Review: Wulverblade (Switch)

Gore, with a side of education… and frustration.

By Joshua A. Johnston. Posted 04/19/2018 11:30 Comment on this     ShareThis
The Final Grade
grade/score info
1-Up Mushroom for...
Beautiful look and feel; classic beat-em-up action; cool educational elements
Poison Mushroom for...
Controls less than ideal; some enemy attacks feel cheap; brutal fixed difficulty level; long level load times

Anyone who grew up around the arcade scene during the 1980s and 1990s probably remembers the side-scrolling beat-em-up: Double Dragon, Final Fight, and the like. These games were about beating up waves of enemies (and intermittent bosses) on your way to some vaguely identifiable goal, although that last part wasn’t terribly important. Wulverblade, a multiplatform title available on Switch for $19.99, is a beat-em-up in that same tradition, but also one with a very different setting and atmosphere from those games of old. Inspired by events that took place around the time of the building of Hadrian’s Wall during the early 2nd century, this side-scroller puts players in the role of northern tribes holding out against the Roman Empire and its allied tribes in ancient Britannia.

The game has a few modes, including a traditional campaign mode, an arcade campaign mode that has no checkpoints and fewer lives, and arena mode. There are a few playable characters with different strengths and weaknesses, along with local 2-player co-op.

One of the first things players might notice about the game is that looks and sounds absolutely beautiful. Everything is wonderfully hand-drawn, from the cel-styled heroes and villains to the intricate levels. The bosses are especially well-done, inspiring plenty of shock and awe and general “oh, man, here we go” each time players face one. The music score, haunting and powerful, is every bit the equal to the visuals, creating a dark, vibrant world in total.

And dark it is. This is an M-rated game, with lots of gore and some language. The story of northern tribes holding out against ruthless Roman-backed hordes has a feeling of inevitability about it, and yet players are still tasked with facing the Empire with courage. Plots are not usually a primary (or even secondary) element of this kind of game, but the developers put a lot of care into why the events on screen matter. There are stakes to Wulverblade. Those stakes represent what is obviously a labor of love for the developers. The game is inspired heavily by real-life events and weapons, and the game serves up a ton of in-game information boxes, unlockable galleries, and even on-location videos to show just where it all came from. It’s hard to say how many button-mashing gamers will be interested in that sort of trivia, but for those who like history, this game is an unexpected treat in this capacity. How many other games explain to you the history of chopping your enemy’s head off?

As for the actual button-mashing… well, that’s a mixed bag. At first, the game feels pretty familiar to its 90s arcade inspirations, with some additional flavor. Players can attack, jump, block, run, grapple, throw, pick-up, roll, and use items on the ground, just to name a few. In addition, players have a rage bar that, when it peaks, can unlock temporary invincibility, along with the separate ability to call in a horde of wolves once per level. The controls, which cannot be customized, are not ideal. For example, the attack button is also mapped to read and pick up items, which makes it too easy to pick up an item (and leave yourself exposed while you do) rather than continue hacking away at baddies in front of you. It would be nice to be able to change controls, but the game doesn’t allow it.

Another problem lies in enemy attacks. Bosses, especially, often have uber attacks that cannot be blocked or sometimes even evaded, which makes the game feel pretty cheap in those instances. The roll dodge is spotty at best, making jumping and hoping for the best the only option, such as it is. Granted, a lot of older brawlers were like that, but the fact that blocking and rolling are in the game but are only marginally useful undercuts some of the game’s strategic elements. Death comes often, and the frustration level of even getting through the game’s second level sucks out a lot of the fun. Variable difficulty would have been a nice option, but that, too, is absent.

A third issue is the load times. This reviewer counted 35 seconds of load time to start each level, which is baffling considering that it is loading from onboard memory. Restarting a level doesn’t take quite as long, but it’s still far longer than a game like this should.

The game can be played with 2-player co-op. This has certain advantages, including double the number of wolf calls that, on paper, should make the game a little more bearable. In practice, though, the game feels pretty hard even when two people are going at it. Part of the problem is that both players can take damage from enemies, but two players can also make it hard to see what’s going on on-screen. In particular, during our playtest we discovered that one of the playable characters, Guinevere, looks a lot like the female enemies in the game, and more than once this reviewer confused the two, which can be quite fatal. For better or worse, the co-op adds as many drawbacks as positives. Also, using the Joy-Con as two controllers eliminates a dedicated run button, which is easier to use than the double-tap alternative.

Overall, Wulverblade is a pretty interesting game with classic action and a heavy helping of history, but it’s also a game that is primarily for hardcore brawler fans who enjoy the pain of control issues and merciless gameplay. If that’s not your cup of tea, you may want to look elsewhere.

Nintendojo was provided a copy of this game for review by a third party, though that does not affect our recommendation. For every review, Nintendojo uses a standard criteria.

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