Centering a game in the deeply ancient and mysterious history of the Roman massacre and eventual colonization of Europe is a tricky spot for an arcade game. After all, games as nuanced in narrative like Ryse: Son of Rome have set the pace so high for the story of such a campaign. The way barbarians were handled by Microsoft’s exclusive Crytek game was unlike anything in interactive media before it. We saw a genuine effort to make these traditionally war-like people seem more human to us. For me, Ryse wasn’t too great with the gameplay, but this story of barbarians overcoming the great Roman armies was fantastic. Now the torch has been passed to Darkwind Media and Fully Illustrated in the port of Wulverblade to Nintendo Switch. Though I didn’t expect anything like Ryse in terms of capital invested in an independent game like this, Wulverblade ultimately surprised me in its historical realism but failed to bring that surprise to any form of gameplay in its various modes.
The story here is that the Northern Tribes are being attacked by the massive and encroaching Roman army. With soldiers on every side, tribes band together to help fight this gigantic enemy. In these beginning moments, Wulverblade set out its artistic style right before me in a series of wonderfully narrated and animated cutscenes that set up such a story. Not only were these cutscenes filled with mood setting sounds and a wonderfully orchestrated score, they also wove in fictional elements to the plot fairly fluidly. Not once did I question the actual facts presented to me, whether told through direct commentating or by indirect storytelling. One thing was obvious when I opened Wulverblade: Its campaign story wasn’t crafted in minutes in order for the gameplay to take precedence over historical accuracy. Instead, Fully Illustrated took their time in creating a world that felt akin to a museum in information but more like a late arcade game in presentation and style.
These beginnings gave way to Wulverblade’s tremendously visual adventure. In every frame of animation, from the warriors you fight to the allies that fight by your side, movements were done in a way that makes Wulverblade feel like a Cartoon Network show rather than an indie game. Not only that, the art style put forth in the dirty slums of the battlefield demanded attention on all fronts, and I was more than willing to give it. But these visuals are also not for the faint of heart. Dismembered and beheaded bodies lay strewn across my little Switch just as often as enemies appeared. Not only were these carnage images gory to look at, they could even be picked back up and thrown at others unfortunate enough to be in your path. With arms flinging in the air, foam frothing from the mouth of huge men, and blood spurting from every sword attack, Wulverblade made its point; this is a game entirely void of childlike innocence. This isn’t a bad thing, it actually gives the game more personality, but just be aware of that going in because the art style Fully Illustrated painted over this brutal world can be deceiving.
I speak so fondly of the art style and describe it before anything else because sadly that’s the most interesting aspect of Wulverblade. You start off by picking your character, an aspect that affect your stats moving forward. There’s Brennus and his overblown power but low agility and defense. Then there’s Guinevere whose agility rises above everything else. Lastly, Caradoc (my warrior) is the middle man as all of his stats are average. Wulverblade’s arcade brawling was something that didn’t impress on revolutionizing well worn out trails but instead repaved those same trails with slightly updated maneuvering. It’s that maneuvering that often made Wulverblade more work than fun. I had to make sure my barbarian fighter was perfectly aligned to hit or block incoming enemies. This wasn’t something that got better with skill or time but only frustrated me the more I awkwardly missed sword attacks due to the inaccuracy in the dev’s utilization of hitboxes. I shouldn’t be able to cast every hit on objecting groups of human flesh, but missing shots that seem otherwise destined to be on target is just discouraging and unintuitive.
Even more, the combat felt counterproductive to the type of game Wulverblade is. Its timer ticks every second on the top of the screen representing the rushed gameplay Fully Illustrated hope you encounter. When the combat involves the sort of rough angles and exact distances I mentioned earlier, it can be quite disrupting to this intended playstyle. Thus, I found myself naturally at odds with not only the design decisions that impacted gameplay but also with the execution of that design. I’d like to say that gameplay gets better or opens up to be a satisfying experience as you near the end of Wulverblade, but sadly that just isn’t true. Fans of the arcade-like combat will not only be at odds with the depth that the story has in its history but also with this fundamental blockade in the gameplay loop. That depth in history isn’t a bad thing, and it actually helped me personally get through the experience, but it can be a little cumbersome to more of the casual fan base.
Though I enjoyed my intro to the fictional world of Wulverblade and loved that it was based in a reality that makes perfect sense, my love for the story, characters, and art could only carry me so far. When cutting up baddies becomes the foremost priority in Wulverblade, the game fails to captivate on the level that its story does. Overall, I came out of the game with a feeling of discontent; not for the campaign, not for the wonderfully mastered animation style, but for the injustice that Fully Illustrated costed themselves because of poorly designed combat.
Developer: Fully Illustrated, Darkwind Media
Publisher: Darkwind Media
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One, PC
Release Date: 12th October 2017 (Nintendo Switch), 30th January 2018 (PS4, Xbox One, PC)