Published on February 6th, 2018 | by Lee Davies
Review: Wulverblade (Switch eShop)
Format reviewed: Switch eShop
Other formats available: Steam, PS4, XBoxOne
Developer: Fully Illustrated
Publisher: Darkwind Media
Website: Official Website
Players: 1-2 (local)
‘Its 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.’
The story of the oppressed Northern British Tribes during Roman occupation, from 120 AD, is told in brutality. Chop, hack and slash your way through hordes of traitorous Tribes and Roman Legions in your bid for freedom. Brutal is the most applicable adjective to describe Wulverblade, and it certainly lives up to its 18 certificate. The fights are a balletic sword-play dance of beautiful brutality, ending in dismemberment and those lopped appendages being recycled as handy projectiles. Not just the depiction of violence, but the level of difficulty, and impending doom, is aimed at the brutal end of the spectrum, too. Movement and positioning is an essential skills to master, and Wulverblade teaches you all you need to know through its unforgiving difficulty.
To dance the swords, control of one of three playable characters starts every session. Caradoc, balanced for all round ability; Bennus, a power house with little agility; and Guinevere, built for speed and aerial attacks, but lacking in defence. Try them out in the Campaign Mode, which includes 3 lives, but infinite restarts at the last reached Checkpoint. Checkpoints are a little too far apart, and usually half-way through a level, so dying during a rather steep learning curve of a boss fight will have you replaying the whole 2nd half of that level again, and again, and again. However, it is always possible to reach that checkpoint and get better at taking out the relentless hordes of enemies by mastering the action based gameplay. Unfortunately, restarting at a Checkpoint does lead to a rather lengthy loading screen, this only goes to break immersion of an otherwise stellar throwback to 90’s arcades, adding a little frustration to an untimely death. The addition of a drop-in, drop-out 2-player local mode is the icing on the cake, and brings back so much nostalgia of arcade machines, and many a lost hour on Golden Axe, Double Dragon, and Marvel Beat ’em ups. Just to make you feel more at reminiscent home, an Arcade Mode, with 3 lives and only 3 continues exists for total masochists and just for mere bragging rights. Or, just hack at an ever growing difficulty of wave after wave of enemies in the Arena Mode, with wonderful environmental hazards.
Control of your chosen character is done through the Analogue Stick or a D-Pad. This type of game would traditionally seem better to fit a D-Pad, but the Analogue Stick was preferred by all who tried their hand at head chopping. Your character seems a little sluggish at first, but the control is intentional to root you into the moment, and to make you use your surroundings to the fullest. Double tapping in a direction lets you run, add an attack to this to smash your foes’ shields away. Y, will let you start a 3 slash combo, also allows you to execute a floored dazed enemy; A, brings up your shield in the direction faced, when double pressed lets you dodge roll; B, jumps and double-jumps; and X, allows a heavy weapon, that must be collected in stage, to be used. Linking all these four buttons together it’s possible to create combos of hundreds of hits long. The button set-up seems simplistic, but is actually surprisingly deep, more so than any other 2D side-scrolling beat ’em up. Standard Attacks and Heavy Attacks can be linked with jumps and dodge rolls to create that flowing dance that decimates enemy forces. The vast majority of deceased enemies drop an item upon death, whether that be a dismember head, arm, axe, hammer, or a nice heavy sword. All dropped items are usable as projectiles or as an extra heavy weapon. Also remembering the arcade classics that introduced the near-large attack, useful when foes surround closely on all sides, and the magic screen filling enemy destroyer, and,usefully, both are alive and well in Wulverblade. Tapping Y and B together lets out a charged power attack whilst depleting your health a little, and holding ZR and Y calls forth a small pack of wolves to devour weaker enemies and damage bosses. By performing sufficiently throughout the level it’s possible to charge up a blue Rage Meter, that will let the player tap L to unleash an invincible frenzy of adrenaline pumped slaughter, and regain a little essential health.
The game is nothing short of graphically seductive. The High-Definition character art moves fluidly with no slowdown throughout even its busiest sections, whether docked or undocked. Cavalary charges whilst dodging rolling barrels and enemies are all smoothly represented to showcase the fantastic engine working at its heart. Whether an enemy archer, Centurion, or hugely-built boss, all movement is delightful, from the rippling capes to the background forest bursting in flame, and that doesn’t even mention the fantastic artwork of the cutscenes. Not only in game, but also in Menu’s, and in its use of Location Map, Wulverblade is a spectacular feast for the eyes. The love of the project is clearly seen throughout, but most unmistakable when perusing the wealth of unlock-able content. Short video tours of real-life locations, art sketches, historical notes on characters, weapons, and locations, and the added fictional letters that breathe life into the story are all optional, but really are essential viewing. Cutscenes are narrated in a movie style adding to the level of historical immersion and ambience.
The music is quite frankly brilliant. Haunting cello pieces extract the full atmosphere of misty Northern marshes, and remind of Jonny Greenwood movie orchestral sounds. Truely awe-inspiring. And so are the effects, that are sampled from the actual real-life locations that appear in the game. There’s nothing quite like the sound of screaming Romans in the morning.
Does Wulverblade stand up to the classic coin-op Arcade beat ’em ups of the 90’s. Well, it actually surpasses them all by building on what made those great and pushing the boundaries even further. Whilst each level is literally an enemy onslaught, it explores a different enemy configuration to shake up the formula time and time again. Bosses seem to be undefeatable hit sponges, but each makes you learn a new technique to beat them effectively. Worryingly a countdown timer is present, I like to take my time dismembering my foes, but reaching zero only penalises score. Wulverblade even adds in a further change up during the last level that reminds of another SEGA classic 2D scrolling puncher. With only 8 levels in the Campaign, Wulverblade could be declared guilty of a lack of longevity. This doesn’t stand up to the truth though, as this is a game, that once beaten, many more Arcade style re-runs will be the order of many parties, not to forget the just one more go approach of the Arena Mode. And, don’t forget how criminally short other classics actually were. Playing Wulverblade with 2 players is just so much fun.
Even with a long-loading screen, at the start of play or re-loading a checkpoint cannot detract from Wulverblade‘s challenging difficulty, brutality in its depiction of war, and down-right fun to play as a pinnacle of 2D side-scrolling beat ’em ups. Anyone on the fence about this should take the plunge.
Wulverblade (Switch eShop)
Summary: The pinnacle of 2D side-scrolling beat 'em ups. Level and enemy variety to stop things going stale, a brutal difficulty, and buckets of gore that's perfect for 2 players locally.