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Review: Wulverblade (Xbox One)By Gabriel PVJ Jones At 07.02.2018 21:50

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As somebody who spent the better portion of their childhood in the arcades, this critic's brow can't help but furrow when reading about the latest brawlers and slashers. It's the same story every time. New games, promising to appeal to fans of classics such as Golden Axe and Capcom's Knights of the Round, are released, but all they do is disappoint. In most cases, the blame can be laid upon the combat mechanics. The developer doesn't give enough care and attention to the backbone of its game, and the final product is not any fun. Important aspects are ignored, the cheap hits pile up, which leads to endless frustration. Finally, the deathblow is usually a combination of baffling design decisions and unwieldy controls. This depressing experience leaves the soul slightly hollower than it was before. It's not a good time.

Basically, releases like Wulverblade don't come around often enough. Here's a hack n' slash action title that delivers on its promises, pays respect to its inspiration, and is generally enjoyable to play. It displays a solid grasp on the fundamentals and offers enough depth to keep players involved. Over the course of eight stages, the three heroes of the North will slaughter thousands of Romans, and contend with powerful bosses. If they succeed, their efforts are rewarded with a spot in the online leaderboards. Failure isn't too punishing, depending on the mode. The standard campaign saves progress after every stage, and grants mid-stage checkpoints, so running out of lives doesn't mean the end. However, there is an arcade mode. Purists might prefer having only three lives and three continues. Once they are depleted, then it's back to the very beginning.

Whatever the case, the next step is picking the right warrior. The three siblings have varying stats and abilities. Guinevere is much more agile than her brothers, allowing a quick escape from danger. Some might choose Brennus for his strength and sturdiness. Somewhere in the middle lies Caradoc. The differences between heroes aren't that pronounced, but they still suit different play-styles well enough. Each hero has access to a similar set of attacks and special techniques. Depending on the adversary, some moves are more or less effective. Legionnaires and anyone else holding a shield are going to deflect most blows. Using a shield bash or charging attack can knock their armament away, exposing their weak-point. Other moves are more situational, such as the popular "Get Off Me" technique, which is done by pressing the attack and jump button together. If the player-character is surrounded, then enemies can take ¾ of their health away in the blink of an eye.

Lying about almost every stage are sub-weapons. These tend to be one-use throwing items, such as daggers or severed arms. Slightly more hidden are the side-arms. They can only be used so many times, but they add new dimension to the barbarian's ability. When swung during a combo, they can add a little extra flourish, as well as a lot of damage. Some weapons have unique attributes. A particular sword does bleeding damage, while a powerful axe unleashes critical hits that transition into new combo moves. The most versatile aspect of side-arms is that the hero shrugs off minor attacks. This can be very useful for powering through overly aggressive foes, or getting an ever so brief respite. It's not fool-proof, so move out of the way if an exclamation point appears over somebody's head, because they are readying an exceptionally strong attack.

Survival in Wulverblade is dependent on resource management. That means keeping tabs on both the health and rage meters. Rage is earned via brutal executions, laying many foes to waste, and snacking on mushrooms. While enraged, the barbarian is completely invincible, regains health, and their attack speed is blazing fast. Naturally, knowing when to unleash the rage will keep someone alive, at least until they can find some fruit or meat. Although, most food appears at random, so don't be surprised if long stretches go by without a single apple. For those who have little trouble staying alive, there's still the scoring system to account for. Perfection essentially demands that heroes don't take any hits, keep their health topped up, and move as quickly as possible. These extra incentives lend the game a fair amount of replay value.

The combat is satisfyingly brutal. Although the animations are slightly off-putting, hits connect with the right amount of force, and cleaving through multiple enemies at once is never clunky. The movement and evasion options are also very effective when put to proper use. There isn't an excessive array of moves, but there is a technique for every situation. For their part, the enemies are aggressive, but don't automatically counter everything the hero attempts. This keeps the pacing from getting too bogged down, which is good because the stages are long, and there are a lot of Romans to kill.

The average stage takes about fifteen minutes to complete. This makes for a surprisingly lengthy entry into the genre. Most arcade releases that adhere to this style take less than 45 minutes to complete, let alone two hours. This makes the arcade mode more draining than it should be. Still, the excessive violence is entertaining enough, and the solid mechanics keep gamers engaged for quite a long while. Oh, and do bring a friend; these games are always more fun when playing co-operatively.

Alongside the campaign are a slew of Arenas. Barbarians can go to war with wave after wave of enemies, at least until their three lives are lost. This mode is fun for a quick jolt of action, but might be a little too easy, depending on luck and skill. As mentioned earlier, fruit tends to drop at random. Through the blessing of the RNG Goddess it might be potentially possible to survive for a very long time. This critic truly hates to brag, but as of this moment, he has topped the Arena's online leaderboard with over half a million points. That's nearly twice as much as the person in second place. Granted, achieving this score involved surviving for an hour and a half straight.

There are a couple oversights that are worth pointing out. When an enemy is defeated near the edge of the screen, the rewards they drop are liable to be unreachable. There was also an instance where during the recovery animation after a throw, Guinevere was attacked by a charging spearman. Normally, she's protected by invincibility frames, but somehow she was hit at just the right moment, and lost all of her health! Thankfully, these issues don't crop up very often. Also, it's nice to mention that there are invincibility frames when the heroes pick up items off of the ground and there's a warning if an enemy is about to attack from off-screen. Most brawlers overlook these details, which makes them all the more appreciated here.

Last, but not least, anybody who picks this up is guaranteed a little history lesson to go along with the slaughtering. Many factoids about the Roman Army, the region, and various other cultural titbits can be discovered over the course of a play-through. Yep; it's rare to find a product that's both fun and educational.

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Final Score
[i]Wulverblade[/i] is a fine entry in an underappreciated genre. The animation is a bit of an acquired taste, but it lends itself well to the violent action. There are enough moves to get creative with, but it's just as easy to understand how everything works, even without an ounce of experience in brawlers or slashers. There are some flawed aspects, particularly the length of the campaign mode. Perhaps arcade mode could have been truncated slightly. As it is, many of the stages run a little too long. Thankfully, it never gets to the point where boredom starts to set in. Altogether, this is good enough to stand alongside the titles that inspired it.

7

/10

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