I’m a fan of old-school arcade-style beat-’em-ups, but it’s rare that we get new entries in the genre. Every now and then, a new game claiming to recapture the spirit of the beat-’em-ups of days gone by will appear, but most largely fail in this goal. When I first discovered Wulverblade, I immediately made a note to keep an eye on it. Not only did the game appear to recapture the spirit of old-school beat-’em-ups, it also offered a beautiful art style and a fairly unique historical setting. In short, it appeared to be something that fans of the genre have been waiting for for some time. Now that I’ve had some time to play the game, I am going to share some of my thoughts on it.
Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to finish the game. At present, I have completed five levels, which, based on the map, appears to be approximately a quarter of the way through it. As such, this will be more of an impressions piece than a full review.
Those who are familiar with old-school arcade-style beat-’em-ups will have a fairly good idea of what they are getting into. Wulverblade is broken into levels that are chosen from a world map, each of which has its own boss fight or equivalent encounter. Each level is separated into several different zones that you will slowly fight your way through, a single checkpoint placed somewhere in the middle. While these zones are fairly expansive, like many other games of its kind, the game revolves around fights against a large number of enemies that take place in limited spaces.
The game can be played by either one or two players, who can choose any of three playable characters: Brennus, Caradoc, and Guinevere. These characters each have different stats and a slightly different move set, but share a core set of moves: the ability to run, a jump, a light attack, a heavy attack, a block, a forward dodge roll, a running attack, a grapple, a rage mode, a weak knockback AoE that can save you when surrounded, and the ability to call wolves to help dispatch their enemies once per level. They each also have their own unique moves, such as Brennus’ ability to grapple enemies that have been knocked down and Guinevere’s ability to dash while in air.
This simple move set opens up a number of tactical options. Double-jumping will cause your character to simultaneously do a front flip and spinning attack in midair. While you can dodge, jumping often proves to be far more successful when it comes to avoiding attacks. Each character can also slam down into the ground, knocking down any enemies within certain radius.
This is mostly standard fare, but there is one key difference: your current heavy attack is determined by a temporary secondary weapon, ranging from swords to axes to shovels, that you pick up during the current level. Each character has a weapon of their own, but that only works for light attacks. If you don’t have a secondary weapon, you won’t be able to perform a heavy attack. However, secondary weapons also have durability, so wise use of the few hits that you get is also advised for the best effect. I’m rather fond of this system, as it introduces a small element of resource management while also allowing you a chance to use a wide variety of secondary weapons, rather than restricting you to one.
The rage mode is also implemented in an interesting way. As you fight enemies throughout the level, you will slowly begin to fill a blue power meter that is located behind your health bar. Once it is full, you can press a button to enter rage mode. While in rage mode, you will wield two smaller weapons, attack faster, slowly regain health, and be immune to knockbacks and knockdowns. The screen will also be tinted red to indicate that you are in rage mode. While this would normally simply be a way to deal lots of damage fairly quickly, the fact that you slowly regain health while in this mode makes it an invaluable tool when fighting tough battles, as it can save you from all but certain death.
Because of the way that the game works, you will spend quite a bit of time with only one attack button, quickly doling out flurries of light attacks to whoever dares to approach you. However, this doesn’t mean that combat is simple. You will encounter a variety of melee and ranged enemies in your travels, some of which have shields, are on horseback, or can even rain arrows down upon you. Should you want to live to fight another day, you will have to learn to time your blocks properly, as well as dodge and make sure not to let your opponents surround you. The game warns you when an enemy is about to perform a powerful strike by placing an exclamation mark above their head, but timing your block can be a fairly unforgiving process at times. If you’re attacking them when that exclamation mark appears, there is a significant chance that you will not have enough time to finish the attack and begin to block before they strike.
Overall, combat is simply satisfying. Depending on the enemy, it is possible to lock them in an infinite combo. Hacking and slashing at enemies after they’ve been killed will dismember them; you can then pick up their heads and arms and throw them at other enemies, along with their weapons and various other items. Sometimes, when enemies get knocked down, sparkles will appear above their head; when this happens, you can execute them while they are on the ground, sometimes taking their heads off in the process. Encounters often have a small horde of enemies that are all onscreen at once, which makes them challenging, but also very rewarding to complete.
Boss fights are far more challenging, often requiring both patience and carefully calculated attacks and movements. Bosses are characterized by having tons of health, being hard to knock down, and being able to call additional enemies into the boss fight arena. Each boss also has an unblockable move that can either be dodged or countered using the knockback AoE, the latter of which is a feature that isn’t explained, but that my co-op partner discovered by accident. Unfortunately, each boss’ attack pattern is largely static, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that boss fights are generally well-balanced, offering just the right amount of challenge.
Should you be felled during any encounter, you will instantly be respawned in the same room, granted you have lives left. Once you run out of lives, you will have the option to restart at the last checkpoint. If you are playing Arcade mode, however, it will cost you a credit. This system works well enough, though repeated deaths to bosses can become somewhat tedious due having to replay upwards of half of the current level, depending on where the checkpoint is located. This makes sense in Arcade mode, but, in a mode that already gives you saves and unlimited credits, I personally would have preferred to see additional checkpoints.
As it is an arcade-styled game, there is a scoring system, as well. Scores are achieved on a per-level basis, allowing you to compete for the high score on each level, and your overall performance is graded on a three-mark scale. The greater hit and kill combos that you score without getting hit, the higher your score will be. There are also a number of collectibles that are dropped by enemies and various containers throughout each level that will award points when collected.
Wulverblade also boasts the unique feature of being utterly steeped in history. The game’s story follows a “Wulver” named Caradoc that leads his clan and several other clans of Britons against the Roman Empire, which is trying to claim their land. As you play through the game, you will unlock various facts and even videos about different parts of the game world that were sourced from history. Every single time that you pick up a new heavy weapon, you will unlock text detailing that weapon’s history. As you unlock new levels, you will also unlock new location videos that detail various key locations from the era that the game is set during. There’s so much history embedded in this game that it’s simply astounding—and a bit overwhelming.
Complementing the staggering amount of history is a large quantity of notes and journal entries that tell you more about the world around you. These are generally good reads about both characters that you won’t meet and some of the enemies that you face along the way, largely serving to help provide a sense that there is more to this world than just the conflict that you are embroiled in. They are a rather nice touch, especially given that the beat-’em-up genre isn’t known for exceptional storytelling.
This mix of gory beat-’em-up combat and the historic background information is presented using stunning artwork. Almost all of the game’s art is drawn in an almost cartoon-like, but detailed style that looks crisp and clean at all times, including when it is zoomed in on during certain dialogue sequences. The animations are rendered in such detail that the characters’ mouths move smoothly when they talk. It is one of a few games that truly looks great in motion. Whether you’re breaking barrels or busting heads, the art is seamless and I could find no issues to speak of. There isn’t a single pixel out of place, which, in and of itself, is a grand achievement.
The wonderful art is further exemplified by various environmental factors. The lighting in each scene is excellent. You can see deer and the characters that you aren’t playing as dart fluidly through the background. Enemies that are sneaking by may appear as silhouettes that pass right in front of the camera. Certain scenes will turn your character and the enemies around you into silhouettes in front of a beautiful orange sunset, the detail in their figures slowly fading in and out of existence as you pass in front of the bright sun. All of these cases are handled exceedingly well.
Cinematics are also well-drawn, but are rendered in a sparsely animated style that is more reminiscent of a motion comic. They proceed forward, moving from frame to frame as the narrator discusses what is going on in the story.
There’s just one issue: the load times are fairly high. Once you’re playing a level, there are virtually no load times, which helps make the experience feel much more seamless. However, before that, you will have to wait upwards of a full minute while the game loads the level in question. The reason for this is probably that the game loads all of the assets for that level before letting you play, but it’s still a bit frustrating to stare at a loading screen for that long every time you enter a level.
While I’ve only played five levels of Wulverblade thus far, I can already say that it is, without a doubt, one of the best games that I’ve played all year. The art is beautiful, crisp, and extremely well-animated. Gameplay is fluid and encounters are well-balanced, providing a near-perfect level of challenge at all times. If that weren’t enough, there are tons of collectibles and historical facts to find throughout the game. It is an excellent beat-’em-up and, if you are even sort of a fan of the genre, I highly recommend picking it up.
Wulverblade is now available on the Nintendo Switch eShop for $19.99. PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One versions are set to launch sometime in the near future.
Important note: Fully Illustrated sent us a copy of the Nintendo Switch version of Wulverblade for the purpose of writing this article.