It can be easy to forget about Apple Arcade in a year that has seen the release of Horizon Forbidden West, Elden Ring and the very soon God of War Ragnarök. Mobile gaming seems to become insignificant when major releases are released and cloud gaming on smartphones is increasingly accessible thanks to Xbox Cloud Gaming.
But as Apple Arcade has evolved, it’s become a quiet bastion of excellent mobile games, curated for use on iPad and iPhone. And Bleak Sword is one of those games that caught my eye.
What looks like the most basic games, with a mostly monochrome look and super low-fi pixel graphics, actually hides a surprisingly deep and engaging game that I think is a must-play for anyone trying Apple Arcade.
Created by solo developer More8Bit and published by indie game darling Devolver Digital, Bleak Sword puts you in the boots of a warrior on a journey to lift a curse on the titular sword.
Armed with a sword and shield, you are tasked with slashing your way through a grim land of pixel art dioramas filled with monstrous creatures and beings bent on ending the player’s life with a splash screen of a pixelated red skull filling and devouring the iPhone screen.
You can play the game one-handed, swiping to dodge, holding and swiping in one direction to launch various attacks, and tapping and holding at just the right moment to counter a dreaded blow from a monstrous enemy.
It might sound simplistic, but as you progress through the opening areas of the game, it becomes abundantly clear that this is as much a game of hacking and slashing as it is knowing when to swipe. ward off an impending hit or charge a strong attack and learn enemy attack moves.
As you progress, your pixelated fighter gains experience and therefore levels. This allows you to boost defense or damage output. And the items you find along the way allow for greater customization and optimization: do you want to fire shots or be a glass cannon warrior?
However, each time you die, for example by a mistimed sweep or an over-ambitious attack, you will lose all of your experience from that run so far. But you will have a chance to win it back by facing the area you died in by defeating all enemies.
Sound familiar? That’s because it’s a Dark Souls/Elden Ring-inspired mechanic.
And it’s an influence that Bleak Sword carries proudly; from the bonfire your warrior rests upon to the name evoking the dark nature of the land that wouldn’t seem out of place in the opening areas of Dark Souls – if not for the nearly monochromatic graphics and visuals.
Speaking of which, it would be easy to dismiss the very retro look of Bleak Sword, with graphics worthy of a console or arcade from the 1980s.
But the sleek monster design, coupled with the use of excellent sound and environmental effects, means Bleak Sword quickly becomes engrossing. I found that my imagination made up for the lack of visual fidelity. Into a dark, rain-soaked forest full of spiders, bats and eldritch deer creatures I was transported to on my walks through the woods of West Wales as a child, my imagination conjuring up all sorts of creatures lurking in the shadows.
The pixel art approach also strips things down so you’re completely focused on the action (literally) at your fingertips with the startlingly modern gameplay mechanics carefully juxtaposed against the simple visuals. You’re thrust into the thick of the action with nothing to distract you but your own willpower to complete the brutal challenge.
Playing Bleak Sword on an iPhone 13 Pro and paired with the noise-canceling chops of the AirPods Pro, I felt myself drifting from the hellish landscape of the London Underground’s Central Line into a dark, dank swamp filled with oozing monsters and more.
Bleak Sword’s bestiary-like design, mechanics, and extras are the perfect distraction from a boring commute, but fuel more than just the lizard brain’s desire to flick through the same colorful shapes.
This combination of simplicity, modernity, and focus makes it hard to punch holes in Bleak Sword; just like the Apple platform and hardware it was designed for, it “just works”. Some might find it a little difficult, with ill-chosen actions punished by relentless ferocious beasts.
But even if you signed up for a quick trial of Apple Arcade, I compel you to give Bleak Sword a try. It’s one-handed Dark Souls for commuters. You may never have wanted a game like this, but when you find yourself stifling a cry of triumph as you defeat a boss while stuck between the undead of city commuters, I’m sure you’ll get it. the compulsive appeal of Bleak Sword.