Video games are a medium that thrive on letting players experience fantasies. Mass Effect puts you in command of a team of galactic space travelers while NBA 2K18 lets you hit game-winning threes as James Harden. No matter the genre, games are constantly working to become more realistic, more believable and ultimately, more otherworldly than ever before.
Yet there are some games that eschew fantasy in favor of telling stories grounded in history and supported by facts. Assassin's Creed is one of the most popular examples of this, exploring an imaginary tale of assassins and templars during real historical periods such as the Italian Renaissance and the French Revolution.
Wulverblade, developed by Fully Illustrated and published by Darkwind Media, takes a similar approach. A one or two player beat-em 'up, Wulverblade tells the fictional story of a trio of warriors fighting to defend the province of Britannia from the invading Roman empire. With its detailed, passionate story, and bloody, visceral action, Wulverblade makes for an entertaining brawler. However, imprecise controls and unrelenting difficulty prevent it from being an must-play.
Wulverblade's premise is straightforward. The Romans are attempting to seize the control of Britannia. In 120 AD, having already conquered the southern portion of the land, the Roman Ninth Legion is now encroaching on the north. Britannia's northern tribal warriors must now work together to fend off their enemy and liberate their homeland. From here, players take control of one of three warriors, Caradoc, Brennus or Guinevere, each with their own stats and abilities. Over the course of eight levels, they'll slice, grab and punch through hordes of enemies in a glorious and gory fashion to achieve their goal.
Though the premise is simple, Wulverblade's narrative oozes style and substance. Presented primarily via slickly animated cutscenes, bookending each of the game's levels.Wulverblade's story has a comic book quality to it that eases players into the deep history of Britannia without ever feeling overbearing. The visuals are complemented by excellent Irish voice acting that brings the protagonists and their foes to life.
Various video and text diaries that accompany the completion of each level help to round out the moment-to-moment storytelling. These clips and passages provide fascinating additional context on some of the locales and objects found in ancient Britannia, from the Long Meg and Her Daughters stone circle to the Roman Gladius sword. Stylish presentation and interesting real-world lore all amount to a narrative that manages to entice the player from start to finish.
When Wulverblade isn't conveying its story through words, it's doing so through a brutal and savage combat. After selecting a character, the players make their way through a five to six-hour campaign, navigating in a traditional left-to-right brawler fashion and mowing down enemies to reach the end-of-the level bosses. With one face button dedicated to small weapon attacks, a second for large weapons, a third to jump, and a fourth to hold up your shield, Wulverblade's control scheme is easy to grasp. Combat is satisfying, thanks to a strong sound design that highlights each hit, smash, and crack of a weapon strike. Additionally, successful blocking in response to attacks, telegraphed typically by an exclamation point (not unlike in Rocksteady's Batman games) leads to entertaining slow-mo sequences, allowing players to dismember enemy soldiers in gruesome ways.
It isn't all fun and games, however. While the controls are easy to learn, they aren't as reliable as I would have liked. Dashing is executed by double-tapping the thumbstick or d-pad, while evading is done by doing the same input with the shield drawn. Grabbing an enemy, meanwhile, is triggered automatically by walking up to one. As a result of these design choices, I often found myself struggling to navigate the battlefield, which proved especially frustrating in the face of numerous attackers. Thankfully, dashing has a dedicated shoulder button as an alternative input. However, dodging and grabbing do not.
The clumsy control layout rears its ugly head in the form of the game's often severe difficulty. Enemy attacks shave off huge chunks of health. While Caradoc, the more well-rounded of the heroic trio, has increased defensive capabilities to help deal with the attacks, all three characters can die surprisingly quickly. Coupled with the unreliable dodge move, there were times when I found myself trying to evade attacks only to get hit by them anyway. Add to this the fact that I'd grab enemies accidentally (oftentimes during the most inopportune moments) yet failed to do so when I actually wanted to. Thus, the battles became frustrating bouts - not just against enemies but also the controls themselves.
In an attempt to cater to different gamer demographics, Wulverblade offers two campaign difficulties. The first allows three lives per level, a mid-level checkpoint and endless continues. The second gives the old school-style of three lives and three continues before causing a game over condition. Both modes happen to be surprisingly tough, mainly because of how easily characters bite the dust. While beat-em 'up veterans are sure to relish the added challenge, more casual players will have a tougher time adjusting to the heightened difficulty, especially during boss fights. Designed to test players' skills, they often presented themselves when I was down to my last life. Even when I failed and restarted from the level's checkpoint, I was forced to fight through the waves and waves of unrelenting enemies to reach the boss once again. Throw in the control woes and the whole process can take numerous retries before finally completing a level. After a while, it all starts to get a bit tedious.
All in all, Wulverblade is an entertaining but flawed trip to the lands of ancient Britain. Its engaging narrative provides a thoughtful, historical backstory to the carnage taking place, but its combat suffers far too frequently from poor controls and unfair enemy balance. Those willing to overlook these issues will undoubtedly find something to like with Wulverblade, but beware that it's not for the faint of heart!