I’m a big fan of monk-style character classes. I’ve kicked demons in Diablo III, clobbered hydras in Final Fantasy XIV, and unleashed swarms of punches while swigging brews in World of Warcraft. But it wasn’t until Blade & Soul that I encountered the essence of kung fu–at least as far as a keyboard can capture. At its best, Blade & Soul delivers that rare brand of combat that makes me consider learning these moves for real. And that’s why I’m so sad that the rest of the game never reaches the same heights.Blade & Soul’s problems partly spring from its timing. It’s only “new” in the West; East Asian players have enjoyed it since it came out in South Korea way back in 2012, when it and other Korean MMORPGs like TERA started to grab headlines for action combat. Blade & Soul is a time capsule of sorts that contains few of the quality-of-life changes introduced to the genre over the past few years, and the usual bugbears strut across the stage here: the wide tunnels for leveling that hint at an open world but don’t really deliver it, the torrent of mindless kill-and-fetch quests, and the hyper-sexualized depictions of women and young girls that leave many Westerners either shuddering with shame or giggling at the proportions.It’s been four years since Blade and Soul first launched in Asia. For western fans of the game, the wait has been torture. But now that it’s finally here, it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about. Blending the traditions of fighting games and MMOs is a great idea, but Blade and Soul’s smart combat doesn’t propel it out of the shadow of other MMORPGs. It has too few surprises and lacks too many features. Compared to its free-to-play peers—especially NCSoft’s ownWildstar—Blade and Soul is a hard game to recommend.If you’ve played any MMO in the past decade, you’re likely already familiar with every activity Blade and Soul will occupy you with. On your quest to reach the level cap and open up the endgame activities, you’ll journey through fantastical mountains and jungles, run dungeons, and, if the fancy strikes you, dabble in crafting and gathering skills. Blade and Soul rarely endeavors to do anything original with this formulaic structure, and what few deviations it makes have middling results.All this comes together to complement a uniquely rewarding PvP experience, which reaches its zenith in the arena mode once players have unlocked their full range of skills at the level cap. Blade & Soul allows lower-level players to try to rough up level-capped folks in the arenas through normalization–a setting that evens out competitors’ stats–but that’s rarely wise since the absence of complete skills and their boosts from talent trees presents a monstrous disadvantage. Yet it’s not impossible. Skill reigns supreme in Blade & Soul (as does a decent ping), and a smart newbie can still technically take down a veteran. A single arena match provides enough evidence of why Blade & Soul enjoys such a healthy esports life in Asia.Many NPC enemies use skills that players will use in the arenas, which should make for decent PVP training. The problem? They fight at a snail’s pace, and it’s possible to simply clobber your way through most encounters if you don’t mind chugging a healing potion every once in a while.As it is, both the single-player and group dungeons amount to little more than short jaunts to forgettable thugs. Even the crafting lacks imagination, as it requires little more than placing an order and waiting for a bit. It also tends to lack the lively conversations (and bickering) of a good MMO’s chat channel, though it’s not through any fault of the players.Instead of mashing complicated hotkey rotations while relying on auto-attacks to fill in the blanks, combat in Blade and Soul lets you take direct control of your character. There’s a satisfying complexity to the way your abilities branch out over the course of a fight depending on what state you and your opponent are both in. Getting grabbed or knocked onto your back will swap the skills on your hotkey bar for situational abilities that can be properly timed to help swing the fight back in your favor. Playing as my destroyer, a well timed counter could send my opponent flying, opening them up to the punishment of a pile driver.This fluid approach to combat creates a tense give-and-take that looks elegant while rewarding skill and timing. Even against an obviously better opponent, I never felt completely outmatched in a fight when one well-timed counter could swing the odds back in my favor. I threw my hands up in victory more than once.Sadly, outside of the arena, combat doesn’t have nearly the same effect—especially against the countless monsters on the journey to the endgame. Though most will make some attempt to mimic the abilities used when fighting other players, they’re hardly a substitute. I found the general difficulty of most of the PvE combat to be disappointingly easy. Instead of dynamic and challenging combat, fighting most of the computer controlled enemies became a boring routine. Like other MMOs, I spammed the same rotations of abilities over and over again as I cleaved my way across the world while eying my experience bar as if it were the hands of a clock on the last day of school.This is where the tension in Blade and Soul’s aspirations to be an MMO and a highly competitive fighting game is at its worst. And where I wish that the entire MMO aspect could be made optional or done away with entirely. If the PvE and leveling were actually fun, I might be more forgiving of the way PvP is held hostage until you’ve invested several dozen hours grinding your character to level 45. But as it is, I just can’t imagine many of the competitive players Blade and Soul could attract are going to look kindly on investing that time before they can even get to the good part of the game.Without other distractions like housing or more in-depth crafting, Blade and Soul feels pretty light. Outside of the PvP, it’s just the same grind that’s already done much better in other games. If the PvP were more immediately accessible to new players, I don’t think that’d be nearly as big of a problem, but Blade and Soul insists on being a derivative MMO first and a great competitive fighting game second.