Phantom Blade Zero is not a Soulslike - it's an irresponsibly fast action RPG that's somehow become one of my Summer Game Fest favorites

Phantom Blade Zero
(Image credit: S-Game)

The first hands-on demo of Phantom Blade Zero, the kung fu-powered action RPG that made quite the splash at last May's PlayStation show, was hovering around the middle of the pack on my mental list of games to see at Summer Game Fest 2024. I ended up beating its demo twice, and it has rocketed to the front as one of my favorite games of the whole show. It is not a Soulslike, and I'm uncharacteristically not disappointed by this. Saddling this game with the deliberate pacing of that genre would only weaken the absurd speed and aggression that makes Phantom Blade stand out. It is irresponsibly fast, but it just works. 


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Zero downtime

Phantom Blade Zero

(Image credit: S-Game)

My response to this game's reveal trailer was, judging from the top YouTube comments on that video, shared by a lot of people: okay, that looks cool, but does it feel that cool to play? Yeah, as it turns out, it does. Shake the visions of Sekiro and Elden Ring out of your head like water out of your ears. Even Sekiro isn't this fast. This is genetically closer to the likes of Ninja Gaiden, Devil May Cry, or Metal Gear Rising Revengeance. It's character action, baby. One developer on the SGF show floor reckoned that it's 30% Soulslike and 70% character action. 

Propelled by its love of Chinese Wuxia martial arts, Phantom Blade Zero sets up a blazing-fast, combo-heavy extravaganza where you can delete some bosses in seconds if you know what you're doing, just as a bad enough mistake can send you right back to your last spawn point.

You can tell this is a character action game because if you press the attack button three times, your character will explode forward and perform a hell of a lot more than three hits. Attack strings are long and lavish. No opportunity to look stylish is wasted. Even when you block, you do not passively weather attacks; you smack the enemy's weapon out of the way with blows of your own, resulting in a frantic, steel slap fight that looks way cooler than I'm probably making it sound. In Soulslikes, you trade blows with enemies. In Phantom Blade Zero, you trade entire combos. 

I started the demo with a katana and a pair of twin shortswords, able to swap between them mid-attack to reset and thereby extend my combo. This swap is tied to a brief cooldown, which I quickly learned to save for an opening when I've already got an enemy staggered. I found a heavy sword later on, apparently stolen from one of the bosses, and even it felt remarkably light for its size. Each weapon has its own special attack, branching light and heavy combo strings, and brutal execution animations for stance-broken enemies. 

Phantom Blade Zero

(Image credit: S-Game)

Add in two equippable ranged weapons, like a charged lion-headed cannon or a hefty longbow, and you end up spoiled for choice on the murder train. Then come the perfectly dodged lethal (red) attacks, the perfectly parried heavy (blue) attacks, and stealthy executions out in the non-linear but not-oversized world. Explore, parkour, find secrets, cut groups of basic and elite enemies to ribbons, and sharpen your blade for the next boss. The demo, at least, was incredibly boss-heavy, but I'm told there's plenty to explore in the full game. 

Phantom Blade Zero gives you a lot to play with in just the demo, and I was overwhelmed on my first run. It feels like driving a fast car for the first time; you barely tap the gas only to lurch forward so hard that your neck audibly cracks as your head snaps back. My first demo time was 10:10 with three deaths. My next run, with director S of developer S-Game joining me on the couch for a lengthy interview (coming soon), went much better: 7:43 with zero deaths. 

Like a diver delving deeper, you have to acclimate to the way this game feels, but once your brain catches up, it becomes exhilarating. Each boss has a unique flow to its offense, and you learn to intuit when it's safe to attack and when you'll need to block, parry, and/or dodge for a few seconds. There are flashes of FromSoftware's influence, no doubt, but if you play this like a Soulslike, you'll miss out on what makes it special. 

Here's everything announced at Summer Game Fest Live. 

Austin Wood

Austin freelanced for the likes of PC Gamer, Eurogamer, IGN, Sports Illustrated, and more while finishing his journalism degree, and he's been with GamesRadar+ since 2019. They've yet to realize that his position as a senior writer is just a cover up for his career-spanning Destiny column, and he's kept the ruse going with a focus on news and the occasional feature, all while playing as many roguelikes as possible.