Rome never looks where she treads.
Always her heavy hooves fall
On our stomachs, our hearts or our heads;
And Rome never heeds when we bawl.
Her sentries pass on—that is all,
And we gather behind them in hordes,
And plot to reconquer the Wall,
With only our tongues for our swords.
We are the Little Folk—we!
Too little to love or to hate.
Leave us alone and you’ll see
How we can drag down the State!
We are the worm in the wood!
We are the rot at the root!
We are the taint in the blood!
We are the thorn in the foot!
Mistletoe killing an oak—
Rats gnawing cables in two—
Moths making holes in a cloak—
How they must love what they do!
Yes—and we Little Folk too,
We are busy as they—
Working our works out of view—
Watch, and you’ll see it some day!
No indeed! We are not strong,
But we know Peoples that are.
Yes, and we’ll guide them along
To smash and destroy you in War!
We shall be slaves just the same?
Yes, we have always been slaves,
But you—you will die of the shame,
And then we shall dance on your graves!
-Rudyard Kipling, A Pict Song
This is unquestionably one of those games that a tremendous amount of love and care went into. Wulverblade is the result of extensive research into the history of ancient Britons and the Roman invasion of Britannia, research conducted over a 5 year period which informs its richly detailed backgrounds, settings, characters, and story. This kind of studiousness is infectious and I found myself back to watching documentaries as soon as I beat the game. That sort of inspiration to learn is rare, and I greatly appreciate it. That doesn’t even begin to encapsulate its gameplay, either.
Fully Illustrated’s Wulverblade can initially seem at odds with itself. It is an arcade-style side-scrolling beat ’em up, a genre of gaming traditionally associated with mind-numbing action, not with historical accuracy. Button mashing and senseless violence occupy one half of this game’s content, whereas smartly presented data on ancient cultures occupies the other. Garish, cartoony violence is grounded by historical articles and videos on places, weapons, and peoples from antiquity.
In the end, I think what might’ve been a disconcerting contrast ends up being a carefully balanced presentation. Wulverblade walks the edge of a knife, flirting accessible brawling, stylized hyper-violence and scholarly research nicely. At face value it seems like a comic book. At its core it’s like a museum of anthropology.
In 120AD, south Britannia sat under Roman occupation. The most powerful empire ever marched northward, eager to devour the entire island after the revolt of Queen Boadicea of the Celtic Iceni tribe. The Ninth Legion, 5000 men strong, backed by all of the ingenuity, engineering, and prowess Rome possessed, found itself face to face with a deadly foe: the warriors of the north. The Romans were accustomed to virtually unimpeded expansion but this would be no easy confrontation.
The painted “savages” of what is today modern Scotland tell of the Wulver, folkloric hero. Caradoc, forest dweller of Caledonia, is a descendant of the Wulver and a bearer of its mysterious power. He unites the Northern Tribes against the invading empire, alongside his allies Brennus and Guinevere. On their bloodied rampage south toward Roman-claimed territory, through watchtowers and Fort Bremenium, Caradoc must fight back auxiliaries, legionaries, centurions, and imperial champions, as well as the warriors of those tribes that betrayed Britannia and joined with the invaders.
Wulverblade is grittier than games we’ve normally seen in recent times on any Nintendo platform. Though its appearance isn’t truly unprecedented. The beat ’em up genre was once a big trend in gaming. I played many a side-scrolling brawler on the NES and SNES growing up, Maximum Carnage, Double Dragon II, Turtles in Time, River City Ransom, Captain Commando, in the arcades The Simpsons, Spider-Man, The Punisher, Alien vs. Predator, and X-Men, to say nothing of those titles which appeared on Nintendo’s rival console in the early 90’s, the Sega Genesis. I never owned a Genesis, but even I knew about the reputation of games like Streets of Rage. However, all golden ages must turn to silver.
Though games like these have fallen out of fashion almost as definitively as painting your skin with blue circles and running armor-less at Romans became no longer en vogue, beat ’em ups are no less fun to play whether new or old. Wulverblade occupies this niche and satisfies this itch. Its accessible gameplay dumps you right into the action after a brief opening cutscene, delivering your chosen character in the throes of battle, village aflame around you, the cries of your countrymen wailing in the woodland.
No preliminary tutorials are present to confound or bore and you’re left to engage with hordes of enemies, figuring out your character’s attacks and specialties as you go. There will be a couple of intermediary slides depicting instructions on how to stab enemies when they’re down or how to call a pack of wolves to your aid (Wulverblade’s equivalent of “once per level” specials). All the other tools and weapons you encounter on your journey south are left to your wits to catalog and use.
I should certainly mention the slick modernity with which Wulverblade occupies itself, in terms of its deviation from classic beat ’em up gameplay. Anyone who has played a plethora of such games knows that they can eventually seem stale, boring, uneventful. This is especially true of those older titles which didn’t implement things like combos, special moves, or any great assortment of acquirable weapons and items. Games of that sort can feel rather like pushing down a hallway, from point A to point B, punching and/or kicking enemy after enemy after enemy.
Wulverblade dispenses with staleness by flooding its fields with items and weapons. Heck, even the hacked up body parts, severed arms and heads, of your fallen foes can be thrown at the next wave of enemies. On occasion this can seem like too much, when you’re trying to assault an enemy in front of you but your character keeps picking up throwables. This isn’t even to take in consideration other base weapons, spears and swords, that you can find and use until they break. You can find even more powerful weapons like awesome greatswords or huge axes with their own legendary history, blades so powerful they can chew through shields and flesh with every heavy strike.
Rage is yet another feature that keeps gameplay fresh. It’s represented below your character’s health as a blue bar that fills as you slay enemies. Once full, your character can enter Rage mode which makes them temporarily invincible and increases their attack speed and power. Rage will also slowly recover a bit of health before running out, but if your character is killed with only a partially filled Rage bar, they’ll lose all of that pent up Rage.
I found that this added a level of timing and planning to Wulverblade. Typically, I could sort of force my way through enemies in a beat ’em up, saving any one-time use special attacks for the boss. Here, with how difficult Wulverblade can be, it became crucial to save up my full Rage bar toward the end of the stage in order to have that extra little guarantee of some health when things got dicey. Recovery items are not plentiful and bosses have a lot of health, so you’ve got to play all the cards in your favor consistently.
Wulverblade may not be for everyone. Few games are truly for everyone. That statement encompasses the fact that Wulverblade is ultra-violent and very gruesome, but it doesn’t come close to representing how replayable it is. There’s the story mode and an arcade mode with finite lives. There’s an arena for battling waves of enemies. With all kinds of historical articles to unlock, in-universe lore and story tidbits to find, as well as achievements, leaderboards, and weapon info, plus good old local co-op multiplayer, there’s a lot to keep a person coming back to this game.
As a beat ’em up, it’s not all that long, but it has tremendous depth in variable gameplay and in terms of research. I’ve already played through it twice now, first with Brennus, and then with Guinevere. I still have enough enthusiasm in me to try a run with Caradoc next. Or maybe I’ll sink some time in the arena. My last name means North Town or North Settlement, so maybe you could say I have some familial interest in this game. Maybe not. I could be adopted.
Either way, whether I’m really a Norton or not, Wulverblade successfully imbued in this gamer a real sense of sympathy for the fated plight of Caradoc and his tribes. I’m not a historian but I understand enough about history to know that the Roman empire wasn’t entirely slaughtered at the edge of some British ancestor’s blade. Still, Wulverblade skirts pseudohistory and myth with such precision alongside authenticity that I couldn’t help but suspend my disbelief.
Calgacus, a leader of the Picts who fought Rome in the Battle at Mons Graupius, c.83AD, appears in this game as a gray-haired warrior. The Roman historian Tacitus put these words in Calgacus’ mouth for the chieftain’s address of his soldiers:
“Now, however, the furthest limits of Britain are thrown open, and the unknown always passes for the marvellous. But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace.”
The 8-bit Review
There are two main forms of depiction for this world: the in-game graphics and the cutscene animations.
Firstly, the former. The backgrounds are detailed and make surprisingly great use of lightning. They appear dynamic with licking tongues of flame or boughs blowing in the chilly air, rain dashing against stone in sheets. The game’s representation of real world historical locales is stunning, and Wulverblade doesn’t let you forget about that as its unlockable articles inform you how certain Roman fortifications or glimpses of the modern Scottish wilderness framed these crisp settings.The weakest link in the visual chain is in my opinion the animation of the in-game characters. When static, these cell-animated figures look alright, even in their hyper-deformed, tiny-legged style. When moving, however, I found that the grimacing dialogue delivery and independent segments of bodies in motion reminded me inevitably of flash animation. There’s nothing inherently wrong with flash but contextually it looks somewhat out dated in the company of Wulverblade’s better visual features, perhaps over digitized, losing the organic nature of the penciling of their original concepts. That is of course not to say that it’s horrible, just that it’s outshone by everything else.
And that takes us neatly to my favorite visuals in the game: the cutscene animations.
This is where the organic artistry has impact. The gory cutscenes flex and bend, pages in a living graphic novel. You the player are treated to a lot of this stuff in all its visceral glory. Additionally, you’re given loads of high quality concept art. Jim Lee and Greg Capullo, eat your hearts out. This stuff is top notch and I really dig the presentation, like the concept art below: it’s not just a plain white page with some doodles on it.
The soundtrack by composer Verbal Vigilante has this great, self-serious cinematic quality to it. The menacing tones of a dour orchestra underscore the bleakness of this era and the battles ahead. I wouldn’t doubt that this score would feel at home at the cinema, but that stands in contrast to the voice acting, which can sound hokey at times.
The main trio of playable characters are played well, accents in tow, for most of the script, but it’s the odd enemy and boss dialogue that can sound somewhat unenthusiastic or amateurish with inconsistent accents. The narrator, Trevor Martin, deserves all the high fives I could muster, though. The gravelly, patient delivery is pitch perfect for the harsh journey of Caradoc. I wish whoever this guy is would narrate some documentaries for me.
As mentioned, there are enough variables in the gameplay to keep the old beat ’em up formula hale from start to finish, though the degree to which the game seems to drag will likely fluctuate based on individual players’ tastes. Variations do trickle down to the three playable characters, though. The character selection screen gives a simple breakdown of the trio. If you’ve played many beat ’em ups, you’ll recognize the format here.
Caradoc, as the main character, is of course the most balanced with Power, Agility & Speed, and above average Defense. Brennus is the big bruiser with max Power but low Agility & Speed. What’s surprising is his low Defense rating. However, I found that chewing through the hordes was easiest with Brennus since he is so strong. Thirdly
Blaze Guinevere has the highest Agility & Speed rating but the lowest Power and Defense in the game. She can quickly be overwhelmed but she can also get out and stay out of trouble if a player can react fast enough.
What these three characters differences do not describe are their capabilities. Guinevere can perform a variety of unique air chains. Brennus can smash the face of any downed enemy to knock off a bit more of their health. The differences between the characters only makes multiplayer that much more exciting, especially once the players begin to grasp their own character’s strengths and weaknesses. The co-op is exceptional.
I really started getting invested in the plight of the North about halfway through the game, as stakes grew higher and higher. By the time you reach the final stage and (spoiler: highlight to reveal) Caradoc’s family is captured by the Romans, I started wishing that history had turned out differently for these poor doomed characters. However, Wulverblade remember is about more than just history. It’s also concerned with legend. So when Caradoc, Brennus, and Guinevere (spoiler: highlight to reveal) are finally torn down by the Roman legion, they transform into hulking werewolves, the Wulvers, and the game doesn’t end.
Historical articles are unlocked throughout the game. Sometimes you’ll have to find a hidden document among the rubble. These are truly special and give the game a ton of additional value, in my opinion. The images and videos taken of ruins and countryside are gorgeous. You also get a variety of mythical descriptions of weapons and a sense both of reality and the way that the ancient folk might have believed their own world to be. It’s a shame that frequent typos slightly mar an otherwise great experience learning about Roman swords and stone circles.
You may have heard that Wulverblade is hard. You heard right. This is no walk in the park, even if that park is covered in corpses and lakes of blood. When the first boss hands you a hearty game over, then it’s clear you can’t just button mash your way through this adventure. You’ll have to play smarter, prioritize enemies so you’re not overrun, keep an eye out for visual cues to avoid attacks, reserve your Rage and special weapons for the worst encounters, and so on. I did feel the game was easier with two players at once but I haven’t pushed through it all again on co-op.
All I know is I’ve got a lot more practice to undergo before I feel like I can even attempt the Arcade mode with its limited lives and continues.
I’ve always like beat ’em ups, so there’s a little more here for me, but the various play modes and leaderboards, characters, weapons, unlockables, and secrets raise the replay value significantly. I’m not usually one who is overly concerned with high scores and topping them but the fast-paced, engaging action was enjoyable enough to keep me wanting much more.
Video games have concerned themselves with historical accuracy now and then, keeping examples like recent Call of Duty games about World War II in mind, but I can’t recall where this love of history has ever been married this significantly to a beat ’em up. I can also think of an assortment of titles in which you play as the Romans so playing instead as the tribes of the North was equally refreshing. A brawler that didn’t bore, Wulverblade seems to me to be quite the gem in a wide but shallow genre.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
I’d like to thank Fully Illustrated for giving us the opportunity to review their game based on a press key, but furthermore, I’d like to thank Michael Heald, the game’s Creative Director, for sharing his contagious passion for British antiquity. When I was in high school, I used to think history was tiresome but now I realize history is the same thing as storytelling. And who doesn’t like hearing stories, provided they’re told with excitement? Reliving the stories of these ancients in Wulverblade prompted me to seek out and learn more, and that kind of motivation is frankly priceless.
If you’re a history buff, you could really get into this game. If you aren’t, then it just might convert you.
Aggregated Score: 7.8
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Categories: Game Review