The state of the beat ‘em up has slowly but surely been changing. More and more devs are modernizing this arcade formula and moving away from its built-in monotony. Leveling systems, alternate weapons, and procedural levels can all be applied to break up the action and give players progression.
Wulverblade tries something different, mixing the barbarian murder with history lessons. This combination of schooling and slaughter may seem awkward, and it sometimes is. However, it’s clear that the team at Fully Illustrated hold reverence for the heritage of their characters.
The year is 120 A.D. Caradoc and his two compatriots stand as the guardians of the northern tribe of Britons. The Roman centurions are advancing, attempting to conquer the entire island for the glory of their homeland. Caradoc must leave his family behind to charge into battle and protect his people from invasion.
Numerous in-game historical tidbits enhance this quick and easy setup. Collectables and biographies provide solid backgrounds to every aspect of the game’s world. In addition, there are a series of great videos of real world locations that highlight the team’s sources of inspiration. If you’re at all interested in European history, the lore on offer will certainly entice.
Of course, Wulverblade isn’t a lesson plan, it’s a video game, and this is where it falls apart. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the beat ‘em up gameplay on offer, but it all feels very rote. Characters have a single standard attack and only gain alternate moves as they pick up items in the world. Mashing buttons repetitively is part of the genre’s modern issues, and seeing foes fall to simple combos is disappointing.
In the first level, some of the game’s more charming touches take hold. You can grab onto enemies rather easily, transitioning into a suplex or a ground and pound attack. You can also pick up severed limbs and throw them at other enemies, goading them in a most barbaric fashion. The game leaves a good first impression, but it really doesn’t last.
All throughout the story’s eight stages and the endless combat arenas you can play afterward, you mash and dodge your way to victory. There are a few stabs at variety, such as a life-draining super move and the ability to call in wolves to clear the screen. While they fit in stylistically, there isn’t enough to hold a player’s interest throughout the entire campaign.
If you are in for the long haul, you’ll have a choice between a breezy lack of difficulty and a steep wall. The game’s Normal mode starts off fine but eventually overwhelms players with hordes of foes and few health boosts. By contrast, Easy mode showers players in health pickups, making you feel invincible. Teaming with a friend online or off can fix this somewhat, as an extra axe is always welcome. However, there’s no real difference between when you’re playing solo.
You’ll also choose between a modern progression and a classic arcade setup. The Normal option gives you the checkpoints and infinite continues that you’d expect from a modern game. This style of play lasts three to four hours, which is pretty good in comparison to the classics. Speaking of, Arcade mode is for those who ask if this is the run, granting you just three lives and three continues. I appreciate this choice, as it lets the player customize their experience, and I’d love to see it elsewhere.
There are three guardians on offer with minimal stat differences. Caradoc is the star of the show with all around attacks. Guinevere is the woman, bringing the quick strikes and speed you’d expect. Brennus is the muscle, with strong strikes and slow movement. They have slightly different attacks, but it’s not enough to inspire much replayability.
The default controls on gamepad are also a bother. Running is tied to double tapping in a movement direction or holding down a trigger. Blocking has you holding down a face button, which makes it hard to react and counter opponents. Life draining super moves are easy to misfire as you jump, which is painful on the limited lives arcade mode. You’re free to remap, but these missteps combine with the repetition to push you away from the whole experience.
One of the things that would attract anyone to Wulverblade is the art style. It has the same look and feel as Klei’s Shank duology, only zoomed in even more. The huge character models look beautiful, especially during the cutscenes. It’s a shame dialogue doesn’t go far beyond “Barbarians! Watch out!”, but at least you’ll enjoy what you’re looking at.
As far as animation, it’s clear that a lot of work went into each model’s reactions. Everything is fluid, and bashing someone’s skull feels as violent as it looks. Still, this isn’t pixel art, and some folks aren’t going to like the Flash-style aesthetic the game goes for. For all the artistry on display, the cartoonish characters can look like awkward puppets as they speak. That can clash with the serious tone of the proceedings, making it hard to buy into what’s on offer.
For as much as I like looking at the game, I sometimes wish it didn’t get in its own way. Wulverblade loves projecting elements into the foreground – a shadowy figure or a grove of trees as you pass by. In some cases, these distractions block your view of combat, leaving you open for easy hits. Few games have a style that can justify distracting from the gameplay, and this is not among them.
Should you buy it?
There’s a lot of Wulverblade that I do like. It takes on a historical story with a serious demeanor, letting players learn as they complete the campaign. Its customizable gameplay experience caters to all types of players, even if the difficulty curve is a bit rocky. Its art style, while somewhat questionable, is an accomplishment in and of itself. Despite all that, Wulverblade is a video game, and the gameplay that is supposed to tie everything together falls flat. Unless you’re already sold on a history lesson, this beat ‘em up doesn’t do enough to justify itself over countless other arcade revivals.
Wulverblade was reviewed on PC via Steam with a code provided by the publisher.