With a story hailing all the way from the Scottish Highlands, Wulverblade makes for an extremely fast-paced arcade tribute complete with devilish difficulty. We recently had the chance to take a look at it, its local co-op mode and its — supposedly — historically accurate setting.
If you want to read creative director Michael Heald’s comments on Wulverblade’s history, please take a look at the comments section.
Heavily inspired by arcade games, Wulverblade is a combo-based side-scroller that follows a story through a series of increasingly difficult levels. Described as a beat ’em up, it could perhaps be better described as a ‘body hell’, with waves upon waves of enemies assailing you. It was scarcely more than three levels before we’d racked up a body count of five hundred. With all the knockbacks and enemy types you’d expect, it’s certainly a challenge, even for the initiated.
As we mentioned, Wulverblade’s combat is based on combo moves. Mercifully this is a handful rather than a great list, so even if you don’t remember all of them, it still doesn’t take long to memorise a few favourites. A large, sweeping attack works best for those frequent moments in which you’re surrounded by enemies — and became a go-to move due to its ease of execution. You can even pick up enemies’ severed heads to throw back at their friends, impale them on spikes, eat dropped food to restore health and eat mushrooms to increase your rage meter, which grants an invincible mode when full. (That said, we did notice our health ticking away during moments when we weren’t being hit during normal gameplay — we then worked out that our own attacks seemed to be dealing us damage, which seemed mightily unfair.)
Unfortunately, these combos do feel a bit clumsy. It’s not because they’re too slow or anything like that, but more because it feels like there’s a big delay between finishing one movement and being allowed to start another. This is particularly noticeable in boss fights where you need to jump to avoid a special attack. Even playing as the most agile character (one of three options), you just don’t have enough time to move out of the way if the special attack shows its cue just as you begin an attack of your own.
This is coupled with some odd key bindings and behaviour. Double-tapping to run isn’t as fluid as it could be, so getting out of the way in a hurry is easier said than done. Attack and block keys, for some reason, are ‘K’ for normal attacks, ‘L’ for block’ and ‘;’ for power attacks. It’s an odd control scheme which seems as if it could have not only been shifted one key to the left, but swapped around so the attack keys were next to each other — but it’s completely remappable.
The screen space doesn’t see much of an improvement here. It feels as if there are too many ‘channels’ for enemies to move along. It can be quite tricky to line up an attack that actually hits — something you think is lined up perfectly is just a fraction off. You occasionally come to areas where the screen is fixed. In these areas, it’s best to stay in the centre, otherwise enemies can attack out-of-view from the edge of the screen. Still, that’s typical of the genre.
If combat does come across too difficult, there’s always easy mode, and while that doesn’t seem to make much difference at all, you can at least bring another player along to share the fun. This is far trickier a process than it should be, though. For a start, there’s currently no indication on Wulverblade’s store page that local co-op doesn’t support same-keyboard play, despite that being a staple of many past co-op games. You can play with a keyboard and controller, but this combination isn’t recognised automatically. You have to manually remap the player’s controls to use the controller. It’s incredibly unintuitive.
We didn’t want to go on too much about this, but keyboard users are screwed again by the fact that not every keybinding is shown when accessing the Controls menu in-game. It’s missing a description for calling wolves, which is clearly a key ability.
All that aside, Wulverblade’s fresh and vibrant art almost makes up for its flaws. It’s a visual treat to run (or walk) along its levels, watching crisp animations take the heads off your enemies as you go. Backed up by great voice actors, it’s still a fun experience, and the story carries you along from level to level.
Regarding the story, though, there is one small issue left to cover. Wulverblade claims to be historically accurate.
Following Michael Heald’s clarification that Wulverblade was only historically inspired and not accurate, we no longer have problems with its history, but you can still read our original feedback below.
In fact, Wulverblade states that its creative director spent five years carrying out research for their game and, while their disclaimer also states they don’t have any relevant qualifications, that really makes what we’re about to say next rather awkward.
Quite simply: its portrayal of the Romans isn’t historically accurate.
The tribes are right, with all their information, although as my history-degree-toting other half so ineloquently put it, ‘that’s all just available on Wikipedia’. The problem is that Wulverblade boils down to a sadly typical rendition of ‘the Romans are evil guys who took our gods and killed all the locals’. From the time we spent playing the game together, they not only came across as your typical sneering villain (with upper-class British accents, of course), but they seemed portrayed as downright stupid.
Ah yes, that glorious civilisation that brought us aqueducts, flushing toilets and underfloor heating. The empire that saw Britons travel as far abroad as Persia to sell their wares while under their rule, among other trade (Strabo, c. 7 BC–23 AD). One of the most integrated imperial societies ever to exist. Stupid. Yeah, sure. For the record, they’re far more likely to integrate your gods into their own sprawling pantheon than they are to eradicate them (Beard, North, & Price, 1998).
So if you’re a fan of history, especially a fan of the Romans (or at least someone who respects what they were), this continued theme throughout the story does put a bit of a damper on things. After your mad and frustrating slogs through the scenery, you may find yourself scowling at the cutscenes. It is a shame.
But it’s a game, right, so why should it matter?
Well, whenever anything claims to be historically accurate, it automatically makes itself responsible to hold up that promise. It becomes representative of the time period. Many people might just absorb the information it gives and take it as fact. This game is historically accurate in the loose term most Hollywood productions nowadays seem to bow down before as the golden standard (which is fools’ gold for sure). But as our editor-in-chief asked when we were discussing this issue, ‘Could the game have been more historically accurate while retaining its game mechanics and pacing?’
The answer is yes. Asterix and Obelix managed to paint the Gauls as the good guys without making the Romans cartoonishly evil… the fact that it was a cartoon notwithstanding. It would have been perfectly feasible to have a tribe rejecting Roman rule, since the more Northern tribes did this anyway and this is exactly the reason the Ninth Legion paid them a visit. But the Ninth went north to protect their trade with the southern tribes, with whom they had a friendly relationship. Their ranks would have been bolstered by locals from Gaul, Germany, and Britain itself — who joined up to the army voluntarily, likely with its generous pay, citizenship and retirement scheme in mind.
In fact, historians (Ibeji, 2011) suggest that following the collapse of the empire, Romans stayed behind in Britain to protect the people south of Hadrian’s Wall, which was created after the time of the Ninth and not destroyed by the Romans.
‘Wulverblade contains enough historical facts and raw combat to feel like the real thing – and it even features drone videos shot in the actual locations. Sure, it’s stylized – but the fighting was that brutal and soldiers in the 9th Legion deserved to get their butts kicked by the Caledonii. I dare say that playing Wulverblade has therapeutic value – and you’ll even learn a thing or two about Britannia’s gruesome past.’
— Michael Heald, Creative Director of Wulverblade, in a recent press release.
Deserved? That’s a bit strong. What we’re trying to say is that the Romans were people, too. As an arcade game, it’s undoubtedly top notch for genre fans. If it had just left it as that, it would have been fine to have the Romans as mindless baddies, but as soon as it claimed to be historically accurate, it made a mistake.
On a more praising note, however, we did enjoy the drone footage of locations covered by Wulverblade, although couldn’t help thinking there was an ingrained predisposition toward stone circles as key sources of inspiration.
Overall, Wulverblade is a fantastic(-ly frustrating in some cases) beat-’em-up which fans of the genre are bound to enjoy, despite several technical flaws. With stunning artwork and smooth animations, it can still feel like an unforgiving monster of a challenge, to the point of feeling unbalanced. While you must be aware that keyboard-only co-op isn’t an option, this is a decent title to invest in and play with a friend… as long as you like difficulty and that friend doesn’t happen to be too clued-up on the Romans.
Beard Mary, North John and Price Simon Religions of Rome: Volume 1, A History [Book]. – [s.l.] : Cambridge University Press, 1998. – p. 339 onward.
Ibeji Mike After the Romans [Online] // BBC History. – February 17, 2011. – http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/romans/late_01.shtml.
Strabo Geography 5.2.3 [Book]. – c. 7 BC–23 AD.