Bladestorm is a lopsided yet delightful game. It’s made by Koei, the same developer that handles the Dynasty Warriors series. I played Dynasty Warriors once, at the urging of a friend who claimed it was “epic” and promised “huge battles in ancient China.” This was all hateful lies. Dynasty Warriors is Fuedal China: Spreadsheets In Action. In that series, you play as powerful heroes of Chinese lore who can carve through dozens and even hundreds of soldiers with ease. This might sound entertaining, sortof like a hyperactive God of War, but Dynasty Warriors has none of the polish or enthusiasm of GoW (or Bladestorm, but we’ll get to that in a minute). Dynasty Warriors is You, Boring Hero Guy, occasionally witnessing Boring Hero CGI scenes with awful voice acting, and moving around a lifeless landscape save for squads of soldiers trying to accomplish obscure objectives. You will frequently fail in Dynasty Warriors because you were supposed to be on this side of the map, which it shows you at the Retry screen, when you were way over here, even though the game did nothing to suggest you should have been over there, even going so far as to start you over here near some enemies, encouraging you to move where you’re not supposed to be. It is so maliciously stupid you’ll almost feel offended.
So I downloaded the Bladestorm demo a few months ago expecting the exact same thing. I played through it once. Then something amazing happened. I played through it again.
I bought it last week when I was on vacation, fascinated by the simple fact that Koei had taken the Dynasty Warriors game engine and made a largely playable game out of it.
You’re a no name mercenary soldier during the Hundred Years War era in France. Unlike Dynasty Warriors, you are not a living god hero who can beat seven shades out of huge groups of enemies. If you run into a pack of swordsmen alone, you will die. If you stand in the path of a rush cavalryman, you will get knocked to the ground. The primary method of fighting in Bladestorm takes place by running up to a group of soldiers, all of which in the game act together in small groups based on weapon type (more on this in a minute), and have a hovering icon over their head to indicate this. Run up to them, press the A button. You now control the squad. They move tightly in whatever direction you dictate, attack when you hold down the RB button, and have some special abilities mapped to your face buttons (A, B, X, Y).
Battles are huge in Bladestorm. You can barely cross one area during the time allotted in a mission day (time limit in this game being abstracted as Daytime, where Nightfall ends a given round and starts the battle up the next day). Towns and forts and cities controlled by the two sides show up with a flag (Red = English, Blue = French). Your objective may be to capture one nearby, or one way over THERE. The game doesn’t really force you to start at any specific base you own, it just lets you pick whichever one you think will allow you to fulfill you objectives the fastest. Isn’t that decent of it?
Every battle in Bladestorm is simultaneously MASSIVE and minuscule. You might be losing bases like mad on the west side of the map, in this huge strip of Normandy your fighting on ( to use an example) but you can’t even see that area, so you can only imagine what t is going on over there. Meanwhile, your trying like hell to get up this hill in front of you and capture this town, but there’s a line of pikemen halfway up, and at the top a row of archers that are plugging you full of holes. Sometimes, you won’t have any backup at all. It’ll be you, your squad, those pikemen, those archers, and that town. So you surge up that hill, you swing around those pikemen, and you turn those archers inside out, and hope you’ll have enough guys alive to finish the job.
In the LOTR films, they did a good job of showing you the huge scale of the battles going on, but kept your focus tight on the characters, cutting between them to show you what they were doing. Bladestorm is like that, but even more heavily focused. You can bring up the map to see who controls what bases in the area (just for context, there might be 40 or so towns/forts/keeps in a given zone), but you don’t know what’s going on over there. You just hope the AI is favoring your side at the moment.
Combat does crap the bed occasionally. The game classes are based on hard counters dependent on the weaponry used, for example, bowmen attacks make a mess of cavalry, soldiers with maces do alot of damage to heavily armored opponents, etc. This can be frustrating when you get a good flank on a foe, only to have your attacks fall off them like tissue paper. They tear up your squad, you run away (mercifully, your ‘alone’ run speed, without a squad, is almost as fast as a mounted horse, allowing you to retreat when your soldiers get chewed up), and regroup elsewhere.
Bases are taken by eliminating the “Base Commander,” a unit which will appear with an attached squad, usually swordsmen, once enough “base points” have been lost. “Base points” refers to the number of units assigned to that base. This may be as few as one, or as many as 10. The game seems to be extremely unreliable on this number though, because Base Commanders sometime appear when virtually no units have been killed around the base, and are forced to pop into existence once an opposing force (never your character though) enters the base.
This means the game assumes that a) if the points are gone, everything was either killed by you, a number of computer controlled units, or both, and the commander should spawn, or b) enough base point units have been sufficiently circumvented to allow opposing forces into said base area. I don’t really know where I’m going with this, besides the fact that once the commander pops, it becomes VERY easy to capture bases. If you rush him, circle him with a squad, and stab him to death, tada, instantaneous base control. Strangely, but perhaps implemented to streamline the combat, all the base point squads in the area instantly despawn when this happens, and defenders spawn of the controlling side. Occasionally, you’ll be playing a game, and see a huge base fall, when other smaller ones around it seem perfectly fine. “Oh,” one thinks, “the computer must’ve gotten lucky and pushed in a turned that base’s commander to poo.” To be fair, you can do it too. It just does a number on the immersion.
I guess I’ll talk about the crappy stuff now. The story is ham. It is only loosely historically accurate, in that: A) England B) and France C) are fighting D) about something E) in the Middle Ages. All of the characters have atrocious accents that might have been funny if their voices actors had been doing it on purpose. Half the characters look like appropriately gruff, dour Western Europeans who quaff ale and pee anger, but the other half, particularly the women, are typical anime trash. Works fine in Dysnasty Warriors, not here. Which just makes the accents even weirder. Your own character is taken from a template of predetermined faces, 10 for men, 10 for women. There are approximated 2 faces for males which look the part and one for women. There are three voiceovers for each gender too, one of each sounding resonant and heroic and the other two sounding childish and poorly-accented, respectively.
There’s a system for equipping armor, weapons, and items called pennets (sic) which are basically one shot magical spells which increase squad defense, attack power, that kind of thing. They’re easy to use but easily forgotten as well. The way you improve squads is that you get “books” on the battlefield from drops which are about some specific type of weapon. These unlock a squad type, allowing you to select them in the field of battle if you happen across one. You then allocate “skill points” in a menu back in the menu tavern (the area from which you select contracts, save the game, handle equipment, etc) to various areas, like squad size, attack power. THEN, when you select a squad on the field which correlates with a type you’ve put points into, it upgrades them accordingly on the spot, and downgrades them when you leave the squad. This is a good system but it iss very confusing to understand at first and really isn’t explained at all.
Lastly, there are too many numbers flying around like in Dynasty Warriors. It’s that age old Japanese development line of thinking, Even If It’s Stupid, Don’t Change It. Numbers pop up for damage over enemy heads. Over your units too. Big numbers fly when your squad kills enemy soldiers. There’s a health meter and an experience meter and a turbo meter, which fills as you attack then gives you a few seconds of supercharged attack power once it is full. This usually happens once every few fights. All these numbers are a holdover from Dynasty Warriors and meant to appease the crowd that cannot sit still and play a game without having a spreadsheet on their screen. I would have liked it if it was just your button attacks for squads in the lower right corner (see the above screens), your map in the upper right, and perhaps a thin line in the lower left to handle your turbo meter. You don’t even need a health meter, the only time you’ll ever die is when you make a stupid mistake and get yourself surrounded and torn apart, and even then there won’t be anything you can do to survive. You certainly don’t need an experience meter, or damage points, or combos, or anything like that. Allocate the points behind the scenes and show them to me after the fight.
We don’t need the distractions here. When it’s just you and your pack of guys with swords, wearing nothing but boiled leather and copper helmets that look like they were made out of stove pots, staring down a squad of halberdiers in full plate rushing out the fortress gates to slaughter you , there just isn’t any time to care about experience, or health, or combos. It’s just the rush, you hit the attack button, every soldier on the screen lets out a bloody battle cry, and you get to work. It’s mean. It’s punchy. It’s Bladestorm.