When I look back to some of the most iconic side-scrolling brawlers, titles such as Streets of Rage and Golden Axe stand out firmly. Indeed these are classic examples but even after all of these years, they still highlight some of the most fundamental aspects of the format. Side-scrolling brawlers should be easy to pick up and hard to put down, constantly enticing the player for that proverbial one last try. Wulverblade, although not perfect, manages to pull from this golden era of gaming and offers up a surprisingly addictive old-school arcade experience. Furthermore, it achieves this alongside a remarkably well struck story that doesn’t try to cram itself down your throat.
Wulverblade takes place in 120AD. The Roman army have seized control of southern Britannia and plans to march north to overthrow what’s left. Little does the Roman Ninth Legion know is that a band of brave and unwavering northern tribesmen have taken up arms and are ready to fight back. Taking on the role of Caradoc, Brennus, or Guinevere, you’ll be tearing the enemy limb from limb as you battle to liberate your home. The kicker is that you wont just be fighting the Romans but fellow Britons who have joined forces with them, too. Believe me when I say that this is one war that wont be won easily. It doesn’t matter whether the enemy is Roman or traitor Briton, Caradoc means business.
Each of the three heroes come with their own sets of pros and cons. Caradoc is the most balanced out of the three, offering skills that don’t lean too heavily on speed or strength. Guinevere is much quicker than the other two, but trades strength for that swift movement. Brennus on the other hand is the polar opposite, dishing out mass damage with each blow in exchange for agility. Despite the differences in play, each of these warriors are more than capable enough to make it through the campaign, solo. It’s down to you to decide where you want to focus your play style and regardless as to who you gravitate towards, Wulverblade doesn’t compromise any of the fun.
Gameplay typically consists of moving from screen to screen while clearing out enemies along the way. Enemy variants are plentiful and will often flood the screen from the left and the right in a desperate attempt to put you down. The controls are as fluid and straight forward as can be. You can attack, evade, guard, run, and grapple. Chained attacks can be achieved by constantly striking hordes of enemies without being hit, which will also build up your special attack meter. You can indeed mix and match commands, such as jump attack, grapple attack, and dash bash. These options especially come in handy when you find yourself boxed in by your foes and you need to create some breathing space.
Enemies tend to outfit themselves in a range of different ways. Romans often always carry shields, but traitor Britons usually show up with just their weaponry. Evading enemy attacks doesn’t prove to be overly difficult, but if you block at just the right time during an incoming attack, you’ll perform a harsh counterattack. During moments like this time will rapidly slow down so that you can make the most of the opening. Despite the wide range of tools at your disposal, Wulverblade does pose quite a challenge throughout. Checkpoints are few and far between, but not too far that it proves to be frustrating when you take a dirt nap. You’re also granted an auto checkpoint when you reach the end-level boss, which is necessary given how tough and brutal these confrontations can be.
Boss fights are much more structured than common enemy fights due to their multi-tiered health bars and unique attack patterns. Granted it’s not hard to anticipate a boss attack or suss out their skill-sets, but these encounters did indeed lead to most of my failed attempts. Once you work out their movement and behavior it’s not all too difficult to overcome them, but it does take time and perseverance. Standard enemies also house their own unique attacks but these are much easier to handle. You’ll take on a wide portion of different foes throughout the campaign, including archers, assassins, heavy grunts, and several other forms of blood thirsty bastards. You’ll even need to contend with off-screen foes that will throw daggers at you from above.
Aiding you in battle is the ability to use special attacks and a single-use summon. Each and every successful blow will gradually fill up a blue meter in the top left corner of the screen. Once you max out this bar you’ll be able to use your special attack, which again slows down time and allows you to rapidly attack your opponents. Your health will also replenish during this rage state but due to how long it can take to fill the bar up, it pays off to spend this moment wisely. Alongside this you can also summon deadly wolves once per-level to help you clear the screen of enemies or take a chunk of health from a boss. Throughout the course of each level you can utilize several environmental objects. Hell, you can even pick up dismembered limbs and throw them at your enemy. This barely causes any damage mind, but the results are hilarious.
Weaponry can be obtained from fallen enemies or crates, much of which comes in varying strengths, including heavy weaponry. Heavy weapons take a lot longer to swing, as does a heavy attack using a weapon that’s capable of both standard attacks and heavy attacks. While this will leave you open and offer your opponents a weak point, connecting a heavy attack naturally comes with the reward of better damage output. This however leads me to a problem. Weapons and items can be picked up by pressing ‘X’, which is the same button you use for standard attacks. One too many times did I find myself in a position where I just wanted to strike my enemies with standard attacks, only to pick up a weapon or item from the ground.
Moments like this leave you open and vulnerable, which will either break your combo or see you pushing up daisies. It’s massively annoying when it happens and seemingly unavoidable. With that to the side, there’s very little to groan about as far as the combat is concerned. I quite enjoyed moving from screen to screen dispatching anyone that stood in my way. Wulverblade is quite a gory game and that especially translates when your parting someone from their head and then throwing it at their allies. You can even stun enemies and pull off an execution move while they lay motionless on the ground. It’s truly brutal to witness, but somewhat comical to a degree. It’s important not to treat Wulverblade as a game that you can button slam your way through. The game has been designed in such a way that you’ll have an easier job at clearing enemies if you apply some strategy.
Sure, the first (and maybe second) level remains far too easy to be considered remotely challenging, but it’s not too long after this that the difficulty takes it up ten notches. Concentrating on grunt enemies will do your health bar no good if you’re getting hammered by arrows from the archers that sit on the edges of the screen. Going for the archers first will also do you no good if you have speedy assassins on your six, and vice versa. You really need to consider your options and make the most of your environment, specials, and obtainable items. Throwing yet another spanner in the works is the implementation of environmental hazards, such as campfires that can hurt not just your enemy, but you as well.
With that said and taking everything into account, it’s clear that Wulverblade is a very well balanced experience that’s had a lot of thought and care applied to it. The game does come with the choice to play it in a small portion of different ways. You can take to Wulverblade via Easy and Normal mode, or you can go all-in and try your hand at the Arcade mode. The different between these modes is that in Easy and Normal you have unlimited continues, whereas Arcade mode tasks you with running the game using just three lives per three continues. Normal mode alone is hard enough when you climb deeper into the experience, so I tip my digital hat to anyone that can nuke the unforgiving Arcade mode. Bringing a second player into battle helps to alleviate the difficulty, but even then it’s still a pretty challenging brawler.
One aspect that I really enjoyed about the game is the implementation of collectibles. The game is packed with items you can pick up during each level that will add to your info database. These include the aforementioned weapons which will be slotted into your Armory tab, offering further details about each weapon you nab. That however is merely the tip of the iceberg. Scrolls, letters, and pages can be found too which will collectively add to the History and Story tab. Here, you can read up on historical facts, folklore, character bios, tutorials, and much more. The information for any singular item is bulky and does add some intriguing insight for those that are interested in it.
Leaderboard support is grouped with these extras, which is a nice addition for any of you out there that enjoy those fabled bragging rights. There’s an extra tab on the campaign menu located next to the standard mode and arcade mode, but this only says “Coming Soon” and offers no information as to what it will entail. Safe to say that I’m looking forward to finding out what it may be. When you’re done with the campaign there’s a neat Arena mode, complete with a total of seven maps. Arena has you selecting a map and going face to face with waves of enemies at a time. It’s a great place to practice your skills, but again it’s far from what one would describe as an easy ride.
It helps of course that the game looks absolutely gorgeous. The stunning artwork across each of the diverse locations within sets the theme of the game magnificently. The character animations are also commendable and the voice acting adds to that. Players will be taken through some well realized environments, from ancient forests to Roman forts. There isn’t a single section of this game that doesn’t visually impress, and they’re all based on real world locations. There’s no denying that Wulverblade comes packed with content, and although the campaign can be completed in a matter of hours, the replay value easily offers north of 15 hours worth of playtime.
Wulverblade is brutal, gory, and gorgeous in its design. It comes packed with collectibles and unlocks that constantly rewards the player with fascinating insights. Putting some difficulty inconsistencies to the side, fans of side-scrolling brawlers will be thrilled with what’s on offer. The game is well designed, diverse, and above all else it’s hard to put down.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.