Few genres were as prevalent in the 80s and 90s as the side-scrolling beat 'em ups. From Streets of Rage
to The Simpsons
, if you were playing games a few decades ago, you surely put some pocket change into these arcade cabinets, or played others on early home consoles. For the most part, the industry has moved away from the genre. We see some throwbacks to that era maybe a few times per year to varying degrees of success. It's early in the year, but however many other beat 'em ups hit Xbox in 2018, it'll be tough for any of them to be more impressive than Wulverblade
Wulverblade Developed by Fully Illustrated and published by Darkwind Media
is a historical fiction game combining ancient British history with folktales told through the generations. As the Roman empire looks to advance and swallow up the north, Caradoc and his family lead a bloody resistance to defend their homeland. Immediately as the story opens, two things are clear: Wulverblade
cares more about its narrative than most games of its kind, and the game is gorgeous. Colors pop off the screen in a way reminiscent of the short-lived Ubi Art games, only Wulverblade
doesn't mind getting messy.
With Caradoc or one of two other playable characters, you and an optional local co-op partner must traverse eight blood soaked lands fighting bosses, hordes of Romans, and their pledged fighters from lands conquered. Like the beat 'em ups of old, you'll mostly move left to right, hacking and slashing at groups of enemies one area at a time until you're signaled to advance. With this sort of game, so much is reliant on the combat mechanics, and Wulverblade
's are strong.
On the easier of two difficulties you can find some success spamming the light attack button, but much more often on the quite challenging normal difficulty, you'll need to approach each gang of enemies with a rewarding mix of strategy. You can shoulder charge, parry and counter a la the Arkham
games, hit jumping attacks, or get in close to do grappling maneuvers and throw Romans into each other. There are also two special attacks that can really turn the tide of a battle if used smartly, and likewise will cost you a victory if used at the wrong times.
The combat keeps you on your toes with each encounter
It's a reliable evolution of the genre and it's made better by smart AI enemies. There are many different enemy types in both looks and fighting styles. Blocking at the right time when an archer fires at you is important, but it's made more compelling when you have brutish centurions closing in with shields and spears, or stealthy thieves that flank you and attack in quick flurries from your side or rear. Button mashers won't last long in Wulverblade
, which should be a delight to purists.
If there's one area where the game falters, it's in its boss battles. Across eight levels, you'll fight bosses in each of them. Although a few do well to diversify your showdowns, most of them just give you bigger and heartier villains to take down. For such a shining example of a genre evolved for the modern day, Wulverblade
does ultimately adhere to its predecessors complacency with boss design.
It's not wrong to call Wulverblade
nostalgic because in many ways it strongly delivers on what the best of the beat 'em ups used to get right. However, it's more than that too, not just because of the surprisingly deep combat systems but because of its attention to story. The game is fully voice acted, with allies, grunts, and bosses all having plenty to say. It immerses you in the setting in a way rarely if ever seen in this type of game. As you slaughter enemies one, two, or sometimes even three at a time, they'll call out for reinforcements as you taunt them tirelessly. Battle cries and the metal-on-flesh sound effects make up the bulk of the level to level sound design, but it's aided by a solid folk music soundtrack too.
The artwork is impressive from start to finish
When you're done with the four hour story mode, there's still a lot more to do. You can play the game in co-op or with a new character, you can take part in the game's Arena (horde) mode across a multitude of different maps, you can approach the game on Arcade mode that gives you three "continues" just like the old days, or you can jump back in with what is best called a New Game Plus mode that shouldn't be spoiled here. The story would be strong enough on its own, especially with the two-player option, but with three other game modes on offer, along with a slew of history-focused unlocks, Wulverblade
is a complete package that no genre fan should miss.
Unlike a lot of indie games that offer short achievement lists, Wulverblade
goes all in with a massive 56 achievements to be unlocked. You'll need to play the game several times over, plus excel at all of its alternate modes. By the end of your many playthroughs, you may have hit the necessary milestones for several statistics, like killing 5000 enemies, but if not, you'll have to go back to clean those up too. It's fair to call the list a grind, although it won't be a very difficult one once you get used to attacking and defending smartly and carefully on normal difficulty, since it's quite a challenge at first. There's nothing to fear for completionists willing to put in time, although it's also not so generous if you're playing just for a quick and incomplete boost.
is a beautiful evolution of a classic genre. In nearly every way it takes the side-scrolling beat 'em ups of yesteryear and reimagines them for the high definition, story-driven gaming landscape in which we now reside. The captivating artwork never loses its luster, and it's aided by a strong audio experience, engrossing combat that demands you play smartly, and a fascinating mix of true history and folklore. With very few caveats, Wulverblade
is an exceptional game that no genre fan should miss.
- Gorgeous artwork
- Compelling, strategic combat
- Attention to story feels refreshing for the genre
- Historical anecdotes to be unlocked via collectibles
- Lots of modes and content
- Boss battles lack satisfying variation
The reviewer spent close to ten hours defending his tribe against the march of the Roman empire, collecting 18 of 56 achievements for 240 Gamerscore. An Xbox One copy was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.