Developer: Fully Illustrated, Darkwind Media
Publisher: Darkwind Media
Release Date: January 30th, 2018 (PC, PS4), January 31st, 2018 (XB1)
Edited by Lolinia
Picture this: It is the year 120 AD. You are a member of the 9th legion of the Roman Army, stationed at a fort during the invasion of Caledonia (what is now Scotland). The locals have already been subdued, so now you’re heading down to the baths to relax after a long day. As you walk in you think you hear a wolf howling in the distance and thank your gods that the fort walls have already been completed. Suddenly, a flash of red hair. A splash of red blood. Before everything fades to black you have just enough time to wonder where this angry woman came from and why your head seems to be flying towards your fellow legionnaires.
Such is the fate of just one of many unfortunate foes in Wulverblade, a gory, historical side-scrolling beat ’em up from Fully Illustrated and Darkwind Media. The game is an homage not only to the legends of ancient Britannia, but also to retro arcade-style beat ’em up games. The mechanics draw inspiration from classics such as Streets of Rage, Final Fight, and the arcade version of Double Dragon, while the aesthetic pulls from Golden Axe (I was always rather fond of good ol’ Thunderhead). In it, you take control of the guardian of the northern tribes, Caradoc, and his siblings Brennus and Guinevere as they tear their way through the invading Roman forces and whoever else may be foolish enough to stand against them. Packed with blood, violence, and striking visuals, this is a game that is not easily forgotten.
For review purposes, we were kindly given access to the upcoming PC release of the game via Steam. Being inspired by arcade classics, the nostalgia experience does benefit from having access to joysticks or controllers, but the game is perfectly playable with a keyboard and mouse set-up as well. Either way, you’ll slashing, smashing, and bashing your way through the opposition in no time. You’ve pretty much got all your techniques available to you at the start, so you’re free to improvise your own style. Furthermore, each of the three playable characters has their own distinct combat style. Brennus is the large, strong, short-ranged brawler that specializes in grapples. Guinevere is the physically weakest, but also the most nimble by far, dashing around the battlefield while engaging in aerial combos and stun-locking swathes of foes with a flurry of blades. Caradoc is the more balanced fighter, with a good mix of mobility and damage, and is also by far the tankiest of the bunch; he isn’t the guardian of the northern tribes for nothing.
It’s worth paying attention to your surroundings in this game; the environment can offer plenty of tools to help or hurt you. You might find some meat roasting over a fire pit, or a thin tree you can break down to use as an improvised club. Barrels could contain bits o’ food, magic mushrooms (Brennus makes a mean mushroom ale), or some rare heavy weaponry. The heavy weapons only last for a certain number of hits, but those strikes pack a punch, and some even come with special magical effects. On top of that, when you kill an enemy you’ll probably find they left a projectile or two on the ground for you; could be a knife, a sword, their severed limbs, a spear. All sortsa improvised weapons to arm yourself with.
Scattered throughout you may occasionally find some arena hazards as well, like spiked blockades or fire pits. At first you might not even notice they’re there, all caught up in the flurry of blood and blade you’re creating. Pay attention, though, and you can use them to turn the tide of a tough battle by slamming an unsuspecting foe into them. I mean, there was a point where I even managed to impale a boss on some spikes and he was utterly helpless while I finished him off! Knowing how and when to use the resources at your disposal is crucial to success in this game. That also applies to your special abilities, whether it’s the invincibility-granting Rage meter or the once-per-level wolf call ability. Both result in a powerful onslaught reminiscent of the titular Wulver. (Disclaimer: While the game contains both wolves and blades, I cannot guarantee the presence of wolves with blades, nor of any Metal Gear cameos.) There are a number of tools and techniques available, and it is up to you as the player to figure out how to use them best.
That brings us to an important point about the game: it’s not easy. This isn’t a game where you can just casually button mash your way to victory, or grind up stats and gear to steamroll later levels. I mentioned that you’ve got all your techniques at the start; the flip side of this is that you don’t get new ones later on. There’s no powering up or character progression. The emphasis is entirely on learning the game and honing your skill, just like in the old arcades. Your in-game fighters don’t get any stronger; it’s you who has to get better. While this can be intimidating at first, it also makes it that much more satisfying when you finally are victorious, because it means that it was purely due to your skill (and maybe a bit of luck). Now, if this seems a bit much, fret not. There is an easy mode for the campaign available that you can play in. Alternatively, you can bring in a buddy as reinforcements for 2-player local co-op in any of the game modes. Speaking of game modes, in addition to the basic campaign there’s also an “arcade mode” which essentially has you run through the campaign in one sitting with 3 lives and 3 continues. There’s eight levels, so it’s doable, but it’ll be a commitment. Again, really brings ya back to those days at the arcade where you’d see just how far you could get on a couple o’ coins, with no save points or breaks (actually, how many people reading this even remember arcades like that?). For an extra challenge, there’s an arena mode which is basically wave-survival; hack an’ slash until you drop. Finally, for those who have conquered the main campaign, there’s a bonus mode that REALLY lets you wreak havoc, but I’ll leave the details for you to discover. The game is fun, but it doesn’t pull it’s punches. If you find yourself getting beaten down a lot, you best prepare to rage (No, seriously, Rage; your characters regain health while they do it).
Visually, the game is quite impressive. The environments are gorgeous, with plenty of detail to catch the eye. Lighting effects are on point, and there’s a surprising amount of activity in both the foreground and background. At certain points you may even catch sight of your siblings running rampant in the distance. The characters and items are cleanly modeled and fluidly animated, and the cinematic cutscenes have a distinct style that lends to the sense of grit and hot-bloodedness that pervades the game. There is one quirk that might throw some people off, however. The combination of shadow shading style, cel animation, and aforementioned neat and clean models gives the characters and items a quality reminiscent of flash games. Wulverbladeis far more polished than that, but the resemblance is there, and it could be an important factor to some. Beyond that, the game is quite attractive overall. There’s even some beautiful photography scattered about if you dig into the lore sections.
On the topic of lore, well, there’s quite a lot of it. Some of it fleshes out the plot a bit more, like letters to distant family or battle strategies. Other tidbits provide information on the setting in general, the types of soldiers you face, the weapons you find, and so on. Yet more lore is simply legends of ancient Britannia that are there just because they might be fun to read. There’s a lot more in the game than there had to be, and it gives a more complete sense of the period that inspired the game as well as the creative force behind it. Fully Illustrated is actually just one dude. This game was his passion project. The art and elements for the game were all hand-illustrated by this guy, the history and lore meticulously researched, and if you go through the extra content you’ll find numerous on-site photos of the places and things that helped inspire this game. All this stuff is optional, of course; if you just want to bash heads, then you’re free to ignore it. You do have to earn some of it as well if you want to read it, since the records are often scattered in hidden locations around the map. Got to say though, if you like the setting, they’re worth a read. I ended up learning some history without even realizing it. Seriously fella, major props for what you’ve done with this.
The sound is solidly executed throughout the game. The voicing is well-done and conveys a sense of who the characters are, for however long they manage to stay alive. I’ll admit, at first I felt a bit of a disconnect between the playable characters and their voices, since their in-game models look perpetually angry while their voices weren’t (well, except for Guinevere). After a while though, I realized the voicing gave them pretty consistent and defined personalities; were it not for that, it would’ve been all too easy to characterize them as just raging barbarians based on appearance alone. Sound effects for combat and menus are pretty darn satisfying, providing solid thunks, swiping noises, and the expected ambient battleground chaos. Oftentimes when you finish off the last enemy on-screen there’ll be a slow-motion effect in play for the killing blow, and the time-warped distortion of the audio just makes it feel that much more visceral. The music doesn’t strike me as quite as impressive as the rest of the sound design, but it is still more than sufficient. The soundtrack is atmospheric, pervasive, well made, and certainly sets the tone for the situation, period, and location; it’s just not something that I’d go out of my way to listen to outside of the game.
Now, this part here may just be me being nitpicky here, but there are a few gripes I have with the combat system. Firstly, the default control set-up has the pick-up/interact button mapped the same as the attack button. This works well at first, since projectiles override your basic attacks anyway while you’re holding them. The problem arises when you’ve just taken care of one swarm of foes and another is approaching; if you happen to be standing on a pile o’ corpses, then when you try to attack the encroaching enemies you may just end up juggling body parts instead, leaving you vulnerable. It’s a simple fix by changing keybinds so I don’t fault it too much, but it’s a still a bit of an annoyance for the default settings. Another minor gripe is that Guinevere, the character whose combat style focuses on mobility and rapid combos, has trouble changing directions during more complex combos. From what I’ve seen, she has a penchant for overshooting enemies entirely when she takes to the air, but it’s always possible that this is just due to the limits of my skill with her character. The more annoying issues concern off-screen enemies and grapples. When you fight, there are limits to how far you can go or see on either side, and enemies spawn beyond these borders in waves. Normally they won’t camp out or retreat off-screen, but if you happen to be by the edges when they spawn, they won’t hesitate to strike ya. You’ll get an exclamation mark by the side moments before the strike, but that just tells you somebody is about to attack with no other information to help you dodge or block. Off-screen attacks tend to be annoying in general, especially when they mess up hit counts, and avoiding them often entails waiting in the center for the enemy to come to you, which doesn’t lend itself to an aggressive playstyle. Again though, it becomes a matter of learning the game, and monitoring your position when you finish off the last foe.
My biggest gripe with the combat is how the grapple system is implemented, particularly in comparison to ground attack range. See, in keeping with arcade tradition, grappling is automatically initiated by moving towards an opponent within grappling range. Caradoc doesn’t have as much of a problem with this, given his large sword swings, but the other two, Brennus especially, have a bit of an issue of accidentally grappling while trying to close into melee range. Now, grappling is pretty effective against single targets, but it locks you in position forces you to focus on that target, leaving you vulnerable to attacks from others. Kinda a bad idea when you consider how the enemies tend to swarm ya in the later levels. If they happen to surround ya and one gets in close, you might just try to turn around and find yourself inadvertently hugging somebody while their teammates take the opportunity to stick you full of holes. Again, if you know it’s a risk, you can think up countermeasures like an aerial escape dash or a suplex to clear the area, but here the problem is unexpectedly realizing you’ve been locked in place when you expected to have already ran out of danger. With that said, though, I’m pretty much out of complaints. Everything else about the game is solidly executed, if not downright impressive, and even the things I took issue with can potentially be addressed just by getting better at the game.
Overall, Wulverblade is a bloody good time, literally. It’s fun, polished, well optimized, and not too long while still packing in tons of content. You’re encouraged to improve yourself as a player in a variety of game modes, there’s options for local co-op, and there’s even level high scores and leaderboards for those seeking that competitive thrill. I’ll admit, I’m a bit biased since I’m more of a fan of lengthy RPGs, but even then I can recognize the quality of this gem. Wulverblade officially hits Steam and PS4 on January 30th, and Xbox One on January 31st.
- Three different characters with distinct play-styles
- 3 Campaign modes (of the same 8 levels) and an arena-based wave-survival mode
- Optional easy mode
- Local co-op
- Solid audio
- HD visuals
- Chock-full of optional lore and photography
- Clear, easy to understand UI
- Aesthetic (Gorgeous backgrounds and lighting effects)
- Potential for flexible combos
- Well optimized for PC
- Guinevere has difficulty changing direction during more acrobatic combos, which are her main appeal
- Too easy to accidentally grapple a single target and be unable to respond to the mob they’re in
- Enemies can hit you from off-screen if you’re near the borders
Mileage May Vary:
- Not family friendly (I repeat, gore galore)
- Characters don’t get any stronger; you have to get better
- Cel animation and shading style of characters / items is reminiscent of flash games
- Heavy weapons are short-lived
CrimsonMomongaSSS gives Wulverblade a Drastik Measure 8.5/10 (85).
Wulverblade will be released on Steam for $14.99 USD, and for that price I can wholly recommend this game for those looking for a classic beat ’em up experience utilizing modern resources.