Trials of the Blood Dragon

Here’s my guess as to how the creative process for this one went down. RedLynx, tired of making (admittedly very good) Trials sequels, asked their publisher Ubisoft if they could try their hand at something different. The publisher agreed, on the condition that the project contain enough Trials elements to retain brand recognition…and also that it continue the narrative of the one-off Far Cry 3 expansion Blood Dragon, because this is Ubisoft, and non-sequels give their executives brain anyeurisms. Thus we have Trials of the Blood Dragon, a game that’s one part solid Trials gameplay, one part scattershot parody, and one part awful run-and-gun platformer.

The original Blood Dragon was a gloriously stupid concoction – a parody of 80s pop culture at large, most predominantly sci-fi action B movies. Its setting – where neon colour schemes and scanlines are not side effects of technical limitations but an inherent element of the world – is a perfect fit for Trials’ embarrassingly “extreme” persona. Irony can excuse and revitalize a lot of narrative and presentational flaws, but only if it’s used well. TotBD successfully imitates the look and feel of a cheap Saturday morning cartoon, which justifies the absurd story involving the pre-teen cybercommando children of previous protagonist Rex Power Colt, but it fails to save the anticlimactic cliffhanger ending. Doubly so, as there’s an unlockable epilogue that only serves to remove a couple more fingers from the cliff’s edge.

This time around, it’s also difficult to tell which elements are intentionally bad and which are just bad, as the parody isn’t quite as over-the-top as before (which says a lot about the original, considering at one point in TotBD, you ride a motorcycle across a mid-air missile). The voice acting is a prime example. It’s terrible, particularly for the main characters, but it’s the “totally deadpan” kind of terrible rather than the “super-hammy” kind, so it doesn’t lend itself to ironic parody very well. The humor is also pretty unfocused in general. While it makes sense to add some 90s references since more than a decade has passed in-story, one set of levels is an extended throwback-within-a-throwback to Hotline Miami. I also don’t remember snippets of surreal ads being spliced mid-scene into my childhood cartoons and VHS tapes.

As for the “solid Trials gameplay,” it’s a 2.5D physics-based platformer of the “tilting bike” variety. The series made a name for itself by sprucing up that formula with precise controls and complex level design requiring clever traversal, and this entry has several ideas of its own that gel nicely with the existing mechanics. The most prominent are a grappling hook and a small remote-controlled spy car, which stupidly switches the directional controls from “forward and back” to “left and right,” but is a neat addition otherwise. Players are occasionally given control of mine carts and APCs as well, both of which create enjoyable breaks from the standard gameplay. Less quantifiably, TotBD also frequently relies on fantastical scripted sequences involving hallucinations and magic, making for some of the most whimsically engaging tracks in the series.

If the elevator pitch ended there, this might have been a great game. Unfortunately, as mentioned before, RedLynx tried for something different this time, and that something is a low-budget Metal Slug knock-off. These sections consist of uninspired platforming and gun combat against pathetically weak enemies, and it’s difficult to say which aspect is worse. It could be that the on-foot controls are weightless, stiff, and imprecise. It could be that there’s no depth or evolution to the combat, with next to no variation in weapons or enemies. Or it could be that there’s no organic connectivity between the walking and vehicle sections; they may as well be taking place in different games. That last one’s a special shame, because the occasional instances of bike-mounted gunplay feel great.

Additionally, the new gameplay features and forgettable storytelling apparently left no room in the production plan for multiplayer, which was always a strong selling point for the series. I say “apparently,” because none of these elements would have stood in the way of multiplayer from a functionality perspective, so I can only assume the omission was budget-related…which is depressing as hell. Some age-old Trials pitfalls still rear their heads (like single obstacles that require immaculate control amid otherwise smooth-riding levels), but they’re small cracks in the formula compared to the great fissures that this game has introduced elsewhere.

This is a textbook example of how not to combine genres. The problem is not just that the new gameplay is bad; it’s that you can practically hear the classic Transformers sound effect whenever the game is forced to contort itself back and forth between its two configurations. If Blood Dragon is destined to continue as a franchise by piggybacking on the gameplay of other series, let’s hope that’s all it does, because apparently, when it tries to add its own elements, it stumbles all over itself. The Trials component of this crossover came out swinging, with inventive level design and a host of enjoyable new mechanics, but Blood Dragon deserved better than this.