Games are growing up. There is a very real movement to mine greater emotional depth from interactive entertainment, to produce clever narratives and explore engaging themes. We're seeing games that strive for a level of maturity above simple guts and sexual gratuity, and while there's an incredibly long way to go, it's encouraging to see games that do speak to something more meaningful than what we're used to.
Then there's Bloodforge, a game about a man wearing a horned skull, who exists as nothing more than a mass of shouting muscles and does nothing but chop off limbs, smash bones, and roar manly thing as half-dressed women and bellowing beasts in loincloths.
At last, we have the Citizen Kane of screaming bloodlust.
Bloodforge (Xbox Live Arcade)
Release: April 25, 2012
MSRP: 1200 Microsoft Points
Bloodforge tells the tale of Crom, a half-dressed warrior who has given up his life of bloodshed in order to raise a family. That is, until his family is slaughtered in a deceptive ambush by a man who is just as fond of shouting as Crom is. Fueled by revenge (and shouting), Crom sets out on a mission to kill a collection of evil Gods whose principal power is shouting, while carving slices out of shouting monsters who he can't stop shouting at. Subtlety is not Bloodforge's strongest point.
Originality is not exactly in abundance, either. To say that Climax Studios' tale of revenge and slaughter is derivative is to say that Crom will have a hefty laundry bill after he's done wading through the gore of a hundred barbarians. The presentation, complete with extravagant color filters, shamelessly borrows from movies such as 300 and Gladiator, with plot and gameplay elements pinched from God of War and doesn't even try to hide it. As Crom decapitates foes and assassinates Gods, one could easily mistake him for a slightly more British Kratos.
Combat is not the most complex or varied of affairs, which proves a little problematic due to the fact that combat is all Bloodforge has. The game shares a lot of elements with old school beat 'em up titles, especially Golden Axe, given that level progress has Crom stomping from one combat zone to another. Each stage is little more than a collection of arenas, broken up by the occasional divergent path, in which every monster must be dispatched before the player can move to the next kill zone.
In order to kill his foes, Crom will fight using one of three melee weapons -- a sword, a hammer, and a set of claws -- all of which fulfill their stereotypical roles (the sword is balanced, the hammer is slow and powerful, while the claws are weaker and swifter ... in case you couldn't guess). There is also a crossbow for ranged attacks, which can prove essential in certain situations. Attacks are handled with the usual light and strong attacks, which can be chained together to produce simplistic combo moves. However, due to the number of enemies and their unblockable attacks, most of these combos are best ignored in favor of button-mashing.
There is an obligatory rage meter which, when filled, allows the player to enter a berserker state, dishing out more damage as the opposition temporarily moves in slow motion. By holding buttons down, this meter can be used to execute devastatingly nasty finishing moves, spilling more blood and tearing off more limbs than usual. While shouting, obviously.
Crom is almost entirely designed for offense, with his only defensive maneuver being a dodge roll. Mastering the dodge is crucial, since opponents are aggressive but telegraph their attacks. Every combat situation is a case of mashing the attack button, waiting for an opponent to give off a warning, and then rolling away. At first, combat seems overwhelming due to the fact that enemies love swarming in from all angles, but the creatures are all incredibly predictable, and by the halfway mark, most players will be able to fight and dodge based on pure instinct.
Relying on instinct is a good call, because the game's biggest challenge comes from how visually disorienting it is. Most combat sequences aren't difficult by design, but by how the faded, uniform color scheme of the environments and characters cause all the visual elements to bleed into each other. Crom and his adversaries favor a mostly black-on-black color scheme, and when combined with the nauseating shaky camera that forever struggles to get the best view of the violence, you're left with a game that's hard to keep track of. It's all very stylish, distilling the very essence of the term, "cinematic,' but it's not conducive to a user-friendly experience.
A few boss battles against huge creatures spice things up a little, though they all involve exploiting relatively simple attack patterns. Crom also has access to three area-of-effect spells that deal impressive damage to those around him, but they often make the surroundings even darker and harder to navigate. One spell, which turns the floor into a black sea of hungry serpents, can render opponents almost invisible due to the overbearing lack of contrast.
While Bloodforge lacks any sort of interactive online component, the game's leaderboards have been integrated in such a way that competing for scores feels more dynamic and exciting. Each of the game's levels are split between a hub world that has huge stone monoliths in the center. These monoliths record the number of kills, the amount of blood spilled, and every level's overall score, with a player's name engraved upon their stone surfaces. To keep your name on the monoliths, you have to do better than players on your friends list. It's really no different than any other leaderboard, but the presentation makes it far more endearing.
As well as leaderboards, players can issue their own challenges by indulging in a wave-based survival mode. These challenge arenas allow you to tweak various aspects of the game, creating tougher enemies, or imposing penalties such as reduced damage or an inability to cast spells. Once you've completed a survival mode under your chosen conditions, you can issue a personal challenge to anybody on your friends list, daring them to do better. It's a nice idea, and lends a sense of replay to an otherwise short game, but it's still, at the core, more of the same soulless slaughter when you get down to brass tacks.
Bloodforge's commitment to excessive butchery and dedication to endless combat is something I can respect, but given the game's uninspired (or rather, overly "inspired") narrative, the dreary progression through levels, and the disorienting visual presentation, it's far from the first choice for those wanting an enjoyable brawler. It's far from the worst, either, since there is definitely some fun to be had in carving up an army of shirtless monstrosities and there's an almost sweet charm to be found in just how stupid the entire game is.
It's not an especially bad game. It is, in fact, a decent little distraction. However, once you've seen one guy get this arm cut off, you don't need to see it the next several hundred times. Despite lasting only a couple of hours, Bloodforge still feels like it outstays its welcome thanks to its duotone environments and the feeling that everything on offer has been offered countless times in better packages. Still, if you love old school brawlers enough, you will have a solid, if fairly unremarkable, little button masher that will at least justify the asking price.
So much shouting, though. So much shouting.