[Disclosure: A review copy was provided for the contents of this article]
Whenever I review a game, I’m always happy to give extra credit if I can feel the passion of the development team shining through in the finished product. Wulverblade is first and foremost a relatively straightforward scrolling beat-em-up that plays in the style of a Final Fight or Streets of Rage, yet bizarrely, it also serves as a personal homage to the history of ancient Britain, as written by Creative Director Michael Heald and complete with photos from his personal collection. Yes, despite the bold, cartoonish graphics, Wulverblade is deeply inspired by historic material and written accounts and as the player discovers items in the world, more and more of this material is made available to wade through via a comprehensive gallery.
At first I was surprised by such juxtaposition. Ultra-violent, stylised gameplay colliding with a deep and often highly personal collection of photographs and autobiographical entries about the Roman invasion of Britain seemed highly irregular. When I thought about it more, I concluded that it might actually be a work of genius – Wulverblade is appealing as a game, and it doesn’t feel weighed down by any of this extra material, but because it’s all there, a few people might read it and be able to share in what is clearly a subject matter that the development team are incredibly passionate about.
Enough about that stuff though – it feels rewarding to unlock and read through, but it wouldn’t be a good enough reason to play if the game were bad. Thankfully, it isn’t, so let’s let’s talk about what it’s actually like to play. Choosing from one of three characters (a fast one, a strong one and one in between) the player must fight their way through a series of progressively more challenging levels in order to strike at the heart of the Roman invaders and avenge the villages of their fallen tribesmen. It’s a serious setup and it is certainly reminiscent of Ryse: Son of Rome in concept and setting, but the art style and allegiance of the player couldn’t be more different.
Wulverblade is also much, much harder than Ryse (and most other modern scrolling fighting games) with an overt nod to classic games from the golden age of arcade gaming. The easiest difficulty level still restricts players to just three lives per level and provides only one checkpoint (which is positioned a good distance ahead of the boss.) The second difficulty is even more punishing, with no checkpoints and restricted continues. If you complete the game under those conditions (which I freely admit that I have not and probably never will) then you unlock something even more onerous, that sadly, I can’t give you any details about.
Actual gameplay is one hundred percent old school. Proceeding from left to right, players use their chosen character to chop wave after wave of varied enemies into (literal) pieces. Controls are simple, with light (and occasionally heavy if you have the right pickup) attacks which are supported by a jump, dash and special move and a few basic combos. Players are also able to call their wolf pack once per level, which usually results in all onscreen enemies being defeated instantly, or in the case of bosses, a lot of damage with no risk of being harmed back.
There is some variation between characters, with the largest of them unable to do some moves that the fastest can and vice-versa. In all honesty though, each one plays in a similar way, with my personal preference being the largest because of his ability to dispatch enemies with fewer hits. One feature that can change the way each character plays is access to different weapons, many of which are picked up and then instantly thrown, but several (such as heavy weapons) stay with the player until death. There is no difference between the way that different characters use each weapon, so learning the strengths and weaknesses of each is a pretty simple matter.
The game takes place across eight levels which broadly encompass every location you would expect them to. From the forests and villages of ancient Britain to the neat wooden forts of the Roman oppressors, everything is covered. Every level is exceptionally well realised in the detailed and attractive visual style that allows Wulverblade to stand alone among its peers and I found myself consistently curious to see what location would inspire the next level. What I liked less were the boss fights and the general lack of variety or surprise, although I would say that the game is honest about what it is from the outset – and it stays within the boundaries you would expect of a classic beat-em-up.
And, as far as modern interpretations of such games go, Wulverblade is a good one. A really good one. It has a clean look and it offers unflinchingly tough gameplay backed by simple, easy to predict controls that rarely lead to frustration. You will fail a lot though and whilst the incredible wealth of unlockable content and the generally interesting settings do provide an incentive to push on, some people will give up long before the end. As a result, you should: