There’s a good game buried deep beneath the awful Swords of Legends Online translation and confusing user interface, but it took me 20 hours of digging to get there. MMOs often hide too much of their best features behind an arbitrary leveling process, but that sounds downright misleading. For days, I ran from quest marker to quest marker, stuck in an endless loop of boring recovery quests and cutscenes I could barely understand. Now that I’ve hit max level, SOLO looks like a whole different, much nicer MMO.
What is that? A fantastic Chinese MMO with a focus on history.
Expect to pay: $ 40 (no subscription)
Revised on: i7-7700, Nvidia RTX 2070, 16 GB RAM, 500 GB SSD
This sudden 180 is entirely due to SOLO’s robust endgame activities: running dungeons, PvP brawls, traveling the world for hidden treasures, even using a lantern to move into a parallel dimension to hunt down dangerous dead spirits. -living. I’ve teamed up to kill world bosses, giving gifts to specific NPCs, and taking care of one of the most complex housing systems I’ve seen in an online game. It has been a long time since I played an MMO with such absurd variety. It’s a weird and sometimes absorbing experience driven by a handful of issues that prevent SOLO from competing with more popular games like Final Fantasy 14 and World of Warcraft.
Lost in translation
The final phase of SOLO is so rich and expansive because this MMO has been around for a long time. It is a spin-off of the Gujian RPG series, which also spawned an award-winning and successful Chinese TV show.
The heart of Gujian and SOLO is its vivid approach to xianxia, a genre rooted in Chinese mythology. While North Americans might just call it “epic fantasy,” xianxia isn’t just a Chinese variation on classic genre conventions like elves and dragons. It is a martial arts drama spanning the cosmos focusing on the process of “cultivation” – obtaining power and wisdom – through hardship, with heroes and villains often becoming gods whose battles span many dimensions. Epic is an understatement.
This fantasy is not only expressed through the stunning environments and monstrous enemies of SOLO, but also the way my character moves around the world. While running I can jump gracefully through the air as if I were in a martial arts movie, but it is possible to jump even higher by doing double and triple jumps. With enough speed, I can effortlessly climb entire buildings, run along rooftops, and even fly while riding a mystical sword like a skateboard.
I just wish I knew what I was jumping, running and sliding towards. SOLO is a story-driven game that painstakingly fleshes out its fantasy world and characters, but Western publisher GameForge’s translation and localization efforts are dismal, rendering almost everything unnecessary. This drives almost every aspect of SOLO in one way or another.
The voice cutscenes are machine translated and feature English so rough that I quickly gave up trying to piece together what was going on. Towards the end of my leveling, I spent almost as much time completing quests as I did mashing the ‘F’ key so I could skip past cutscenes full of stilted and broken dialogue. I even changed the spoken language to Chinese just to escape the bad English dubbing. It sucks. The world of SOLO is teeming with evil sea witches, demonic blades, and ancient gods, and I want nothing more than to live this story the way its developers intended.
SOLO’s translation isn’t the only big issue: although it looks undeniably pretty, I struggled to get anything close to stable 60 fps on my 2070 at 1440p. Open areas frequently snapped around 50 frames per second, while dense cities (or group dungeons) reduced that to 30 and below. The odd thing is that lowering each setting only increased performance by around 15%. So if you’re playing on an older machine, expect some pretty “meh” performance.
I find it baffling that GameForge has decided to release a story-rich MMO with such a crappy localization. This not only undermines what is clearly one of the game’s greatest features, but actively weaponizes my pleasure. Instead of the story being a useful way to deepen my relationship with this fantasy world, it’s now a hurdle to overcome by going through the leveling process as quickly as possible. And while I’m now neck and neck in a more satisfying endgame grind, there’s still that distance between me and SOLO because I’m constantly struggling to understand what he’s trying to say.
Locating shit isn’t just relegated to cutscenes and story quests, but plagues almost any interaction I have with the game. Ability tooltips can seem cryptic, tutorial steps can be difficult to follow and it’s easy enough to go for hours without realizing that there are some extremely useful rewards you can claim from any of SOLO’s various progression systems.
All of this is compounded by SOLO’s messy user interface. There are dozens of menus, each with their own important uses, but they’re so hit and miss that it can be really frustrating trying to find what you need. Even just equipping non-combat abilities to my hotbar or finding my progress with a certain endgame faction can take a few minutes to dig through different menus before finding the right one.
I’ve played a lot of non-English MMOs in my life – I’ve even used optical character recognition software to translate my screen at runtime – and Swords of Legends often feels just as inaccessible albeit he is technically translated into English.
The final stages do not justify the means
SOLO is a completely inaccessible game, but those who persist will end up with an expansive endgame with a lot of variety. After 24 hours of playoff quests, I finally hit max level and opened up a pinata of activities that I really wish I hadn’t been locked behind this grind.
Dungeons, which seemed incredibly easy at first, now have two additional difficulty modes that speed up the challenge in an interesting way. Bosses not only have more HP, but also new attacks that create complicated AoE patterns to dodge. Completing them now takes a measure of effort and skill, but they’re still a far cry from the spectacle and challenge of World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy 14 group activities.
One thing I didn’t expect to enjoy was SOLO’s intense 3v3 PvP arenas. Usually PvP isn’t my thing, but here the combat system nails the fantasy of being an agile martial arts hero. During quests, it’s hard to appreciate the nuances of my Spearmaster’s abilities because most enemies stay still and occasionally cast a special ability that I can easily bypass.
In PvP matches (and, to a lesser extent, endgame dungeons and world bosses), I’m now forced to make better use of my abilities. I dodge deadly attacks with elegant backflips before using another skill to reload in melee. Some of my attacks can be chained into a deadly combo that temporarily buffs other abilities, and if I manage to exhaust an enemy’s stun meter, I can hit them with a finishing blow that triggers a zoomed execution. The fights are flashy and explosive and require good reflexes.
I also love that SOLO’s endgame isn’t all about killing loot stuff. The clues I find in treasure maps can lead me to rare loot hidden around the world. I can waste hours crafting furniture, then fine-tuning it pixel by pixel to fit perfectly into my new home, or straying into a hilarious Bomberman-style PvP mode. There is an alternate dimension infested with evil spirits that I can chase away, or I can relax by a quiet river and catch some fish. All of this feeds into different progression systems that often overlap, showering me with rewards.
It’s crazy to me how much there is to do and how totally free it is from the time-gating or pay-to-win nonsense so prevalent in other MMOs. There are a few restrictions, like not being able to earn dungeon loot more than once a day, but it’s hard to be cranky about that when there are a dozen other things I can do at the square. And despite having a cash register, SOLO only sells cosmetic items. There is also no subscription fee (not even optional).
It’s cool to see SOLO overturn the negative stereotypes associated with many MMOs. I just wish it was more accessible. There’s a lot to like about it if you can persist with its initial leveling up and be patient enough to deal with its crappy localization. I would only recommend SOLO to people who have already bounced off the biggest names in the genre like Final Fantasy 14 and are desperate for an alternative.