The firelight bathes the stone circle in warm yellow light, in soft contrast to the cooler hues of night that predominate without. Resting near the dancing flames are Enric and Maya, adventurers and partners, seekers of battles. They first met over the blood of ogres, orcs and the like, both fighting in defense of a caravan, Maya having taken a job guarding it, Enric having been attracted by the sounds of a fight. With their respective skills in battle each impressed the other, and a companionship was born.
Outside of the firelight the night is washed in cool, pale blues, through which moves another, bolder shade of blue - this the fur of a small creature, dog-like in general frame, though it moves on two legs and carries a spear and a wooden shield, and is dressed in simple clothing: a kobold.
It reaches the circle, takes to the cover of one standing stone, looks about itself, then carefully moves towards the gap between two rocks. It enters the circle and approaches Enric and Maya, before whom it begins to jump, yip and wave its weapon, seemingly attempting to taunt them, for all that it is one diminutive creature facing two fully-grown humans armed and armoured.
The couple share a look, Maya gives a little shake of her head in the direction of their "guest", and Enric rises, drawing his sword. The kobold runs into the night, and Enric gives chase - and a merry chase it is that his quarry gives him. If he hears the high-pitched yips and laughter that rise in the circle of stones it is too late - by the time that he returns Maya is gone, abducted by a band of the kobolds.
Enric wastes little time. Again he gives chase, this time after the group that took Maya. They lead him to the entrance of a cave in the nearby mountain, the adventurer managing to dive in only just ahead of the rocks that crash down over the opening, blocking off retreat - not that Enric has any intention of going back, of course, not while Maya lies ahead...
And ahead are many dangers, for the caves and corridors of the mountain are peopled by creatures few of whom show benign intent towards our would-be rescuer. His search for his love drives Enric deeper and deeper into the warrens of the mountain, battling its deadly inhabitants and evading traps.
The story is, of course, little more than a variation on the classic "save the damsel" quest - although admittedly in this case the "damsel" is hardly a shy and retiring princess, and nor does our "prince charming" display much gentlemanliness. No, this is a slightly rougher take on rescuing the captured loved one.
The story goes little further than that during the game. Further information on Maya's fate ahead of Enric is given between areas in short movies, and in one or two in-game cut-scenes, eventually revealing some of the reason behind her abduction (although more is given in the background featured in the game manual).
Of course, the story is to little degree the focus of the game. Rather, this is a game of combat, cunning and observation, of weapons clashing, traps evaded and secret passages.
It is in combat that Die by the Sword specializes, appropriately enough. Another game might keep the player's interest with myriad types of monster, or swarms of foes, or a variety of weapons and spells with which to customize one's play. Die By the Sword, on the other hand, offers fairly few types of monster, and usually in groups of about one to four. Enric's only weapon is his sword (unless you count the severed limbs of your foes, which can be picked up and used to beat the enemy, the limbs' erstwhile owners included, should they still be alive). There are precious few power-ups to be found, aside from a variety of health-restoratives.
Instead it is through the fighting itself that Die by the Sword offers its main challenge. The creatures faced may approach only cautiously, or attempt to move around the player, and may have more than one attack animation. Some may even turn and run for a time if disarmed (a phrase which in this game, as has been suggested, takes on quite a literal meaning...).
The player's movement is handled simply. The 'w' and 's' keys move Enric forward and backwards, while the 'q' and 'e' keys have him step to the left and right, and the 'a' and 'd' keys turn him left and right. There is a jump key and a crouch key (the former of which holds him in a crouch until release of the key has him leap up), and a key which instructs Enric to attempt to climb onto an object. When his sword is sheathed by yet another key, there is one more to instruct him to interact with the world, such as in picking up an item, opening a door or pulling a lever.
This, however, should not sound terribly unfamiliar to action gamers. It is the combat controls that can be another story.
There are two modes of control for combat. Firstly, for those who wish to use a perhaps simpler-to-use system, there is also the "arcade" mode, which makes use of a simplified set of combat controls, in which three keys map to three predefined swings (a high, middle and and overhead slash), while three others define three blocking moves.
More interesting, perhaps, is the "VSIM" (standing for "Virtual SIMulation") mode. Under this system the player is given more direct control over Enric's sword-arm than in the arcade mode. Instead of a single button being responsible for an entire sword stroke, the controls (one can choose to use the numeric keypad, mouse, or a joystick) command the position of the sword arm. For instance, when using the keypad, pressing the '9' key has Enric move his sword to a high position, with his shoulder turned to his right (the sword ending up behind him). Similarly, pressing the '1' key has him move his sword to a low position on his left. Of course, neither position alone does much (although one could try to charge the monsters with one's sword held in one position, it's not recommended) - rather, it is when one key is used after the other that things become interesting. If, having held the '9' key, that key is released and the '1' key pressed immediately afterwards, Enric's sword moves from one position to the next in an arc - an arc that, properly timed to catch a foe's flesh, should do them damage.
Furthermore, under both arcade and VSIM modes, the damage done by a given sword-stroke seems to be related to the relative speed of the blade to the foe that it strikes. For instance, a downward cut made on the drop from a jump should do more damage than a downward cut made while standing still.
Unfortunately, the VSIM system is also a control mechanism that I, at least, found difficult to come to grips, at least within a fairly short period of time. Rather, this would seem to me to be a control mechanism for those patient enough to learn its proper use and, more importantly, I think, become accustomed to its use.
I suspect, however, that if one were to take the time to master the system, it could provide a very powerful means to varied, effective attacks that could be useful in both the single player modes and the multiplayer.
Overall, the VSIM control mode provides the player with an unusual degree of freedom in the maneuvering of Enric's blade. When combined with cunning and a good sense of control over Enric's movements and sword, it is a control mechanism that could potentially offer a very effective battle system to those willing to get to grips with it. For others, especially those more interested in diving in and playing, the arcade mode offers a simplified but still useful means to play the game.
The combat system is supported by a good, if not perfect, physics system, especially with regards to the interactions of characters' weapons with the bodies and weapons of their foes. Weapons clash against each other, blocking the blow. When a weapon makes contact with a foe, however, the damage affects not only the creature's overall health, but also the strength of the part that was hit. Damage a particular part - say, an arm, or a head - enough, and it is severed, knocked away to fall to the ground. Oddly enough, none of the creatures seem terribly inconvenienced by the loss of a leg, aside from hopping rather than walking. The loss of its weapon arm, however, has at times seen a kobold turning and running, having no way to hurt the player. Furthermore, as has already been mentioned, when his sword is sheathed Enric can take up that selfsame severed limb and chase down the one from whom it was hewn to finish their beating.
While this severability doesn't seem to apply to Enric himself during the main quest (at least not on the easy difficulty level that I will confess to using for my journey through the tunnels and caverns under the mountain), it does apply to him in some of the other, arena-based game modes.
More impressively, some of the more powerful creatures are quite capable of, when they manage a particularly effective strike, knocking Enric across a room.
The levels are for the most part well-designed, set in a number of regions beneath the mountain, from ordinary caves and tunnels fitted with rough fences and gates to an underground river and a lost temple, amongst others. Tunnels can be found in inobvious corners or behind secret doors, leading to hidden rooms or alternate routes, and potions may be hidden around corners to be found by those that explore. Moreover there are at a number of points along the journey special items that add a little extra interest to the game while they are in effect, such as a potion that shrinks Enric enough for him to enter the small tunnels used by the kobolds, or another that induces in our hero for a time a berserker power.
Along the way the player will doubtless also encounter a number of traps, such as swinging pendulums or spears that dart from walls - the temple level in particular having a variety of traps for the player to evade and navigate. While there are one or two puzzles to be solved, there are none that I would expect to give most people any real trouble for long.
At each level's end the player is presented with the number of enemies that they killed and how many were available and a score, tallied from a number of elements, such as the player's state of health at the end of the level and the achievement of certain objectives (including some hidden ones, which might be represented as a row of question marks if not discovered).
Adding a welcome touch of humor and humanity to the action is Enric's character (as far as it is revealed). Enric is a rough-and-ready adventurer, not uncommonly ready with a boisterous comment, whether it be a taunt to an enemy ("You hit like a kobold!" for example), a curse (and Enric does swear) at being hurt, a comment on his own handiwork, or simply be an exclamation of "Aah, bit a nosh!" (if I heard that correctly) when eating food found along the way. Furthermore, the lines are delivered well, in a suitable accent and slightly (but appropriately for the part, I feel) over-the-top style that allows Enric to add a touch of atmosphere into a game that might otherwise be a little less interesting.
Perhaps worth mentioning is that Die by the Sword uses a save point system. There is no function to save at will during play; instead, upon certain events (such as entering a certain room, or defeating a certain foe, for instance) the game is automatically saved for that player under an appropriate name. If the player later returns to an old save, the subsequent automatic saves overwrite the old ones and move up to the top of the save list as they are saved.
In addition to the main quest, there are the arena and tournament modes of play. In the arena, the player selects up to three monsters to fight against (and, if they wish, can elect to play as a monster or as Maya, or even elect to not play, leaving only the monsters to do battle with each other) and select one from a set of four arenas: the Lava Pit, the Mosh Pit, the Pit of Love and the Pit of Ennui, three of which come with attendant environmental dangers (such as the large balls fitted with spinning blades that swing from the ceiling of the Mosh Pit). The tournament mode takes place in these pits as well, pitting (if you'll excuse the pun) the player against a long series of battles against various combinations of foes, and which remembers a given player's progress so that one can return another time to continue the challenge.
The graphics of Die by the Sword are nothing groundbreaking, at least by today's standards: the models are fairly simple, the textures of low resolution, and thus a little blocky, and the animations are at times a little on the jerky side. These flaws, however, are quite probably simply attributable to technical limitations of the day.
The game is viewed from a third-person perspective through a "camera" that is, overall effective, although it does occasionally suffer from objects blocking the player's view of Enric.
One nice feature that comes with the game is an editor for the creation of custom moves. This allows the player to define and save special attacks and manoeuvres that can be used within the game and accessed via the press of a key.
In conclusion Die by the Sword is not a deep game, nor for that matter is it a long game, but it is one that I found to be a great deal of fun. On the negative side, the graphics are nothing wonderful, and there are few monsters to be faced and items and power-ups to be collected. On the positive side, a good combat system, enjoyable fights with foes that offer up enough of a challenge to be enjoyable in numbers less than horde strength, decent levels with some fun challenges, and an atmosphere that is not overall too serious, with Enric's comments providing a sketch of a boisterous, rough, adventurous character all contribute, to a game that makes for a very enjoyable experience. It's not a great game, I wouldn't say, but it is a good one.