Posted on 19 Feb 2018 by Jay Shaw

Wulverblade

The Defence

Developer: Fully Illustrated, Darkwind Media
Publisher: Darkwind Media
Genre: Action, Adventure, Indie
Platform: Consoles, PC
Review copy: Yes
Release date: 30 Jan 2018

The Prosecution

Minimum
OS: Windows
CPU: AMD Athlon 64 X2 5600 @ 2.8 GHz
Intel Core 2 Duo + @ 3 GHz
VGA: Nvidia GeForce 680
AMD Radeon R9 280
RAM: 4 GB
HDD: 8 GB
DirectX: 9
Controller: Full
Mod Support: No
VR: No
FOV Slider: No
FPS Lock: Unknown

The Case

Wulverblade is a belt-scrolling beat-em-up game from Fully Illustrated and Darkwind Media that features fictional Scots railing against the Roman Ninth Legion sometime around the first century AD. As Britannia is invaded and conquered by the Romans, your band of unhappy protectors will rise to the challenge and take the fight across our fair isle and right to the Romans doorstep in Eboracum. History and fiction compliment each other in Wulverblade, but does it work?

The Trial

Wulverblade immediately wears its inspiration on its sleeve – Golden Axe and Knights Of The Round have obviously played a huge role in the design of the game. Right from the start you’ll be drawing comparisons as the character select screen presents you with the three heroes; Caradoc the squat but tough warrior, Brennus the powerful barbarian type, and Guinevere the weak but speedy token female. While the characters never really get their personalities fleshed out beyond who’s the most bloodthirsty they have plenty of charm and I found myself drawn to Caradoc simply based on his look.

Speaking of looks; Wulverblade uses a unique art style where everything is heavily outlined and uses bold colours in big, chunky shapes that catch the eye and stand out easily. This makes the characters and interactive objects really stand out from the more painterly, detailed background art used for the stages. Throughout your journey you’ll transition between belt-scrolling sections and 2D sections both in full colour and in silhouette. The challenge stays fairly consistent across the 3D and 2D stages thanks to a lowered enemy count in the latter making it more bearable. One notable 2D section sees you moving through a forest while an enemy shoots arrows from the background, across the playing plane, and into the foreground.

Combat is responsive and characters share inputs for their special attacks so it’s easy to switch between them if you don’t like the stats on the one you originally picked. Basic combat consists of light and heavy attacks, the latter of which require a heavy weapon that will degrade as it’s used and eventually break. You’ll need to make good use of positioning and your handful of special moves to break your enemies: sometimes you’ll need to parry, other times to knock their shield aside, or knock enemies into the air to gain a bit of extra damage in relative safety.

... And your mother smelled of Elderberries!

Unfortunately we start to see some of the cracks in the design as we move into heavier combat. The fact that heavy weapons break can leave you without one for large stretches. Which turns later battles against tough Roman infantry into a slog of mashing the light attack button. It’s also all too easy to get cornered or surrounded and utterly devastated in a few seconds. There is a special area of effect attack that costs a small amount of health to break out of getting mobbed but I personally found that I’d lose half a health bar before I even remembered to use it. Another complaint is enemies that will camp you when you’re prone – simply hitting you again as soon as you get up, and if they’re an enemy that causes knock-down then you can end up stun-locked to death.

Bosses are also a weak point. There’s nothing mechanically wrong with them but rather the lack of ingenuity or originality stings somewhat. You’ve got the big hammer guy, the punchy guy, the fast guy, etc. They’re all enemies fans of beat-em-ups have faced before and veterans of the genre will instantly know what to do when seeing one. There’s a sense of de-escalation when one of these guys pops on screen, which is the exact opposite of what you want from a boss encounter where the enemy is twice the size of you and carrying a weapon the size of a Stephen King omnibus.

Wulverblade features two player coop play and that really alleviates a lot of the drudgery, especially against bosses and late game enemies. We found ourselves juggling centurions and Englishmen alike while giggling like idiots and gathering up their severed remains to chuck at their friends like the world’s worst (best) food fight. Special abilities like rage mode and the once-per-level wolf call also came into their own as we discussed when to fire them and watched each-other’s health bars so we could call out when to rage most effectively.

You don't notice it much while playing but it's pretty normal for half the screen to be white cartoon hit marks.

None of this is the reason that Wulverblade stood out to me originally; the game features real historical information in the form of in-game videos and documents. Though the actual documents are fictional they are still a look at the very real locations and people of the times the game takes place in. Picking up a scrap of paper talking about events after Boudicca’s reign or finishing a level and getting to watch a location video that tells you some of the real history while the camera zooms over the lovely English and Scottish countryside is a brilliant reward for those interested. However, the opposite is true for those not interested; while the gameplay and story is enough to hold up on its own it’s the real history that ties it all together and those not interested in a lesson may get a hollower experience.

Your reward for finishing the game is also pretty good. We’ll try to avoid spoiler territory, apologies for this being a little vague because of that. As the game’s story wraps up your chosen hero will have to face the prospect of losing something valuable and after a couple of short sections you’ll be rewarded with a whole new way to play that pushes your power, speed, and defence through the roof and lets you tear through your enemies like Roman shields were made of tissue paper. This end-game reward also becomes a permanent unlock allowing you to have it for the rest of the campaign if you so desire.

The Verdict

Wulverblade is equal parts a throwback to the classics and its own thing. Easily capable of standing on its own. Whether or not you care about the history of Britannia you can have a blast chopping tribe members and Romans into pieces and then hurling them around. Despite some mid-game fatigue in solo play and some late-game unfairness in the amount of enemies thrown at you, Wulverblade remains a solid beat-em-up of a style that’s sorely lacking these days. I strongly recommend giving it a go if you enjoy this style of game but I’d also caution potential players that it isn’t a perfect game.

Case Review

  • Rip and Tear: Lopping heads and limbs off then throwing them around is great fun.

  • Hack and Slash: There’s just enough variety in moves and weapons to keep it interesting throughout (mostly).

  • Time Team: The history is presented well and is genuinely interesting. Doubly so if you like to watch Time Team.

  • Long March: Mid-game is a bit of a slog for a couple of levels. Take a break and come back to it.

  • War Drums: The soundtrack isn’t to my taste and sound effects are pretty generic.

  • Spoilers: Because I can’t tell you the awesome thing that happens at the end without spoiling it.

4.5 Score: 4.5/5
ROMANES EUNT DOMUS

Evidence

  • Graphics: Just the bare basics, but enough to get the job done for a game of this style. You've got resolution, fullscreen toggle, vsync, anti-aliasing levels, texture quality, and environment detail. Changing the settings didn't seem to have any impact on performance so whack them up to full and go nuts.
  • Sound: Just three volume sliders for music, sound effects, and voices. There's not much point trying to balance them out – just like the graphics settings you can whack them all to full or empty, it honestly didn't make much of a difference for me.
  • Controls: Easily the most comprehensive of the settings menus. There's full control remapping and input device assignment options to allow you to give the controller or keyboard you want to each player and customise it to fit whatever control scheme you prefer.

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