“It is easy to kill someone with a slash of the sword. It is hard to be impossible for others to cut down.”Yagyu Munenori
Hollywood, games and fiction gets fencing wrong.
Protracted clash of blades. Wild telegraphed flailing and awkward cuts. Casually absorbing lethal attacks, or powering through guard positions. Ridiculous speeds. Most of all, a fundamental lack of respect for the lethality of the sword.
Entertainment has to feel exciting. Without this element of excitement, no one would care about a swordfight. But applying Hollywood tactics to real-life combat ends in death.
The sword is unforgiving. A single well-placed blow can end a duel, and a life. A single mistake will see a combatant spilling his lifeblood on the ground. Reflexes, timing, measure, angles, strategy, deception, these are the hallmarks of real world fencing.
Making this accessible to an audience beyond the small community of historical martial artists is extremely challenging. It is easier to simply choreograph a crossing of swords that feel exciting without going through the trouble of figuring out how to translate the principles of the sword to the screen.
Yet the harder way is far more rewarding. When the audience is cognizant of the lethality of the sword, the stakes and intensity of a scene is ratcheted up to eleven and beyond. Two sword masters can stare down each other, barely moving, for long minutes, without bleeding tension. Combatants who execute proper sword techniques and tactics reinforce the authenticity of the action, maintaining suspension of disbelief and enhancing the audience’s enjoyment. An exchange of blows becomes an exciting set piece, because everyone—the characters, the actors, the audience—recognizes that that only hair’s breadth separates the living and the dead.
This is complex enough in books and the screen, where the action is pre-determined ahead of time. Portraying authentic swordplay in video game, with real-time interactions and dynamics, is a challenging feat.
Bushido Blade, released in 1997, was the first mainstream game to attempt to capture the feel of authentic sword combat. Well-received when released, today it is a cult classic. Few games since have attempted to follow in its footsteps.
Enter Hellish Quart.
A Single Stroke
Currently in Early Access on Steam, Hellish Quart is an indie sword dueling game set in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during the 17th century. Against this backdrop, players use historically accurate swordsmanship to duel Zaporozhian Cossacks, Polish Hussars, Hungarian Hajduci, French Musketeers, and more.
Hellish Quart takes full advantage of modern technology to create an authentic historical simulation. Using motion capture technology, the game recreates historical sword techniques, performed by actual Historical European Martial Arts practitioners. The game engine simulates sword physics, resulting in fluid cuts and swift blocks. Even the strong and the weak of the blade is simulated, which influences the effectiveness of blocks and strikes.
A single well-timed and measured stroke will kill. A duel can end in the opening seconds, or it can be a protracted contest of feints, slashes, parries and plays. While characters block automatically, they are not invulnerable: a strategic play will bypass the guard and land a telling blow. Afterblows and double kills are also calculated, requiring the player to pay equal attention to offense and defense. The goal of the game is to cut without getting cut—a feat which Yagyu Munenori, sword instructor to the Tokugawa Shogunate, understatedly describes as ‘hard’.
Every character is distinctive. There is Isabella, who is armed with a longsword, and has the most technically complex moveset. Gideon, the oldest character, uses an ancient—but deceptively lethal—Polish saber method. Other saberists may use similar weapons, but have unique movesets and strategies of their own. Jacek employs a conventional middle guard, while Laszlo holds his sword high above the head and keeps his left hand out of the way, leading to different approaches. Marie has the most compact moveset, but you will learn to respect the range and speed of her rapier. More characters are also planned, reflecting the mix of cultures of the setting.
Weapons, guard positions, and characters define strategy. Isabella has range and raw power, but she is also slow and exhausts herself quickly. Marie is agile and her thrusts are lethal, but her slashes are awkward and her sword is light. Gideon may be slower and his cross-armed guard position seems to reduce his range, but his slashes have a deceptively long reach. The player must recognize the strengths and weaknesses of his character and the opponent, and use them to their advantage.
The game doesn’t shy away from the realities of sword combat. Isabella’s longsword can easily take off hands and heads. Shallow cuts to the arms and legs will reduce speed and stamina, deeper cuts will disable the character and end the bout. Strikes to the head, throat and body are lethal. Powerful strikes, especially from a heavy weapon like a longsword, can blow through a weak guard.
Rushing head-long into combat is a guaranteed way to be cut down. Blindly mashing buttons will open your character to a swift riposte. Success in Hellish Quart demands developing the same critical skills used by historic swordsmen. You need to judge velocity and vectors, timing and measure, character speed and stamina, and create the perfect moment for a decisive blow.
Like in real life fencing, movement, angulation and deception are critical. The game allows you to cancel any attack, any time. Feints take advantage of the auto-block mechanism, by luring the enemy to guard from one angle, then swiftly striking at an open line. Moving to an exposed angle allows you to strike without triggering a block—but you must be swift, and your opponent will maneuver with you too, requiring you to move smartly.
The Space Between Life and Death
Every duel is won and lost at the mental level—the cuts and thrusts simply realise victory and defeat. Without a tactical approach, defeat is certain. Here are some strategies I’ve found to have worked:
Never stay in front of an opponent. Especially for long-range characters like Marie and Isabella. That simply invites a thrust. Worse yet, if your opponent’s weapon is longer than yours, he can strike you without you being able to effectively counter. Get off the X and maneuver to the opponent’s flanks.
Cover your movements. Strike on the entry, cut on the exit. Force the opponent to keep reacting to you. The autoblock doesn’t reliably trigger when you are in motion, so once you are in range it is best to keep the enemy from attacking you by forcing him to block. And if you land a blow, all the better.
Always have an exit plan. If your play fails, you must be able to get off-line before the inevitable counterattack. Backing up isn’t always a good idea, especially when facing a rapier. Have at least two vectors you can exit from.
Do not rush. Rushing in gets you killed. Take your time. You’re not racing against a clock. Against longer-range weapons it simply invites a thrust.
Watch the opponent, and yourself. The guard position tells you which angles he can strike from, which angles he can guard against, and which are exposed. Your own position reveals that information to the enemy, and yourself.
Draw the attack. Dance at the outer edges of the opponent’s range. When he strikes, evade the attack. As the opponent recycles the sword, dash in and strike along the exposed line.
Use combos and feints intelligently. Entice the opponent to create an opening by attacking along one angle, forcing him to block, then quickly strike the exposed line.
Always press the advantage. If the opponent is tired, staggered, or in a disadvantageous position, strike. Do not let him recover.
Defense is paramount. Never let the opponent do any of this to you. A single lapse in concentration is fatal. You have all the time in the world to finish the opponent, but a single blow will end you.
Notice that none of these tactics require memorizing movesets, obsessing over frame rates, compensating for wind-up time, or any other strategies seen in other conventional fencer. They give you no advantage here. To win you must train yourself to think and fight like a fencer.
By Fencers, For Fencers
Though I study Filipino martial arts and not HEMA, some concepts are universal. With the coronavirus lockdowns and safety measures, I’ve found Hellish Quart to be a useful adjunct to my own martial arts training. It doesn’t replace sparring or partner training, but it does teach timing, observation, and tactics.
As a writer, Hellish Quart also makes HEMA come to life. There isn’t a strong HEMA tradition in Singapore, so most of the time I have to rely on watching YouTube and figuring out the hows and whys of European fencing. Hellish Quart lets me experience HEMA at a remove, and to a lesser extent swordplay in general, which helps me with choreographing my own fight scenes.
Hellish Quart is developed by Kubold, a two-person studio, Jakub Kiesel and his wife Kate. Jakub has a wealth of animation experience, having worked on The Witcher III, Gears of War: Judgment, Infinity Blade II and Bladestorm. Jakub is also a HEMA practitioner himself. With such a pedigree, the game seems to be in good hands.
Nonetheless, Hellish Quart is still in Early Access, with all the issues that entails.
Hit detection can be a little wonky at times. I’ve seen blades whoosh clean through air, but register as kills. Ragdoll animation occasionally drifts into weirdness, such as heads spinning through 360 degrees. The camera occasionally messes up, especially at the corners of small stages, preventing you from seeing the opponent’s moves. Story Mode is still a work in progress, although Kubold has brought on bestselling Polish author Jacek Komuda to write the script.
Hellish Quart isn’t completely realistic either. In game development videos, Kubold explained that the weapons and characters need to be balanced. Sword strikes are slightly faster than in real life, for example, and character animations and AI are occasionally tweaked now and then to balance them against other characters.
The most subtle—and also obvious—nod to game balance is Marie. The rapier is a duelist’s sword, quick and lively and deceptive. A perfect weapon for a dueling game. However, in real life, the rapier is less than ideal in stopping threats.
History records many duels whose participants were run through multiple times without decisive effect—or even without feeling pain. If Hellish Quart were true to life, Marie would be forced to connect many, many, many thrusts before putting down her opponent. That simply wouldn’t do for a fighting game with one-hit-kill mechanics. Thus, her sword is as lethal as anyone else’s, when played to its strengths.
Minor shortcomings aside, Hellish Quart is the most realistic unarmored sword dueling simulator available. For martial artists, it is a useful training tool. For gamers, it is a novel experience. For creators, it shows a different way to think about swordfighting — a more authentic, exciting, and lethal way.
Babylon Blues doesn’t use HEMA, but it does feature a sword in the hands of Christian street samurai. Check it out here!