Wulverblade is a challenging and hyper-violent beat-em-up in the style of Golden Axe that originally released for the Nintendo Switch, but is now making its way to the Playstation 4, Xbox One, and PC with an improved frame rate and online leaderboards. Of course, I bring up Golden Axe because it’s one of the most prominent examples of a beat-em-up featuring weapons, but Wulverblade doesn’t actually play much like it if we’re being perfectly honest. Given all of the dodging around, valuables lying around on the ground, and midair enemy juggling, it actually feels much more like Dragon’s Crown minus the token RPG elements. That means how well you do is dictated almost entirely by your skill (though a little luck can certainly make things much easier), and while the controls and general mechanics take a little getting used to at first and lend themselves to moments so frustrating that the thought of throwing a controller through a window suddenly doesn’t seem so crazy anymore, it doesn’t take long before your muscle memory adapts. Wulverblade is a gem, then, though one occasionally marred by some questionable design decisions that seem to prioritize style at the expense of the gameplay.
The story of one man and two tagalongs
There are three playable characters in Wulverblade (who are apparently siblings if the achievement names are anything to go by), but the story revolves around default character Caradoc regardless of who you choose, so selecting him to start off with isn’t a bad idea to feel the most invested in the story on your first time through. He’s the most balanced of the three anyway, with Guinevere being fast (but weak) and Brennus being slow (but strong), and becoming comfortable with him makes it easier to move on to the others. The story begins in Brittania in 120 AD, after Queen Boadicea “bloodied the nose” of the Roman Empire. This led the Empire to march against the “heathen horde” in retaliation, and that means they come into conflict with Caradoc and his family—first by way of southern tribe proxies, but later directly as he takes the fight to them.
I’m not entirely certain that the dates match up (or if Roman retaliation simply takes 60 years), but this is really just an excuse for Caradoc and company to wander around butchering hundreds of the enemies in their way. That’s not to say that there’s no attention given to the history, though—you’re constantly finding notes on the ground, and these range from character diaries to writeups about the real-life areas that inspired the game, complete with pictures and an account of the trip. The map screen even unlocks videos as you play that show off specific locations, with a voiceover elaborating on the history and how the area connects to Wulverblade.
All of this is optional content, of course. You don’t have to pause the game when you pick up a note to read about the specifics of a visit to a place or open up one of the map videos, but I find it telling that I consistently wanted to. Contrasting the constant decapitations with a genuine enthusiasm for the area and its history elevates the experience, much like how the background videos in Never Alone proved a similarly worthwhile diversion. And this content allows you to get a sense of what went into Wulverblade’s development without having to track down a bunch of interviews.
The mechanics are beautiful
Wulverblade seems like a simple game until you have to describe everything that goes into it. Put simply, there are a lot of things that you’re keeping track of while playing. The core of the game is the same as in any beat-em-up, though: slowly make your way to the right of the screen, taking out groups of enemies who show up. These enemies have life bars, as is to be expected, and can’t always be defeated before they’re knocked down. This makes positioning yourself (and sometimes positioning enemies by throwing them around) crucial to managing the situation. After all, you don’t want someone to come up and hit you from behind while you’re attacking someone else. I know that’s painfully obvious, but it’s worth mentioning regardless because there are a whole lot of other factors that have to be accounted for. First, though, it’s important to talk about the lives/continues system. There are two modes in Wulverblade, with the standard mode saving your progress in addition to giving you three lives and unlimited continues. These continues allow you to start off at the last checkpoint if you lose all of your lives, but levels are long enough that even reaching the next checkpoint can be more difficult than it sounds. Then there’s arcade mode, which challenges you to finish all 8 stages with three lives and three continues. Arcade mode continues are a little different, though, as there are no checkpoints. These continues allow you to respawn where you died with another three lives. Basically, arcade mode tasks you with finishing the game with 9 lives.
That might sound impossible given Wulverblade’s steep difficulty (I probably lost that many lives in the first level alone when I first started playing), but again, your muscle memory adapts. When I started writing the paragraph above, I realized that I hadn’t actually figured out the specifics of how arcade mode works and decided to play through it before writing something potentially inaccurate. I only lost something like two lives in my entire playthrough, and gained even those back by the end of the game somehow. It was such a good playthrough that I actually had to start another game and purposefully lose all of my lives to figure out how the continues work.
The difference between flailing around helplessly and blowing through the game’s standard difficulty with ease is becoming comfortable with the mechanics, and despite all appearances to the contrary, they’re actually designed surprisingly well. On the Playstation 4, attack is square, jump is X, shield is circle, and strong attack is triangle. There’s also L2, which lets you run (it can also do some other things, but I’ll get to that in a bit), and R2, which allows you to summon wolves once per level to help take care of enemies. A lot is done with these relatively simple controls; if you start running and then attack, you’ll do a useful upward slash that launches enemies into the air where you can juggle them with followup attacks for extra damage, for example, while running a longer distance and attacking performs a knockdown charge. Then there’s rolling, which is your best way of getting behind shielded/attacking enemies. Rolling requires putting your shield up first and then double-tapping in a direction, but doing it this way makes it difficult to react to attack prompts (stronger enemy attacks are preceded by an exclamation point) in time. Instead, you can hold L2 and circle, at which point you can dodge with a single press left or right. L2, then, is effectively a substitute for moves that require a double-tap, and getting comfortable with this is key.
There are a lot of things that I haven’t even begun talking about yet, too. You build up “rage” as you attack, and once the bar is full, you can hit L1 to become invincible and extra powerful for a short time. Your health slowly restores while you’re in a rage, and when combined with the fact that accumulated rage is lost if you lose a life, you’re subtly encouraged to use it defensively to keep yourself going just long enough to find some meat (which completely restores your health) or fruit (which slightly restore your health). There are also executions. Knocked down enemies will occasionally become stunned, and by moving over them and hitting square, you can perform an insta-kill move that gives you a bonus to your rage meter. Then there are parries, which are performed by successfully blocking right as an enemy attacks you. These are incredibly difficult to pull off until you’re familiar with everyone’s attack patterns, but successfully parrying gives you two free attacks and can even stun some bosses. The final thing I want to bring up is that level features like fires and spikes can be used to damage enemies. There’s just something magical about grabbing an enemy and impaling them on nearby spikes.
The mechanics are infuriating
I have a great deal of love for the way this game plays, but that’s countered somewhat by a significant amount of frustration. Part of the reason getting used to using L2 is so important is that enemy exclamation points pop up for a punishingly brief amount of time, so having to double-tap a direction is often enough to get you damaged despite technically reacting in time. Another thing I’m not thrilled about is your shield only blocking damage from one direction, which makes sense, but isn’t necessarily fun. Especially when you and an enemy are standing in almost the same position and it’s not clear which direction is technically facing them. Then there are the little annoyances, such as the fact that you can only use heavy attacks when you’ve picked up a secondary weapon with triangle. These are much rarer than you’d think, leading to occasions where you simply have to go without a heavy attack. And these secondary weapons break over time even if you find one, so you’re constantly on the hunt for a new triangle weapon.
There’s some weirdness with picking up triangle weapons, too; if you’re holding something (say, a decapitated enemy head that you intend to use as a projectile weapon), you simply can’t pick up triangle weapons for some random reason. I mean, yeah, your character’s hands are busy, but having to throw something across the room and risk losing it before picking up a needed weapon isn’t a player-friendly choice.
That unfriendliness can also be seen in the visual design of certain areas, such as the rare sections where you’re backlit. This makes it much harder to see attack cues and figure out what’s lying on the ground without simply grabbing everything you can. Another more prevalent problem in this vein are the distracting foreground objects; that’s an old favorite complaint of mine, and all of the points remain as valid as ever: if you get hit because you couldn’t see something, the gameplay is cheapened.
Then there are the little things: Guinevere is the only character who can dodge up and down to quickly move in those directions (which is useful because you can only run left and right for some reason, not up and down), and it would have been nice if all three characters could do this. Not having that extra movement feels really strange, and even Guinevere loses that ability; the second half of the final level gives all three characters new forms to use, and she can’t perform these up/down dodges in that form. Another little thing is how the button for picking most things up and attacking is the same, leading to moments where you’ll try attacking a large group with your sword to start juggling them, only to pick up a nearby head and throw it at the closest guy. And then the guy behind him hits you with an attack because he wasn’t in the air as you had intended.
Cartoon gore and fantastic music
Wulverblade is an incredibly violent game, but it’s also stylish in everything it does. I initially wasn’t sure how I felt about the more cartoon-y art, but after a few days of playing it became obvious that this helps to keep the violence from ever coming across as excessive. There are also cutscenes, and though they’re largely still images layered with a small amount of actual movement, they’re also exquisitely moody and add a lot to the overall experience. Nothing adds quite as much as the music, though, which is gorgeous and beyond reproach. While I could ramble about how great it is, it’d perhaps be more effective to point out that Wulverblade’s soundtrack has a lot in common with that of The Witcher 3 both stylistically and in terms of sheer quality. If that’s not enough to immediately pique your interest, then you quite simply have no interest left to be piqued.
*A PS4 review key for Wulverblade was provided for the purpose of this review