By Alex Irish / February 27th, 2018
|Release Date||January 30th, 2018|
|Platform||PC, Switch, PS4, Xbox One|
There’s a genre that goes by the name of the side-scrolling brawler, the beat em-up, or the hack-and-slash. Whatever you want to call it, this genre was once a staple of ye olde time arcades in the late 80s and early 90s. The genre continues today through indie efforts such as Castle Crashers and Viking Squad. Enter Wulverblade from Fully Illustrated. Embracing the genre in style, it’s a white-knuckled, bloody beat-em up that takes equal inspiration from old-school brawlers and real-world European history.
The action takes place against the backdrop of Britannia, circa 120 A.D. You control a trio of Briton Vikings, Caradoc, Brennus, and Guinevere, racing across the war-riddled land from Caledonia to take your home back from the invading Romans. The whole affair is like Golden Axe crossed with Frank Miller, appropriate as the story is delivered in level bookends through beautifully drawn tableaux illustrations. These Britons and Romans may look cartoonish, but this game is very violent and visceral. Voice acting is delivered with equal parts nobility and maturity during cutscenes, while in combat, characters scream in anguished agony when they die.
The core combat of Wulverblade is highly satisfying. You attack either left or right against hordes of Romans. You have the power to block attacks, which reduces damage, but the real reason to block is your parry move. When successfully implemented, a slow-mo effect takes place, opening you to a rapid-fire attack. On top of normal combat, two additional abilities are present to mitigate the challenge somewhat. Once per level, you can call on a pack of wolves to dish damage to everyone on screen (highly recommended for boss battles). You’re also capable of entering Rage Mode when you’ve filled up a blue meter on-screen, letting time slow down as your attacks do massive damage and your life bar regenerates.
Enemies develop over the course of the campaign, from swordsmen, spear-throwers, rampaging horsemen, and archers to name a few types, learning new tricks and gaining shields and armor. You’ll need to master all of their tells and tricks through blocks, jumps, and dodge rolls. The boss fights which punctuate every level provide the meatiest challenge, with tricky patterns and powerful attacks that require extensive memorization to survive.
Fortunately, there are plenty of backup weapons lying around in the levels you can interact with, including the seldom-seen heavy weapons which deal even more damage and are mapped to a separate attack button. How your many moves combine and react against enemy attacks delivers a high learning curve with plenty of depth. This is not just a simple button masher.
Each of the three playable characters feel similar but distinct enough from each other. The preferred fighter of choice comes down to Brennus, the burly type. He survives like a tank and has incredible attack power and the most forgiving parry timing (no doubt thanks to his larger size). The “starter” character would be Caradoc, a Briton who’s well-rounded and malleable to every combat scenario. The girl fighter Guinevere has the worst defenses and weakest attack power, making it up with top speed and good combo attack potential. What these two lack in defense and brawn they make up for with a dodge roll that Brennus cannot perform.
As is customary of old-school brawlers, you will die a lot. As such, you’ll repeat levels quite often, including mid-way through. You may find that mid-level checkpoints are a bit too far between. The base Normal difficulty level is plenty hard, but Arcade mode is even harder. Here, you’re locked to the standard three lives and three continues, but lose them all and it’s over.
The overall difficulty seems balanced for two players, which is local co-op only. If you’re feeling stuck on any given level, grab a willing friend to join the fight and break through the difficulty struggle. One player or two, Wulverblade is balls to the walls action that will devastate you even without quarters involved.
The extras are as meaty as the combat. An Arena mode challenges you in a different way outside the campaign, fending off waves of enemies until you die. While there may not be online co-op, there are online leaderboards tied to the campaign and the arena mode. Collectible notes are hidden in every level that detail the setting, armory, and history of Wulverblade‘s real-world inspiration. Copious concept sketches of the game’s cast and location videos from the development team’s visits to the UK that inspired the game’s setting round out the package. The game notes this research was collected over a five year period, and it shows. The amount of research and detail is staggering.
Wulverblade’s art style is highly reminiscent of graphic novels with characters that pop out of the drab colors of the environments. Those same environments sport a great attention to detail that make Britannia period-accurate, rustic, and lived-in. The music is equally evocative, understated yet full of dread and tension while capturing the Celtic sound of the setting.
Everything runs great across Wulverblade…except the load times. You’ll be sitting there waiting for the game to load whenever you load the game up, start a level, reset to a checkpoint, and more. Despite the fast action, these load times are a pace killer, keeping you twiddling your thumbs in-between bouts of play. It’s a short game that can be completed in one run of about four hours, but with all the retries, multiple difficulties, Arena mode, and finding every unlockable, your playtime is sure to drag out.
Wulverblade is a breezy Golden Axe homage containing a great deal of passion for its subject matter, a rich combat system, and fruitful unlockables to collect. Fully Illustrated and Creative Director Michael Heald most certainly poured a lot of love and care into this game. It might be a little difficult for some players, nigh requiring a buddy with gaming chops to help them through, but the overall gameplay is a satisfying experience. If you harbor a fondness for the golden age of arcade brawlers, Wulverblade illustrates how much this genre of games has improved since the early 90s and expands on them. Now go and save Britannia!
Review code provided by developer
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