If you’re looking for something grim, dark, and pixelated, then Bleak Sword DX is here to scratch that itch. It is difficult to pin down exactly what genre this game belongs to. It takes the core mechanics of a Soulslike and strips it back to its bare essentials. The deceptively simple graphics betray a surprisingly detailed art style that brings the desperate world to life.
Bleak Sword DX serves as an updated version of the 2019 mobile game, complete with a collection of DLC, a brutal gauntlet of boss fights, and an infinite mode to unlock by beating the game. The opening cinematic details a world where a kingdom has been under the thumb of an evil monarch for hundreds of years until a hero finally arrives to stop him.
The plot is purposefully generic and shows you what to expect from the game. Each level plays out in a small diorama-like layout, with waves of monsters spawning to crush, cut, and otherwise maim the laughably tiny hero. Despite consisting of pixels on a limited colour palette, the monsters and environments have the perfect amount of detail. Each one looks and attacks in a unique way; the way the slimes lurch across the floor or zombies shamble does a lot of the heavy lifting for the story. There is no danger of anything blending into the background, which we expected to happen occasionally.
Successfully defeating each enemy will send you to the next level, where you face a new swarm trying to crush your fragile body. Failure doesn’t send you back to the start of your run, but it does come with a small penalty — you lose all the experience points you earned since you last levelled up and your valuable items. You only get one chance to earn them back by beating the level you just died on. It serves as good motivation to give it one more go, especially if you were oh-so-close to landing the finishing blow.
If you’re skilled, you can probably finish Bleak Sword DX in around five hours. Since this is a port of a mobile original, controls are simple, although the touchscreen isn't employed on Switch. You can swing your sword, block/parry with your shield — which triggers much slower than we expected and therefore went underused (to the detriment of our deathcount, no doubt) — or dodge roll your way out of danger. Each action requires a bit of stamina, which can leave you helpless if you’re not careful. Even with several levels under our belts, simple bats could still pose a threat if we weren’t careful and we needed to do a bit of grinding in early levels to make our way through the later worlds.
A surprisingly solid Soulslike, Bleak Sword DX does exactly what it sets out to do and nothing else, which makes it hard to fault. Once you get the timing down on the limited actions at your disposal, you’ll find the monsters full of character even as they try to beat you to death. You’ll die often but the game does a great job of making each death feel like a learning experience rather than a punishment. Short and sweet.