Apple Arcade's games are surprisingly good at suggesting there is still untapped potential in the iPhone's touchscreen. (Pun not intended but I'll take it.) Skate City turned a radial system of swipes into a whole bag of tricks, and now Bleak Sword is being widely cited as the game that redeems touchscreen sword-fighting. Honestly? It is brilliant: simple and thrilling and kinetic. What a game this is.
The basics are very simple. Your pixel stickman works through moody chunks of monochrome forests and swamps taking on beasts that range from bats to skeletal horses, eating slugs to regain health and wearing any jewelry lying around to boost stats. Imagine, for a second, meeting this person while out for a walk: half a slug hanging out of the mouth, a nice set of bangles jangling on the wrist. This is beside the point, of course. Bleak Sword is all about combat.
And what combat! Swipe to dodge, hold and then swipe for a light attack and then hold a bit longer and swipe for a heavy. Because this is three-dimensional space, the direction of your swiping is crucial. And because the enemies fight back, the true thrill of the system comes with tapping to block - and then tapping and swiping immediately to pull off an astonishingly satisfying counter.
It works, in part, because of the sound: a schwing as metal rushes through air, followed by a crunch as it connects. And while enemy design is often simple, the animation is filled with skittering, tumbling, inching character. I think there is a hit-pause, but maybe it is just the adrenalin playing tricks. Either way, this is an oppressive game, a world you feel you've been dunked into.
And it's wonderfully cruel. Die and you have one chance to get your loot and XP back, as long as you try again immediately. Mismanage your stamina - stamina is everything here, allowing you to attack and to block - and you're wide open. The first boss that came along terrified me with its sheer size, even though, if we are all being honest, it was probably smaller than my thumb.
Bleak Sword is that special kind of game, one that has such force of character that it stops you from thinking about the various influences that helped piece it together. That control system! Expect clones.