After several evenings with Wulverblade, it’s now clear to me that history is best taught when interspersed with bloody video game combat. At its core, Wulverblade is a great side-scrolling beat-em-up, yet this pseudohistorical adventure, that blends British history with ancient folk tales, is also full of collectable notes, videos and artwork that are well worth dipping into between levels.
You take control of one of three siblings from a free Northern tribe – in what is now Scotland – and set out to investigate incursions into the clan lands after the Roman have already claimed most of Southern Britannia in 120AD. Before long, your trio of siblings will be responsible for decimating most of the Roman 9th legion; not exactly historically accurate but I was having too much fun to argue, especially when late-game events delve into the more fantastical side of folk tales.
You traverse a world map, albeit in a linear fashion, able to switch up heroes as you go and browse informative unlocks.
Each sibling has their own combat speciality: Caradoc is the most versatile sibling, with a strong focus on defensive moves that block or counter damage; Brennus is the tank, wielding a two-handed sword capable of dealing with mobs and can tackle enemies on the ground; the sister, Guinevere, is by far the most agile of the three, able to combo and juggle enemies with ease but has lower defence. Although the narrative focusses on Caradoc and his quest to unite the northern tribes (regardless of who you pick), each character gets unique dialogue and the story is well-told thanks to an excellent narrator.
The side-scrolling combat is everything you could want from a classic beat-em-up. You traverse the beautifully detailed stages from left to right, stopping to clear zones of enemies, before pushing on towards the level boss. Enemies drop in all around you, most requiring different tactics to defeat, and the game rarely lets up in intensity across the eight campaign levels or during arena battles.
Combat is fast and brutal. You’ll occasionally fight alongside your siblings and other allies when playing solo but their health bars are limited and they rarely last long.
You perform simple sword combos, launch your foes into the air (preferably into hazards), block incoming projectiles, counter attacks, dodge-roll, and fling everything from dropped weapons to barrels to dismembered limbs at your enemies. Secondary weapons can wreak bloody havoc on tougher foes, you can summon a pack of wolves (once per level) to decimate mobs, a rage meter slowly builds up during combat that grants you several seconds of uninterrupted attacks and invulnerability. All these skills need to be mastered to survive increasingly tough encounters and resilient bosses that require both pattern recognition and quick fingers to defeat.
The move-set is sizeable and it was only halfway through the first playthrough that I truly got into the combat rhythm and spent less time button-mashing. Take note that it’s a tough game if you start on normal difficulty and play solo; enemies love to group up on you from both sides and can stun-lock the hell out of you if you don’t use a special knockback attack that also drains your health. Having a second player to cover your back is always useful. If there’s one gameplay flaw, it’s that basic combos remain reliable and effective throughout, rarely leaving you immobile and vulnerable to unblockable attacks; I often found myself falling back on them throughout the game instead of experimenting with more elaborate combinations.
There are dozens of collectable notes to read, videos to watch and artwork to admire between bouts of bloody combat.
As a classic score-oriented, arcade-type game, you’re encouraged to clear each level as fast as you can, attempting to beat the clock for bonus points. A single campaign run takes maybe 4-5 hours on your first go, getting shorter as your skills improve in subsequent playthroughs. If you’re just looking to try out each character and their move-set, there are several arenas that you can do battle in. There’s also a New Game Plus mode that is both empowering and slightly changes up the gameplay. The experience is much improved in coop but only local same-screen coop is supported at the moment.
All that said, Wulverblade is more than just a historically-themed beat-em-up; it’s also a treasure trove of information on the time period in which its set. Extensive research has gone into the development of the game and there are hundreds of unlockable notes on the history of the occupying Roman forces, early British tribes, classic weapons, ancient stone circles, and famous tales of lore. Some of these notes are short informative descriptions, others are structured as travel diaries that document trips to ancient ruins. If you’re simply looking for a quality beat-em-up, you’ll be satisfied; however, it would be a disservice not to spend some time delving into the concise historical notes, video overviews of ancient ruins, and the incredible artwork that provided the foundations for the game.
The game looks beautiful throughout (and sounds great too).
Talking about artwork, the game sports incredible presentation on all fronts. The stylised 2D backgrounds, fluid animations, orchestral soundtrack and voice acting all surpass what I would expect from a smaller indie game. Each level uses multiple 2D layers paired with visual effects to create some incredibly atmospheric environments – water rushes downstream, grass and trees sway in the wind, moonlight filters in through treetops, out of focus foreground and background objects create a sense of depth. The animation is fluid and brutal, with splashes of blood and dismembered limbs accompanying every skirmish. The music evokes the feeling of a beautiful yet untamed land, the narrator does a great job of recounting the story, and the individual characters hurl curses in a coarse Scottish accent. Developer Fully Illustrated set out with a specific style in mind and excelled on all fronts; I’m hard-pressed to find any faults with the presentation.
It’s been a long time since I’ve played a side-scrolling beat-em-up and Wulverbalde scratched all the right itches – complex move-sets, tough mobs, tougher bosses, local coop, and outstanding presentation bringing it all together. I spent far more time than I expected delving through the informative collectables to learn more about a period of history I had little prior knowledge of. This is an easy recommendation with a ton of fun gameplay and informative reading at a low price.
Enjoys games with awesome stories and characters, along with new and interesting hardware. Dislikes day-one patches and driver updates.
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PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch
31 January 2018
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