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A pixelated skull floats in a dark dungeon More8Bit/Devolver Digital via Polygon

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Bleak Sword is a deceptively brutal mobile game

Dioramas from hell

One of Apple Arcade’s simplest-looking games is also one of its most hardcore, forgoing detailed graphics for a style that looks like a pixelated diorama of a death metal album cover. It might look basic, if it weren’t so beautiful in motion.

There is no hidden gimmick here, and no wheel is being reinvented. This is a sincere, earnest take on a retro-looking brawler that feels surprisingly modern.

Bit crusher

Bleak Sword has me traveling across dozens of hellish dioramas to lift a curse from the story’s titular weapon. Each compact level is jammed with all sorts of monsters, from small bats that try to dive bomb me to massive ghouls who swim across the battlefield like living shadows.

The impressive bestiary of creatures is made even more awe-inspiring when I see them in action. Despite the lo-fi art style, their animations are crisp and fluid. Skeletal knights step back before taking huge, lunging swings with their swords. Tentacles sprout from swamps and flail back and forth with the smoothness of massive whips. Lumbering monsters swing hard and slow with convincing, destructive weight. All of this is done with a simple three-color palette and a few chunky pixels.

That level of detail in the animation is essential because my small hero can only defend themselves one of three ways: dodge, parry with a shield, or attack with a sword. On an iPhone, I can do all these things by simply tapping or swiping. To dive out of the way of an attack, I swipe where I want to dodge. I tap my screen to parry with my shield and press and hold to gather strength to attack, then glide my finger in the direction I want to swing to pull it off. It’s straightforward enough to put on dazzling duels with one hand, all while catching a ride on the subway or bus.

When I play the game on my iPad, I wireless connect an Xbox One controller to it and it instantly transforms the experience. Since I’m much more comfortable playing difficult games with a controller in my hand instead of my phone, playing Bleak Sword with a gamepad makes the mobile title feel much like any other brutally difficult action game I have in my console or PC library.

Regardless of what control scheme I’m using, combat is still a delicate art. All of my skills consume a bit of my minuscule stamina meter. I have to be mindful about when to dodge, parry, or attack. If I dodge too much, or miss too many swings, I’ll run out of energy and leave myself wide open to counter-attack. If I’m not careful, even simple enemies like a swarm of bats or slow zombies can kill me with surprising speed. Bleak Sword is all about paying attention to enemy attack cues, dodging and parrying at the right time, and laying into foes when they leave themselves open. It’s simple, but satisfying, formula.

A pixelated minotaur attacks a pixelated knight More8Bit/Devolver Digital via Polygon

Much of Bleak Sword requires a strong understanding of enemy attack patterns to stay alive, but as I tear through the game’s nine chapters, I get to level up my character as well. From bolstering my strength to toughening up my body, over time I can become stronger to face greater challenges. Equippable gear and one-time use items round out my arsenal.

Bleak Sword’s super simplistic and macabre art style instantly caught my eye when I first browsed through Apple Arcade’s initial offerings. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I certainly didn’t imagine such an enjoyably crushing experience to come out of something that looked so simple.

However, once I finally dug into the game, I realized its straightforward art style helped strip away distractions and allowed me to become laser-focused on combat. Whether I’m swiping away on iPhone or playing with a controller on an iPad, Bleak Sword’s hardcore gameplay is always a satisfying spectacle, and one of the most deceptively entertaining experiences on Apple Arcade.

Bleak Sword is now available on Apple Arcade. The game was reviewed using a personal Apple Arcade account. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.