|Bloodforge -- sound and fury.|
When I play a game as a reviewer, I try my best to take the game on its own terms. I have a tendency as a consumer to expect certain elements to be present in the games that I play, regardless of whether or not these elements are necessary. For instance, when detailed information came out about the upcoming Game of Thrones RPG, I was actually miffed that it didn't look like I'd be able to create custom facial features for the playable characters. I'm a big fan of the universe of A Song of Ice and Fire, so I was really hoping for the opportunity to insert my own creation into the midst of all that lore and intrigue. But that was not an entirely reasonable expectation. To reiterate: I was mad that the main characters of the game were going to have faces.
This is a long-winded way of saying that I'm usually not huge on hack-and-slash action titles, but in reviewing Bloodforge I did my best to see the game without prejudice. Bloodforge, a new XBLA barbarian killfest in the style of God of War, does not have dialogue choices or profound back-story, but it shouldn't be adjudicated based on that.
When all goes to plan, this genre does some things irrefutably well, and we can judge Bloodforge based on those things. Strong atmosphere is a big requirement of a good hack-and-slash: it takes great design to keep the player in that sweet spot between not pumped enough and too pumped. Gameplay composed of pure inertia is also key -- in the best cases, you feel as though you're orchestrating a symphony of gore, moving fluidly from one kill to the next. And finally, variation is a big must-have for action titles. If you want me to crack skulls for hours on end, it helps if you give me a couple options on how to crack 'em.
So does Bloodforge succeed based on these criteria?
Let's begin with atmosphere.
Bloodforge takes place in a bleak, hostile world where the weather forecast is usually sleet. Tones of long-past Nordic or Celtic civilizations are present in the feel of the game, and though most of the gods that inhabit this world didn't make a particularly big impression on me, the shapeshifting divine Morrigan, who acts as a part-time narrator and dubious guide, was the most developed of the lot.
You play Grom. If that name sounds like the name of a caveman to you, you're not far off. Though noble in his love for his family, he is pretty much a murder machine. The character design is great -- his gigantic stag skull helm transforms what could have been a pretty vanilla Conan knockoff into a more original-looking hero.
His personality is not as intriguing. At one point, Morrigan assures Grom that she will never lie to him, at which point he declares something like, "Good. Then I may never have to kill you." This is the extent of his wit.
But then again, this is a game that makes you kill waves of cultists and abominations, and then awards you a letter grade based on how gracefully you ended them. This is total, unadulterated arcade material, and so maybe you don't need a hero with anything more than his anger and his weapon.
There are some less impressive bits, visually -- for a game that focuses so much on blood, the look of the gore seems a little less crisp than it could be. But overall, the arcade-style presentation is all-encompassing. This is not an action RPG by any means, and if you expect long cutscenes and character arcs, this will not deliver. Bloodforge offers less immersion than it does instant gratification... but that's not necessarily a bad thing for this type of game.
Our next question was, "Does Bloodforge have that essential action game inertia to it?" The game gets mixed marks here.
Crom is not a wait-and-see kind of guy; his only defensive maneuver is a little evasive roll. Otherwise, it's all attacks. While the possible combos are easy to access, I found myself relying more on a guerrilla-style hack-and-roll, since some bigger enemies will not give you much leeway for error if you're just standing around trying to do sword tricks.
While the finishing move cinematics are fun, they pose a bit of a problem. Bloodforge encourages you to land hits in a row on enemies as much as possible, but when entering a finishing move, the camera shifts to give us a better view of Crom absolutely eviscerating whatever guy you're doing the move on. That's all well and good, but it can be pretty disorienting to have the angle change abruptly in the middle of a kill-spree, and sometimes you'll end up hacking at air after a big decapitation because the cinematic spat you out facing a direction you weren't expecting.
But generally, Bloodforge does operate at the frenetic pace needed, though all the game's combat mechanics don't necessarily work well at this speed. Again, I come back to the arcade theme. This really is a true arcade game made for a console. The pace is so fast, the tone simultaneously brooding and ludicrous. The cutscenes have the same weight as the ones in the House of the Dead series -- brief, basic exclamations that segue into more action. It made me want to stuff quarters into my Xbox's CD tray.
So okay, it's pretty much a nonstop washed-out blood orgy at high velocity. Is it varied enough to be consistently entertaining?
There's a couple different ways Bloodforge allows you to beef up your attacks, which can give the combat a little spice. One is by using Runes, which give your sword, hammer or claw swings a little more oomph, but are finite and must be recharged. The other is your rage meter, which, when filled, allows Crom access to berserker mode, where time slows down and you can execute instant kills. Both of these add a little nitro to the proceedings, and the berserker mode is pretty essential for taking down bigger enemies, especially early in the game when the rhythm of combat may still elude you.
And the boss fights are a nice change, if imperfect. During the first big boss battle I was able to stand in the guy's armpit (he's big) and fire crossbow bolts at him for a good amount of time without taking much damage; this type of little exploit is not uncommon. But the multi-stage nature of these confrontations, as well as the new tactics they force you to adopt, are nice respites from the sameness of much of the rest of the game.
Unfortunately, in the end, Bloodforge does fall victim to the repetitiveness of its genre. There is no revolutionary mechanic or stunning plotline that rescues it from eventually becoming pure button-mashing. And the amount of time it is entertaining for you will vary based on how long you could spend in front of those old-school machines like Streets of Rage.
I can say that I will take little away from Bloodforge in the long run. I won't quote Crom to my gamer buddies, and I won't have dreams about the narrative. But if you're looking for a true throwback that will make you feel like you ought to be playing it with a joystick in hand, then Bloodforge may be the ticket.
For a little bit, anyway.
The Official Verdict: 2.5 out of 5
This review based on a Xbox 360 copy of the game provided by the publisher.