Posted 15 Nov 2017 at 23:18 by Sam C Gittins
If you grew up in the Nineties then chances are you will have encountered at least one game belonging to the Side-Scrolling beat-'em-up genre, while there were plenty available across many formats there were two main series which I personally remember most fondly due to owning a Sega Megadrive since the early days. The first of which is Streets of Rage where you fight your way across mostly urban environments as you beat up bad guys in your attempt to take down a crime syndicate lead by Mr. X as you reclaim the city; the second of course is Golden Axe.
Set deep within the realms of medieval-fantasy, Golden Axe tasks you with reclaiming the titular weapon which is held by Death Adder who is the main antagonist of the series for the evil he has brought upon the three protagonists who you choose from. You have a range of moves at your disposal, each character has their own weapon and individual style of play, plus you get a magic attack which you can use early on after picking up only a few vials of magic or you can save them up for a devastating, screen clearing attack.
Both of these titles are a great amount of fun to play, they are both beatable in single-player or you can opt to play co-operatively with two players which elevates the experience even further still. There have been other examples of the genre over the years which have had more of a fantasy-based setting, with the most recent springing to mind being Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara which I had the pleasure of reviewing on the Wii U a few years back, but nothing else which has really jumped out as being truly noteworthy or responsible for moving the genre forward in any meaningful way... until now.
Enter the unique culmination of talented developer Darkwind Media coupled with the graphical powerhouse that is Fully Illustrated - headed up by Michael Heald - who together over many years of research, development and painstaking attention to detail, plus the acoustically accomplished Verbal Vigilante, have finally brought Wulverblade to life on the Nintendo Switch as its debut platform.
Unleash swift unstoppable death upon those who stand in the way of your quest.
To directly quote the story... "It’s 120AD and the Roman army have seized control of the south of Britannia. Their goal, to march north and conquer the rest of the island with brutal and bloody efficiency. The 5000 strong 9th Legion are preparing for war, but little do they know what lies in wait for them. Caradoc, a guardian of the northern tribes has rallied the war bands and is ready to bring the war to the Romans. Caradoc bares a gift that even he is not aware of. And soon, the Ninth Legion will discover its true power."
Normal mode seems to be the best way to experience your quest for survival for the first time, at the very least you have checkpoints and an infinite amount of continues which can prove to be essential. There are eight stages in total, if that sounds too small to you then what you should perhaps consider that the stages are very large in their scope and that unless you are able to know which enemies are coming from which direction in addition to other potential hazards then each area is likely going to take you some time to master; each area is so carefully crafted as well that it will take multiple sessions of play to appreciate.
Having three different characters to choose from seems to be another unintentional but welcome nod to the genre, apparently the game was originally only going to have the first main character named Caradoc feature as playable; thankfully there are two other choices which makes him the all-rounder with his broadsword in hand, but that's not to say that Caradoc should be overlooked at all as the story is still largely centered around him.
Your other choices are Brennus who is brother to Caradoc, though he is taller and is definitely the brute strength class of character, is slower because of this but can pummel enemies into the ground with relative ease; he seems to favor the axe as his weapon of choice. Then finally we have Guinevere who is the younger sister of both Brennus and Caradoc, she seems to be the character best chosen by anyone who is experienced with the game or the genre in general because she is fast, good at dodging though she can't take as many hits as her siblings though she is handy with the smaller sword she carries in addition to her claws which come out in rage mode.
Don't forget to feed your wolves!
Indeed it's the very Rage Mode mechanic that sets the game apart from other genre examples, while giving it that extra special something which works very well within the context of the game in addition to proving itself as a staple feature you will need to learn very early on if you wish to progress to the bitter end.
Each enemy you defeat will fill up your "Rage Gauge" a little bit, then once it reaches full capacity you can press the left shoulder button to send your character into Rage Mode which makes them temporarily invincible while being able to dish out a savage barrage of attacks with either their bare hands or claw-like weapons while the screen is in this red-hued state; you also get some of your health replenished which can be a literal life-save in an in-game sense.
Many a time it has saved my progress while other times I've gotten taken down just a few hits away from filling the meter which can be frustrating when you're trying to make the most of the games mechanics in order to preserve your precious lives, even when you've got unlimited continues it can still be a trial by the time you get to a tough part.
There are ways in which you can maximise your Rage quickly by stunning enemies seemingly at random or just due to good timing, when it happens they will be dazed on the ground with stars above their head. It's at this point that you can walk over them and kill them off in a grizzly manner at the press of a button netting you a small but worthwhile boost.
As you're fighting your way through the hordes of either Roman soldiers or even worse, members of other Northern Briton tribes who have fallen under their rule forcing you to destroy them, you'll encounter many things you can interact with including lots of destructible objects such as barrels, crates, walls etc and if you like to discover everything then look out for pieces of paper as these will unlock lots of lore entries which are taken from real pieces of history in some instances which you can either opt to read on the spot or from the unlockables menu as there are easily over a hundred lore entries and almost two hundred pieces of artwork plus real life location photos which were used to create the in-game worlds.
It's all very impressive stuff which is worth your time yet also entirely optional if you just want to play a truly great modern example of the beat-'em-up genre.
An example of why you really don't want to cross Caradoc or any of his tribe.
While you'll mostly find yourself using your main weapon assigned to "X" as your basic attack, there are over thirty additional larger weapons which you can pick up and use with the "Y" button as this serves as a limited heavy attack which you can use a certain amount of times until it breaks, it can be very useful to use these heavy weapons as crowd control if you're surrounded. Failing that though you can pick up just about anything which might happen to be on the ground to use as a projectile; these items can include knives, hammers, spears, severed limbs oh and decapitated heads of course! Which in turn actually ties into actual history as well so that's another plus point for realism.
Other obtainable items will litter the battleground as well, these include food items such as apples, pears and of course the whole turkey which equals a full health bar - essentially tradition for the genre - various pieces of treasure which will boost your overall score and if you're really lucky then you might find a blue bottle which will fill your rage meter upon consumption, I have noted that this can turn up after you've retried a particular section a few times but not always, implying that some of the items spawned from breakable items can indeed be random which keeps things interesting.
Not only is the combat system robust, featuring a block mechanic which is rewarding when used to great effect but it is rather addictive when you manage to keep a steady string of enemies together as you rack up a high combo, adding yet another layer to what might initially seem to be a straight-forward side-scrolling scrapper.
If you think this is just like those games of old then you'll probably be pleasantly surprised to find that this is very much a wolf in sheep's clothing in respect of the level of difficulty. While this game is undeniably a huge amount of fun in two-player co-op - perhaps even advised if you struggle with how punishing it can be - a good mark of quality for any self-respecting scrolling beat-'em-up is that it's beatable in single player mode as well.
After finishing it across a good few play sessions amounting to probably over twenty hours I can certainly attest to the fact that it's entirely possible to finish it on your own with a certain amount of skill, patience and determination.
See it's not all just blood and guts, this single scene is rather tastefully put together.
Originally destined for the Xbox One, the fact that has launched first on the Switch is in itself a great thing. It comes across as a statement of intent from the developer as much as it being a good sign that Nintendo approached them in order to get the title on their machine. It seems like a really good fit for the Switch so it's perhaps best that things worked out this way with the game coming to other platforms at a later date anyway, the timed - albeit accidental - exclusivity can only be beneficial in the short term.
From a technical viewpoint the Switch offers you multiple ways to play, of course you can opt to take the action with you on the go as you play in portable mode but if like me you still have respect for the D-Pad as the superior method of control for 2D titles then you'll likely want to stick to the big screen and the comfort of a Pro Controller as I honestly cannot see how anyone would want to play with either the split buttons in handheld form or just the single Joy-Cons with two players in Tabletop mode for extended periods of time but at least the options to do so are there.
The best way to play this if you really want to see it through to the end without seriously destroying your thumbs is by investing in either a Pro Controller or another option which offers a solid D-Pad, you can use proper controllers in Tabletop mode as well so unless you're set on just casual play then I would advise this, as from my own personal experience I ended up taking enough skin off my thumbs using the Pro Controller as it is; the D-Pad on it is comfortable enough but even then the game is rather demanding which takes me back to the good old days of arcade style gaming on consoles with all of the endurance-based hardships associated with it as well.
In a bizzare twist of recent events, thanks to the last Switch console update making the much underused GameCube controller adapter compatible - we only got to use it with Super Smash Bros. on the Wii U - which even Nintendo was apparently surprised about. I found that I'm now able to use my - now somewhat collectable - Hori GameCube controller that features a proper SNES style D-Pad which I then continued to use for the duration of the game.
Because of how it's mapped, it won't be suited to all titles but it is perfect for Wulverblade even right down to the summoning of Wolves which is your "once per stage" single use special which requires you to press one of the trigger buttons - just Z in this case - and a face button to unleash a pack of ravenous Wolves who will then devour most of your on-screen enemies; it just happens to be a very comfortable pad as well.
You wouldn't want to meet this trio on a cold, dark Winter's night...
When everything culminates in Wulverblade it really is a very special experience indeed, there's nothing like shoulder-barging two spear-wielding guards into a spiked barrier thus impaling them, then grabbing the spears, sticking them through some hooded assassins, cutting down some defected Britons, chopping their limbs off, attacking the Roman Centurians dispatched as backup, hacking off their heads, throwing them at whoever is left standing, all the while dodging, blocking and parrying inbetween; then finding the last remaining enemy, picking them up before hurling them into a campfire and watching them burn to a crisp. *Ahem!* It's all in an afternoon's work and all in the best possible taste, of course... well I enjoyed it anyway.
Right then, it's time to address the visuals or rather praise them, as the amount of effort which has gone into every area, character model, weapon and depth of animation is just simply astounding to the extent that just seeing a few small screenshots here does not do the game justice until you've played it for yourself. Looking around it seems that some people are of the opinion that they don't want to play it because of how the title comes across as a "Flash game" due to it's style. That's fine if you really think that, but I can tell anyone who is wondering about the game right now from the perspective of having actually played through it that you are most certainly missing out on a stunningly beautiful, richly detailed offering which will likely stand out for decades to come and for all of the right reasons.
It's clear to me that Micheal Heald of Fully Illustrated has gone to every effort to ensure that the world of Wulverblade is not only true to its historical roots, but that it also a videogame realm you will want to spend countless amounts of hours delving into whether you want to appreciate the rich tapestry woven by the history or not; it still stands alone as something truly special. Throughout the varied stages you'll see plenty of dense forest areas, riversides, enemy encampments, stone circles, towers and much more besides; no two stages are ever the same either with one in particular employing a sunlight casting across with only shadows shown as you battle across a bridge, which is pulled off to great effect in addition to all the smaller details such as wildlife in the foreground or your brethren in the background at certain points which you might miss on your first playthrough.
Brennus in Rage mode, so angry that he's almost spitting blood... good luck calming him down.
Fortunately even with all of the painstaking detail which has clearly gone into the gameplay along with the graphics, the same amount of time has gone into the overall audio, while the soundtrack is decidedly different from older classic examples of music used in 16-bit equivelants, this is a good thing because being that technology has moved on since then; things once thought of as impossible are now in many modern titles such as fully orchestrated music which is what you get here. An astounding array of instruments have gone into making the rich rousing tunes which accompany you on your quest, all of which fit each moment perfectly in addition to being memorable in their own right, it's something I would personally listen to on its own should it ever become available.
The sound effects suitably punctuate all of your actions as every punch, crunch, slice, dice, thwack and attack have real weight to them, while the sounds of streams, wildlife, screams plus sounds of trouble and strife are all on point with another special mention going to the general voice acting in the stages, cutscenes with the tight narration pulling it all together.
Of course as much as I praise every element, this is not a perfect game but it is pretty close in many respects and although I can see that every effort has been made to polish the game, there are clearly some technical hurdles which although not huge are still noticable. Chiefly the main thing which stood out to me is the load times inbetween starting a new stage or just restarting from a checkpoint, because each time it's around forty-five seconds, which might not seem like a lot and I admit that it isn't when you compare it with some recent games of the last few years but all of those three-quarters of a minute do add up during a long session potentially containing many retries.
Then there is the difficulty, I found it a trial as a seasoned veteran of the genre playing it on my own in the default Normal mode, I only merely flirted with Arcade mode just to see how challenging it is with the other two characters and I didn't get too far despite the ability to gain extra lives every one-hundred-thousand earned in score; also as it happens I did encounter a part where I managed to glitch the game by getting stuck in a mid-level checkpoint by losing my last life in the final frame of the boss death animation which I had technically just defeated and I had continues but alas the game just didn't know what to do in that instance so it was Game Over, which to be fair would be a very rare occurence though it did happen so I felt it worth mentioning.
Guenivere is one tough wee lassie, don't go gettin' on the wrong side of her, she'll claw yer face off.
Even if the Arcade mode isn't for you initially or indeed is something you wish to work up to, you can still try out the Arena mode which lets you take on waves of enemies across a variety of backdrops, choose which wave you wish to start at from one to nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine it would seem and just see how long you last. The developer has even gone on record to say that there will be an update to the game at some point fairly soon - lest we forget that the other console/PC versions are still being worked on - which may include an easier option, plus there is another mode which reads "Coming Soon - Unleash your inner beast to unlock" so who knows?
But clearly the intention is there for more to be added to this already overall excellent package in the future which I personally think shows extraordinary dedication to what has clearly been a passion project spawned from many years of research, obsession and fondness for a genre of games which were once more prominent decades ago and now could be once again thanks to a recent resurgence in popularity.
Add in a collection of 56 in-game achievements which will keep you busy for some time plus the addition of online leaderboards and you have a well-rounded package of Roman-slaying goodness which is fun for the whole family... just so long as they fit into the age appropriate category to enjoy it in all of its gory glory of course.
N-Europe Final Verdict
Wulverblade is as stunningly beautiful as it is unrelentingly brutal and is a real joy to behold for anyone who enjoys a good Beat 'em up game. Not only is this a shining example of what a culmination of the all-time greats in the genre should be but it goes far beyond to provide a meaty offering which will likely be heralded as being the new standard for similar games to aspire to in the future.
Brutal boss battles
Expertly crafted mechanics
Historically accurate level of brutality
Tonnes of unlockables
Difficulty perhaps too much for some
Load times are noticeably long