Led by Alka, the sole surviving member of the assassins’ Clan of the Sword, Blade & Soul is built on narratives which are often reduced to the shadows of scores men have to settle. The contract killer with the butterfly tattoo is on a quest to take revenge on the one who killed her master, and her story is the central column supporting those of other women out for their own retribution. As each one steps out, either in kinship or opposition with Alka, these beautiful characters are what warm you to the series, set against the hazy serenity of its world shared with the Blade & Soul Korean MMO.
To begin with, you can just about look past the near-exclusively enormous boobs transferred as a trademark from the game, because the freckles and sunshine reflections on noses, and the distinct expressions that come in at the eyes, give a feeling of the depth of personality you hope will show through in episodes to come. It even has the right names involved to signify its potential: Hiroshi Hamasaki and Hiroshi Takeuchi directed at studio Gonzo of Hellsing and Origin: Spirits of the Past, and Atsuhiro Tomioka, who’s written for Fairy Tail, acted as scriptwriter. But with the right elements in place to be artful and innovative, it just never gets off the starting block, and in the fifth episode most of the energy of Alka’s plight has suddenly been snuffed out.
The step that seems to have missed in maintaining this anime’s momentum is using the MMO as a thematic basis for adapting it as something separate, rather than leaving it wrapped up in the game’s mechanics and sense of movement. Alka in particular follows the structure of get quest, complete quest, return to quest-giver almost without fail. It’s only on those rare occasions where she stands in the blazing austerity of the desert or the forest’s lush green and lavender shades that there’s a sense of the scope of the world. Otherwise, she’s bouncing from town to tavern to settlement like we’re fast-travelling with her around the map without being given the chance to explore the small curiosities in between. But at least in the settings that are visited, the alternation between tranquillity, everyday bustling and the troubled air of approaching danger, depending on the place and passage of time, let us feel that they are in motion and see their different qualities, as we all do being in a familiar place in the dark of night.
If this same feeling of transformation had been given to the characters, letting them grow beyond the game, their stories would have taken on more of a soul. Alka’s wish for her master to empty her of emotion, and his advice to take the hardest path for her own sake, gave us hopes of the depths of heartache and adversity Blade & Soul would reach, but ultimately, though they occasionally come within reach, they go unfulfilled.