There was a time, not too long ago, when the prospect of a western release of Neowiz’s Bless Online seemed like a good thing. A very good thing, in fact, considering that we are severely lacking new MMORPGs of undisputed quality. I’m going to take a look at the past, present and future of Bless Online, and I can tell you right away that there are quite a few clouds looming on the horizon. It’s obvious that expectations were set too high, but in no way does this serve as an excuse for the current state of the game, or any game, for that matter.
For some reason, our minds had been tricked into thinking that Bless Online could be the game that we needed to quench our thirst. When the official announcement dropped, it caused quite a stir. Could this be the next big thing?
Unbeknownst to all but the most attentive player, red flags were raised everywhere. There was something that just didn’t feel quite right about this game – is it as good as we were making it out to be? It’s a mystery how the hype surrounding Bless Online managed to remain incredibly high and squander all suspicions, right up until the day that this MMORPG landed on Steam, self-published by Neowiz. Clearly, this was because no publisher dared to pick it up. If this isn’t a huge ‘caution’ sign, I don’t know what is.
Time is the best teacher, and we have indeed learned a serious lesson with Bless Online. I don’t like to point any fingers, but you are to blame. Yes, you, the player who has decided to spend $29,99 on a broken mess of a game, ignoring all the blatant signs that pointed to a rushed release. And let’s not even talk about those Founder’s Packs, which could go right up to $149.99 – I mean, how badly did you want that temporary mount skin?
Don’t get me wrong, you are not alone in this, my cherished and deluded Bless Online fan. I am as well to blame for the occasionally deafening hype that placed this MMORPG on top of other, worthier games. MapleStory 2 comes to mind, although its chibi style may not be suitable to everyone’s tastes but at least with this one you know what you are getting right from the start.
Perhaps Bless Online’s biggest problem was a matter of misinterpretation from its target audience. The fact that it looks good, with its original medieval European setting and airs of grandeur – that were quickly shattered by the likes of Black Desert Online – made us think that this would equally play like a dream. This was despite all the previous warnings from the Korean version and all the drama surrounding Aeria Games’ initial attempt to bring Bless Online to western shores. Graphics can be deceiving, and indeed all the eye-candy wasn’t enough to cover what was fundamentally a rough game, in need of further development.
If you missed out, here is a quick recap on the Aeria Games-Neowiz stranger than fiction soap opera. Aeria Games, a publisher of several free-to-play titles, signed Bless Online for a North American and European release. However, as time went by and news was slim to none, the deal was effectively canceled due to “quality concerns.” Seeing that Aeria Games isn’t exactly worried about having a few run-of-the-mill MMO games in its catalog, this sounded like a huge red flag if ever I’ve seen one. This eventually resulted in Neowiz taking action and deciding to self-publish Bless Online in western territories through Steam – Gabe Newell’s digital distribution platform can be a blessing, but also a curse, as you surely know by now.
Personally, however, the one thing that made me scoff and look the other way was Neowiz’s business decision to put a price tag on Bless Online. This felt like a mistake, a disaster waiting to happen, a misconception of huge proportions and, above all, a complete disrespect for a large part of its potential player base. Attaching a price tag to a game that was free-to-play in every other region (Korea, Japan, and Russia) felt like a colossal disregard for the western market. It felt like – and let’s not be afraid of words – a blatant cash-in, a way to earn a few bucks while the Bless Online name still has some zing to it.
Once again, we are to blame as well. There is this ethos, this weird notion that free-to-play games are inherently bad, they smell funny, and pick their noses. But if you pay for a game, then it suddenly starts to smell like roses and has silky smooth hair. As if by magic, the cash shop is a lovely place to be, everything is cosmetic, and you can even get a free pup for your trouble! It doesn’t work like that, and many full-priced games already include shameless micro-transactions (Middle-earth: Shadow of War is a perfect example before changes were made), so there really is no excuse to turn a game that was originally designed around the in-game store into a buy-to-play title. Players everywhere need to stop asking developers to put a price tag on their games; this isn’t going to improve your experience whatsoever.
Even worse was Neowiz’s reasoning behind this decision: “we decided against F2P to prevent us, the developers, from being tempted into P2W.” Really? To me, this shows a huge lack of confidence in your game, in your ability to provide players with a fair cash shop that doesn’t break the delicate balance of your game. What transpires is the urge to sell both the game and its virtual items while they’re hot and then we’ll see what the future of Bless Online brings.
Early Access can’t be an excuse for everything. This label is being abused left and right, with broken games asking for players’ money to grant them an early entry into… well, a bugged, unfinished mess in most cases. How can a game such as DayZ remain in Early Access for five years? Isn’t this enough already? Bless Online’s situation isn’t very different, to the most observant of you. The first closed beta took place in South Korea during 2014 and early on we had reports that the combat was dull, bland and needed a lot of work before the game could fulfill its potential. Years passed, and the announced changes were slight – Bless Online still felt like the same game: the same flawed but beautiful MMORPG that was unable to keep up with its promises.
There is no way that Bless Online should have released in Early Access. For a game that was in development for so long, already had three previous launches in other regions, this was telling that something wasn’t right. The development team didn’t seem able to change the core of the game (Rebuild Project and all) to make it rub shoulders with the big boys – Black Desert Online, Elder Scrolls Online, Final Fantasy XIV and so on. The game was rushed out of the door with a price tag to profit on the western hype, as the North American and European markets that were dying to play something new, something grand. How naïve of us.
There are a couple of things that you can’t escape in life. Death, for one, awaits us all; and Steam reviews, which are going to haunt a game for all eternity and beyond. The future of Bless Online is grim, mirroring the troubled past and disquieting present. It’s nearly impossible to see a game making an astounding comeback from ‘Overwhelmingly Negative’ reviews just as No Man’s Sky miraculously managed to do. There is only so much that Neowiz could do to improve on the game, and even fundamentally changing the combat mechanics and squashing tons of bugs wouldn’t do much good if unnecessary rollbacks keep happening and characters keep on being accidentally deleted from existence, never to be seen again.
Maybe I’m being too harsh; Neowiz deserves some credit, after all, and the Korean release is still going strong, so there is hope for… wait, what? The Korean servers were closed on September 2018, you say? Well, that is a bit worrying, right? What should be, allegedly, the foundation of any game – the original release – is a thing of the past, and the studio is now solely focusing on the Steam version of Bless Online, with all their efforts going into “making it successful for years to come.” I can’t help but feel somewhat doubtful of this plan.
I really want to believe that the future of Bless Online is shiny and medieval, but when I glance over past decisions, I can’t help but feel that too much damage has been made. It feels like this once ambitious MMORPG is damaged beyond repair, and no amount of PR talk and patching is going to restore its good name. Even if 2019 eventually brings the official launch with a switch to a free-to-play model – as it should have been all along – the brand is tarnished, possibly beyond return. Bless Online definitely needs players urgently, but no player base boost is ever going to hide its flaws.
The final nail in Bless Online’s medieval European coffin is called Bless Unleashed. The announcement of this Unreal Engine 4-powered Xbox One exclusive stirred the hornet's nest, with PC players crying foul, unable to cope with the prospect of an improved version of Bless on console, while the original version trails behind. I can’t say that I don’t understand the outrage, as the timing for this reveal feels less than ideal, undermining the already flimsy faith that any player may have for the future of Bless Online. Oh, and the worst of all – the Xbox One version is going to be free-to-play.
It’s almost as if Neowiz is doing its best to sabotage its own plans.
I really wanted Bless Online to succeed. After all, competition breeds quality and fosters better designs, encourages developers to push for better games, to aim higher, to win a slice of the ever-important and very profitable MMO market. However, decision after decision, it just didn’t feel right. It was never going to compete with the current heavyweights of the genre, and the price tag meant that many players wouldn’t even feel tempted to try it, which means less cash shop sales, in my opinion. “It’s better to wait for the initial reviews,” many of you said, and rightly so.
As someone who has followed Bless Online since its announcement in 2011, I feel a sense of disappointment as I look back on the years. The early excitement was replaced by utter disbelief as the game failed to evolve, culminating in an underwhelming Steam release. I can say that I am curious to see what Neowiz is going to deliver with Bless Unleashed, but this time my expectations are set to low, and no amount of beautiful medieval architecture and furry fighters are going to change that.