Thinking back fondly to the days of my youth when arcades were still up and running, some of my favorite games included the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game and Golden Ax, a game I would play exclusively in school, believe it or not. I could never beat these games in one or two sittings (likely the point), but it never stopped me from trying over and over until I grew so frustrated that I swore I'd never play them again.
As the years flew by and arcade games became obsolete, the half-earnest promise I made to myself involuntarily became reality. Now-a-days, arcade-styled beat 'em ups trend within the realm of nostalgia and new age inspiration; if not for this, games like Wulverblade wouldn't make their mark within the video game world, one already so crammed with games marked by time and various reputations. Sometimes these are made to appease the public, yet there are some, through years of patience, dedication, and passion, that feel tremendously tuned by presentation alone. Wulverblade welcomes you to hell.
Something fairly unique to this title's name is the fact that everything behind the story, characters, and locations was extensively researched by the developers—a large portion of what's shown is real. Various characters, the places one travels along, and the timeframe all ring true of real-life events. This provides an interesting perspective to playing a fictional title with non-fictional elements. The video game also allows for a history lesson, just in case you didn't have enough education in your lifetime. Being too critical of the story or its simplicity would be, in some fashion, criticizing real life. Should we be as cynical with a game if its story is based on true events? Perhaps if it were presented like a history textbook and not a hack and slash video game.
If there's anything I can feel comfortable critiquing, it's the effectiveness of grammar within dialogue subtitles or loading screens. Within my time of playing, I noticed a concerning number of little slip-ups in practical English grammar, whether it be a random typo or a missing apostrophe. With as sleek and professional as the game looks, having those random typos—especially to an English major—somewhat rips me out of my immersion. One would think with as competent as they play out human history that they would be able to have access to as efficient an editor.
At the core of beat 'em ups, story isn't too much of a concern for the quality of a title within its field, though its effort to showcase a compelling narrative, from a narrative-loving recipient, is appreciated. Voice acting is decent, the cut scenes are well animated, and the manner of presentation varies depending on the part of the game. I really enjoy the minimalist cinematics after each stage; its efforts in recreating the edge of yesteryear are as prehistoric as The Flintstones, in a good way. My expectations with the type of game that this is may manipulate what I expect from the story in general, but I came out of it pretty impressed. I actually cared about the characters… in a video game!
The strength of Wulverblade is its dedication to balancing its learning curve. By no means does it hold the player's hand, but handy tutorials display whenever a new feature is present which, in theory, should be enough. Yet it is the struggle to maintain everything all at once and to simply remember how everything works that makes the game somewhat alienating to newcomers. My history with side-scrolling beat 'em ups isn't necessarily rich, but I found myself needing time to get into the groove of the game's mechanics and pacing. In the spirit of humanistic motivation, Wulverblade requires the player to be patient, to experiment, to accidentally do something cool so they realize alternative means of attack are possible. For the King had a warning prior to its main menu about the game's inevitable difficulty. There is no warning here.
Normal attack, heavy attack, aerial attacks, dodge-rolling, countering, grappling, ground pounds, and more are at the disposal of the player, with three different characters to play exhibiting varying statistics. One is balanced, one is agile, but weak; the other is powerful, but slow. As someone who prefers balance over everything, my personal favorite is Caradoc, but don't let that discourage you from experimenting. This arsenal of moves and techniques makes the player far more capable than any opposing threat outside of bosses. To some extent, playing Wulverblade is similar to that of Dynasty Warriors, where one overpowered force decimates a large crowd of weaker busybodies. Saying so would be a disservice to the game's enemies, however: their only failing grace is that they have a tendency to stand around. Playing the game on "Normal" difficulty still provides enough of a challenge that one won't be completing these levels in one run until they've become well-adapted to their character's capabilities.
On a small aside, there were a few technical errors while playing the game. The portion of the second stage where the river in the background comes into view displays big, blocky pixels that destroy the mood. On occasion, the cutscenes would have characters blip in and out of existence for a split second. Little things, not nearly enough to ruin my entire experience, but enough to continue to see the chinks in the armor of a well-crafted product.
On a more practical level, there's a level of stiffness when controlling the character that makes for avoiding enemy attacks and lining oneself up feel like a challenge. Perhaps intentional, this makes the game's minute focus on exploration a little cumbersome. I don't feel inspired to search around the area as much as I could when the fluidity of control feels on par with a flash game. Attacks, jumping, and otherwise are decent enough to avoid complaints (though I'd prefer if dodge-rolling had a single button dedicated to it), it's just movement, in its simplest form, that feels too stiff for comfort.
As a beat 'em up, does beating 'em up feel satisfying? Absolutely. The action itself gets just a smidgen repetitive considering one doesn't always have the most means of attack, but the fluidity of the character's actions are fast-paced and wholly gratifying. The level of depth to combat is strategic enough to be exciting especially when stronger enemies come about. It's not just about hammering a single button: dodging and countering play as plentiful a role in combat, especially when surrounded, as offensive maneuvers. Even jumping can be handy in claustrophobic situations, as aerial attacks are good for knocking enemies onto the ground, giving the player time to reaffirm their position. Enemies aren't always easy to take down, either. Typical beat 'em ups usually have enemies killable in four hits or less; Wulverblade doubles that. Every enemy feels like a mini achievement, with stronger enemies all the more fulfilling.
If outright violence isn't enough, there are speedrunning elements and special conditions available to boost one's score for a specific area, with online leaderboards available. Should personal pride be your motivator, try and beat the levels as quickly as possible while collecting as many goodies as possible and relying as little on extra lives as possible. One is ranked after every stage from 1 to 3, the higher the better. For more on personal achievement, on top of a traditional "Story Mode" of sorts, Wulverblade also has an "Arena Mode," which I unfortunately couldn't play much of due to time constraints. Essentially a survival mode where one takes on hoards upon hoards of enemies until you lose all lives. Fun for a challenge, though not personally my thing.
Graphics & Audio
As stated before, Wulverblade has the benefit of an incredibly sleek and professional coat of artistry. Chinks in the armor aside, the almost corny manner of mouth movements reminds me of a time when lip-syncing wasn't important at all to developers. Enemy variety is just enough to ensure the player they aren't facing the same person over and over (enemies even have names adorned to their health bars), with some added detail to enemy types based on structure and gender of the enemy. Cinematics are little short of beautiful in their presentation, while cutscenes within the levels aren't quite up to par with putting in full-fledged video captures of the locations one's fighting in, but I digress. The commitment to putting these live action videos within this game really amazes me! Should I have any complaints, the lack of detailed movement with characters within levels comes off as cheesy, but I feel like the cheesiness only adds to the enjoyment of the game, which the expressiveness of the art also exudes.
Thinking of sound quality for this game, all I can think is, "There was a soundtrack to this game?" True, grunts and screams and special effects are all a part of what I experienced playing Wulverblade. I don't recall anything about catchy tunes or even grandiose music to the theme of epic conquest (outside of cinematics). Again, voice acting is decent (as in it doesn't make me cringe), with everything playing as it should, I would assume, so any complaints per means of sound would be the lack of a distinctively memorable soundtrack. Still, while it'd be nice to include, it's not ultimately necessary if the game is fun and technically sound. (No pun intended.)
It is not the be-all-end-all for arcade-styled beat 'em ups, nor is it something I feel should be skipped. Wulverblade takes an enormous amount of human capability, places it within a work years in the making, and results in a well-rounded game with a lot of enjoyment to be had. More than anything, I believe Wulverblade could be an outright great game had they shored up the grammar, the stiffness of the controls, and the quality of animation within individual levels. Its charm plays a large part in its distinctiveness, with an added dimension of realism with the history perspective tied to its code. Any fan of retro beat 'em ups will feel right at home here. As for newcomers, perhaps it's not the best of choices. Nevertheless, far more good has been done here than bad, the likes of which make it an easy recommendation for fans of video games period.
|+ Nails the arcade aesthetic||– Controls slightly stiff; gameplay slightly repetitive|
|+ Great emphasis on experimentation/learning||– "Chinks in the armor" (Technical/grammar errors)|
|+ General art style is appealing||– Forgettable soundtrack|
|+ Dedication to historical nonfiction a great quirk|