Swordsman X combines PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds with Chinese martial arts
We played the beta test of a uniquely Chinese battle royale game
Imagine PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds crossed with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon -- a battle royale game where guns are replaced by swords.
That’s Swordsman X, a new title for PC from Cube Game that just finished a closed beta test. It takes the formula of games like PUBG -- 100 players scavenging for weapons, killing everyone else to become the last one standing -- and combines it with martial arts elements from Chinese martial arts stories, known as wuxia.
So instead of driving a jeep through the desert avoiding bazooka fire, you dodge flying daggers while riding through a bamboo forest atop a stallion. You can also walk on walls, bounce off trees, and slash your enemies while lunging and twirling like Jet Li.
Battle royale games have achieved an almost otherworldly popularity in China. Other than Fortnite, almost all the other major games in the genre on mobile (Knives Out, Rules of Survival, even PUBG Mobile) come from Chinese companies. The government is arresting people who build cheat tools for the game. And a guy almost broke up with his girlfriend because she spent ten hours every day playing with her friends.
All that just makes Swordsman X stand out even more. Most other Chinese battle royale games follow PUBG’s template pretty closely, with a modern military theme and weapons that mirror the real world.
But Swordsman X wastes no time impressing players with classical Chinese elements. We managed to get into the closed beta to try the game out. After you set up your character, you enter the pregame lobby, which places players in front of an enormous Buddha statue -- a little like the Leshan Giant Buddha in southern China.
When the game begins, a flying boat tied to hot air balloons in the shape of a dragon will take you to the battleground itself -- a large and varied land with bamboo forests, wheat paddies, arid deserts and a lot of wooden structures and temples.
In PUBG, you skydive with a parachute. But in Swordsman X, you simply leap out of the flying dragon with a bamboo glider strapped to your back, like an ancient Chinese Batman.
One unique part of the game is the focus on close combat. Even though Swordsman X has items like a bow and arrow, most of the combat involves close-range weapons -- swords, blades and spears.
And while the game allows players to scavenge for weapons and clothing, they can also pick up martial arts skills via booklets scattered around the world. You can learn up to three different moves per weapon, allowing you to use more complex attacks than standard slashes.
Other skills allow you to enhance your moves -- sadly, walking on walls and bouncing off trees are unlocked this way, so if you were expecting to go full Crouching Tiger from the start of the game… sorry, you’ll have to find the right skill booklets first.
With the right moves in place, Swordsman X can even feel a lot like very different games. For example, a player can quietly creep along narrow wooden beams above a temple, before descending on another player and slitting their throat with a single click -- which felt more like a Chinese version of Assassin’s Creed or the Batman Arkham games than PUBG.
There’s a lot of promise in Swordsman X, but the game is still early and definitely felt unfinished. Beyond my own experiences, I also spoke with other players and one issue emerged above all others: For a game based around close combat, the map is just too big.
PUBG’s map is big too, but players there can use guns to engage each other from a distance. In this game, players have to be right next to each other to fight with swords, so a lot of time is spent running around trying to find each other instead of fighting.
There also aren’t enough horses -- I found fewer than five in my six hours with the game. Most of that running around is on foot, which makes life difficult because the “circle of death”, a common feature in battle royale games to keep players bunched together, moves really quickly. One player told me he felt like he was always been chased by that circle, trying to stay alive.
But the upside to that is that it encourages group fights -- and those group fights can feel exhilarating. There’s less hiding behind cover than gun-based games, because players just need to keep their distance. The result is often a tense standoff, where you have to remain alert to make sure you can see your enemies on all sides.
But there are also a lot of bugs. For example, there are lakes I can swim in, but also lakes I can walk through as if they were drained of water -- and lakes I can cross by walking on the water itself. (Though in fairness, walking on water is seen in some wuxia films, so maybe that’s not a bug…)
Swordsman X’s second closed beta test ended last week. Cube Game said that the game will return again in the summer, but wasn’t clear on exactly what form that would take. Cube Game is a Steam-like publishing platform in China. It’s a unit of Anhui Xinhua, a state-owned media publishing group.
Swordsman X occupies a weird position: Sometimes it feels extremely similar to other battle royale games, and sometimes it feels a million miles away from PUBG. It definitely follows some of the genre’s staples really closely, but at the same time the wuxia theme and close combat definitely make it stand out in a very crowded market.