Half Sword’s demo is a chivalric edition of Gang Beasts in which people are disemboweled for hats

Stare into an abyss for long enough and, as Nietzsche wrote, a mostly naked man will wobble out of the abyss and try to murder you with a mattock. Inasmuch as can be told in the absence of dialogue or a text preamble, the naked man wants to murder you because you, and not he, are in possession of a hat. The hat makes you look like an eraser pencil from Forbidden Planet. It’s the kind of headgear worn by the kind of criminal Batman’s too grown-up to fight anymore. But it has, nonetheless, roused in this under-dressed stranger a sense of Dionysian frenzy. He will do anything for that hat – hewing your arms off, ripping your intestines out, tearing the skin from your ribcage. And you, in turn, will do anything to rob him of that mattock, because by the gods, it looks a lot more dangerous than the candlestick you’re trying to fend him off with.

There are many such lost souls in the bleak, midnight world of the Half Sword demo – all lurking near candle-lit piles of randomly spawned hammers, stools, barrels, axes and lengths of wood, all subject to unforgivably authentic physics and cursor-based attacks that conspire to transform every scuffle into a Monty Python blooper reel.

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You begin the demo slumped over in a flat void that stretches away forever. You wander to the nearest weaponisable object – if you’re lucky, a nice, solid pitchfork – then wander a bit further in search of people to stick that object into. Or at least, flail it at. In Half Sword, weapons are swung by jolting the cursor around or yanking the analog sticks. As such, it’s rare even with practice that you land what feels like a clean blow. Instead, you sort of stroke and tickle each other with your implements of bloodshed until one of the participants ragdolls, screeching and blasting blood everywhere. People certainly do yell in Half Sword, though it’s partly, again, that the controls and handling don’t lend themselves to swift and merciful KOs. Knock somebody over and you’re obliged to stand over them sort of massaging your weapon into them until they stop bellowing and cop it out of sheer irritation.

It’s possible, as you’d expect, that all this reflects my own ineptness, though the blundering and absurd inhumanity of it all is a fair representation of the IRL fights I have been involved in. Regardless, it’s very funny. “Proper” physics-based melee combat systems have been a thing in games for years, but they never fail to make me cackle. There are some Gang Beasts-worthy moments in Half Sword, albeit with a lot more gore. At one point I managed to knock a guy down while dropping my axe, which clattered to a halt a few metres away. Rather than give the downed opponent time to get up while I fetched it, I seized his ankle and dragged him kicking and screaming towards the axe. Then I stepped on the axe and hurt myself, and he stood up and beat my head in with a footstool. Touché, good sir knight. I’ll see you at the next Roundtable.

The full version of Half Sword promises to be “an immersive, physically simulated medieval combat game that offers players a unique experience of becoming a commoner-turned-knight, fighting brutal tournaments in 15th-century Europe”. It’ll feature a “meticulously crafted collection of historically accurate arms and armor”, NPCs with quests, and many flourishes based on “the expertise and feedback of Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) practitioners and sword fencers”. Sounds decent, but I’d also love to play an expanded version of the demo that abstracts the rags-to-riches theme into a bunch of random, ignoble fights in the dark for possession of some truly awful hats.

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