It's Dangerous To Go Alone
Wulverblade is a new arcade beat-em-up for the Nintendo Switch and coming soon to Xbox, PlayStation, and Steam. The game is developed by Fully Illustrated in conjunction with Darkwind Media. The player is taken on an incredible journey of the history of the Roman invasion of the British Isles.
The evil 9th legion of the Roman Empire is invading Britain and it's up to our heroes Caradoc, Brennus, and Guinevere to stop them. Our heroes are part of a special Wulver clan that protects the northern lands of the British Isles. The Romans have conquered the southern lands and look to conquer our heroes’ village next. Caradoc is the leader of the Wulver clan and is the most well-rounded of the playable characters. He has good (not great) attack, defense, and speed. Meanwhile, Brennus is the big brute that deals devastating attacks but lacks both speed and defense. And Guinevere, a bad-ass warrior in her own right, is the quickest of our heroes and is best performing quick combo attacks instead of trying to use massive power attacks. Her defense is also the weakest which can be very problematic in co-op or especially going solo.
Wulverblade is a wonderful throwback to the arcade beat-em-up era of the 80's and 90's. But the game also does a lot of great things to bring the genre up to speed in 2017. This is most noticeable with the game's presentation. The story is incredibly engaging, and it's helped immensely with lots of voice acting and wonderful narration throughout the game. The most impressive is the comic book-inspired scenes that bookend each level.
I played through most of the game in local co-op (there is no online option) and the game is a lot of fun playing with another person. Unfortunately, that fun turns to frustration when attempting to play the game solo. While there is one checkpoint in each of the eight campaign stages, at best they are only half-way through the level. I also found it disappointing that the game difficulty does not scale down when playing solo. Going solo does not give the player any additional lives and doesn't appear to decrease the difficulty or number of enemies you must face throughout the levels. A few other people I talked to had a difficult time getting through the 3rd or 4th level of the game playing solo.
I did knock the review score down a notch due to the near-impossible difficulty for solo players. However, my understanding is that they plan to release an "Easy Difficulty" option in a future patch. That would likely bump the score back up a point higher.
While playing in co-op, the fight is much fairer. While it wasn't uncommon for me and my co-op partner to die during the mission (generally at the boss fight), we were almost always able to complete a level after re-loading at the mid-level checkpoint. This worked out well for every level except the final stage of the game. This last one seemed frustratingly difficult. I'm all for an increase in difficulty but this final mission seemed particularly brutal. It took us around 8-10 attempts of playing through the final level before finally beating the game. In some respects, the game may have benefited from an additional checkpoint once players reached the boss of each level. The game could still reset your score to zero if you died, which would reward players that were able to beat the level's boss without dying.
The final level was also particularly frustrating because the health drops felt so inconsistent. It's not clear if they are 100% randomized, but it felt sometimes we would get health drops and other times we wouldn't. To make matters worse, sometimes we would crack open barrels expecting (and desperately needing) health only to see weapons drop instead. Normally you can equip these special weapons that drop from crates and barrels throughout the level, but at one point in the final stage you're not able to do that. It was very frustrating and disheartening to see useless weapons when all we needed to beat the game was more health.
It should be noted that while this game is a great local co-op game, I wouldn't recommend it for young children because of the excessive cartoon violence - blood, decapitations, etc.
The gameplay is pretty standard for the beat-em-up / brawler genre. Characters move from one end of the screen to the other, progressing through multiple waves of enemies. Each character can jump, attack, and block with different button combinations. The player can also perform more advanced moves like a jump attack, or a super attack (jump and attack buttons at the same time), but be warned as this move significantly drains your health every time you use it. Players also learn later that they can do a charge running attack and a dodge roll. There are numerous, and I do mean numerous, weapons that can be picked up and used against the enemies. These extra weapons are found in boxes or barrels or can be obtained by killing off soldiers. Most of these weapons are one-time throwing projectile weapons like knives or even a decapitated head. However, there are extra-large weapons that are mapped to the X Button and can be used several times before breaking. These weapons include large shovels or gigantic swords or axes among others. I found these weapons to be extremely useful for taking out large groups of enemies or the stronger Roman soldiers.
There is also money and gems that can be found throughout the level and this helps boost the player's overall score. Like a classic arcade game, Wulverblade tracks the player's total score for each level and then you can submit your initials once completing the level. This allows you to compete with your co-op partner or try to best your own score in a replay of the level.
Players also have the ability to call their pack of wolves to seek and destroy the enemies on the battlefield. This ability can be used once per level and can definitely be a boost when in a tight situation. Unfortunately, there is a points bonus for not using your wolf companions. So, if you want the highest score, you'll want to avoid using it. Sometimes I had to juggle between getting the highest score or staying alive to beat the level. Staying alive was ultimately always more important. Lastly, there's also a super ability that can be earned and unlocked that fills your character with endless rage and allows them to go several seconds without taking damage and having their health slowly regenerate. I had to strategically use this in the right areas, usually either right before losing a life or during boss fights.
The boss fights are another highlight of the game. Although some can be a bit too brutal, especially while playing the game solo, overall, they are more massive in scale and fun to take down. They definitely prove to be much more challenging than the average enemy and have multiple health bars that must be depleted before falling in battle. The interactions between our heroes and the traitorous villains were also quite entertaining.
Besides the main campaign, there is an Arenas game mode that is similar to a horde mode. One or two players can choose one of seven small stages based on the campaign locations and face wave after wave of enemies. The player only has three lives and once they die there are no continues. The main point of this game mode is to get the highest score possible and to see how far you can survive before ultimately meeting your untimely death.
The main campaign can be played in two modes. The normal mode where player's save data is kept and the player hits checkpoints in each stage. There is also a classic Arcade mode where they have three lives and three continuous to complete all eight stages.
The art in the game is truly fantastic and something the development team should be very proud of. The foreground and background animations made the forests feel alive. It does a great job of making it feel like the enemies are sneaking up on you from other areas. The enemies were unique, and the bosses are filled with personality as are our heroes. Besides the amazing story cinematics in the game, my favorite art style was when our heroes were cast in silhouettes. This reminded me of a similar art style used in Donkey Kong Country Returns on Nintendo Wii. Funny enough, I had a brief social media exchange with the artist about this and they mentioned that DKCR was an inspiration for that visual style.
One of the most unique aspects of Wulverblade is all the historical information the game offers. Creative Director Michael Heald clearly made this a passion project, spending over five years researching British and Roman history and traveling the countryside for Wulverblade. The game offers dozens and dozens of different collectibles throughout the eight campaign levels. The collectibles appear in multiple formats, including letters, artifacts, signs, and different weapons. These items have several paragraphs worth of information you can read and learn a lot of interesting facts. Some even have breathtaking photographs accompanying them.
There is one drawback to all this wonderful historical information found in the collectibles, and I want to note that this is an optional drawback. The collectibles have several paragraphs of information to read. If the player opts to read this while collecting them mid-game, it really interrupts the flow of the game. You're battling waves and waves of enemies and then you pick up the collectible and spend 2-3 minutes reading the information. Then back into the game for a few minutes, until picking up an additional collectible and then it's back to reading for 2-3 more minutes. From my own personal experience with my co-op partner, we felt like it did slow the pace of the game down too much, even though we wanted to read all the interesting and insightful information. It got to a point where we just wanted to play the game, so towards the last couple of levels we ended up just picking up the collectibles but not taking the time to read everything.
While not immediately apparent, this isn't a permanent problem as the player can go back to the Main Menu and locate the bonus historical information from the Extras menu.
Who Should Play This Game?
Fans of the classic arcade beat-em-ups like the Ninja Turtles arcade games, Final Fight, Double Dragon, or newer classics like Castle Crashers. It's also a good choice for people looking for a good co-op couch experience.
What Makes the Game Worth Buying?
The game can be a lot of fun as a couch co-op experience. The beat-em-up genre has somewhat died off of late. During the NES / SNES era, the Arcade beat-em-up genre had some of my favorite games. I believe Castle Crashers was a large success partially because the genre had been missing for so long. I think Wulverblade is another great option for fans of the beat-em-up genre. It's also worth the buy if you're interested in learning more about historical moments in Britain.
Beautiful in-game art and cinematic scenes
Fun couch co-op gameplay
Great story enhanced with excellent voice acting
Historical information littered throughout the game
The game feels nearly impossible playing solo
No checkpoints once reaching the boss
Multi-paragraph collectibles can interrupt gameplay flow
Health drops seemed inconsistent
Disclaimer: A Switch review code was provided by the developer.