of horrible monsters. Defeat them all, and you move on to the next level, earning experience, levelling up, and finding items to give you stat boosts. Lose, and you drop your items, lose any experience that hasn’t already been applied to your next level-up, with one chance to try again and win it back.
It’s got a killer pixel-art style, with an aesthetic that seems in step with Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP, only more grotesque and in monochrome. But again, what really elevates Bleak Sword are its tight, impressive controls. There are two schemes, a two-handed one and a one-handed one, both in portrait orientation. In the former, tapping the left side of the screen is devoted to attacking – you tap it to parry, or touch and release to swing your sword. A brief touch is a light attack, and a longer touch charges a heavy attack. On the right side, you swipe in any direction to roll and dodge.
In the one-handed control scheme, all of this is done regardless of what part of the screen you touch; you just have to make sure you’re making the right gesture. So you swipe to roll in one direction, tap to parry, and make short or long touches to make your desired attack. This is my preferred control scheme, not just for convenience, but because it makes Bleak Sword’s combat feel more rhythmic, like a dangerous dance with a zombie that also wants to eat you.
This, combined with the game’s stamina meter, means every foe has to be taken seriously and the space of each stage navigated mindfully. And those stages are much more varied than their simple looks might make you think: Maybe you’ll find yourself staring down skeleton soldiers on a bridge, or duelling through a swamp full of tentacles that spring up out of nowhere. Dealing with map hazards as well as foes with their own attack patterns helps Bleak Sword keep things fresh, even though it’s got combat so rock-solid it could probably sustain less variety with no complaints from me.
And boss battles? They’re real good.
I’m very sorry, but I’m going to compare Bleak Sword to Dark Souls – but only because Bleak Sword truly seems to be aiming for an experience best described as Dark Souls: Mobile. It’s got the fraught risk and reward of that game’s combat, but in bite-sized combat dioramas. It’s also incredibly responsive in a way that’s actually too fluid for the Dark Souls comparison, but necessary for imprecise nature of touchscreen controls. It’s extremely good, and I can’t get enough of it, at least until my battery dies. It’s probably time for me to get a new phone.