Monday, July 12, 2010

X360 Look - Bladestorm: The Hundred Years War

The worst part of the videogame review process is getting inspiration. It shouldn't be hard at all, I play a game and then I write about it. But no writing isn't merely about content, it's also about flavor, form, and a bunch of other things I just made up thirty seconds ago. Coming up with all the fluff is the hardest part for me as I have to get all of that out of the way before I can talk about whether or not I think a game sucks. It took many things to inspire me to write about Bladestorm. A few days ago I watched a bird fly to the top of a tree, earlier this evening I watched a cat play around with a ball, seemingly unremarkable occurrences such as these provided me with just enough to write this review. By contrast Bladestorm offered me no inspiration, which is a bit strange since it's the entire point of this piece.

This is not to say that Bladestorm isn't a bad game. It's just lacking in things that would have given me inspiration. There's no passion, no emotion, none of those other -ions that I pretend to ignore when I think about games that I've played. It's a slightly altered re-telling of the Hundred Years War where nobody actually dies and the sole purpose of the player is to participate as they see fit to keep the war going for as long as their interest remains. It's a game where both sides are played for fools and the player merely works with whoever offers the most money or the most fame. There are no life-or-death situations, no grand sacrifices, and there's never any feeling of the pain and destruction that is usually involved with war. In the end this game comes off as more of a re-enactment of the war than the actual war itself.

All that said this isn't a bad game in the slightest. To start off the player creates their mercenary, gets some basic training, and from there they fight battles on the sides of both France and England. The battles are constant, lands fall in the hands of both sides daily, and really it's all rather meaningless. The player's only goal is to participate in battles and gather enough fame to be granted the opportunity to participate in more important battles that unlock the next difficulty setting as well as new unit-types, equipment, and so on. In short this game is a grind-a-thon.

The goal with any good grind-a-thon is to keep the player's interest and Bladestorm accomplishes that through one of the most entertaining battle-systems I've seen in the genre. Wait what is the genre for this game? I'm guessing it's real-time strategy, heck it's the closest I've come to playing a game of this sort. Anyway when the player enters battle they find themselves alone and severely outnumbered. Both the French and English forces carry on without the player if left alone and they will trade strongholds via combat until the day ends (each day lasts about 10 minutes and most battles end after 2 to 5 of them day). The player is handed a mission where they must take over such-and-such stronghold before the deadline. Each battlefield consists of dozens of strongholds and if the player wants they can take over as many strongholds as they like before going after the specified one to collect their reward.

Seeing as how I've already gotten ahead of myself a reminder is in order. The player is alone and severely outnumbered. That changes quickly because as a Mercenary the player is a master of several arts of war and is capable of leading a squad with the push of a button. This squad can consist of something as mundane as a dozen guys with swords but squads can also include archers, cavalry, ninjas, and even magicians because hey it's a videogame. Taking control of a squad is easy enough but using them effectively depends on their relationship with enemy squads. For every squad in the game there are squads that they are stronger as well as weaker than. For example archers can handle cavalry quite easily but they tend to be no match for the fleet-footed scouts and fencers. Since we're looking at rock-paper-scissors the most basic strategy is to avoid the rocks while focusing on the scissors. Taking an enemy stronghold merely requires that their defenses be brought down by defeating squads and then defeating the base commander when he makes his appearance.

To complicate things further battles between squads isn't merely about getting close and watching both parties hack away. Each squad has access to a handful of skills that can shift unfavorable situations their way. A great swordsman is usually weak to cavalry but they have a particular sword swing that can destroy mounts pretty handily. The lady fencers tend to have the disadvantage when dealing with most other melee units but they can charm a fair number of enemy units to even things out somewhat. This sort of depth is greatly appreciated since having a squad for every situation isn't always possible. Also as the player is the leader of their squad other squads have leaders as well and if they're defeated then the squad will disperse and retreat. Sometimes the most effective way of dealing with a squad is to have the player temporarily leave their own to assassinate the enemy squad leader before rejoining and continuing on. While the player is alone they have access to skills that serve best as quick and dirty ways to finish off lone units as well as break away from crowds.

Another factor that shouldn't be discounted is squad level. A grind-a-thon isn't complete without some form of experience to gain and in Bladestorm all squads can be leveled up. As the difficulty increases so do the enemy squad levels and the player can quickly find themselves obliterated even if their low-level squad is supposed to have the advantage over the high-level squad. Level-ups grant the player skill-points so that they can upgrade their squad through increased stats as well as improved skills. As is the case with similar games it's always best to fight squads that are of slightly higher levels. To give the player something to do with all of the money they make limited-use squads can be purchased which is great because they can be instantly summoned in the middle of any battle, banners that work like power-ups to raise abilities for a short time, and equipment to boost the player's weapon and armor strength(and offer a bit of customization because nobody wants to wear the same clothes for 50 or so hours).

The best aspect of this game is in the fights between squads. There's so much nuance and room for creativity that the player can come up with many solutions for every encounter. Sure the most obvious solution tends to be loading up on the most effective units and abusing abilities but the game's open-ended nature proves to be most rewarding for those willing to experiment and put themselves at risk. All of the tools are there for the player to get into some memorable battles and this is a necessity considering the amount of time it takes just to see the credits roll.

All of this is left up to the player because unfortunately the game has no reason to create memorable battles on its own. Even the historic battles that were pivotal to the actual war are little more than regular battles with an indefinite time-limit. Sometimes there's a particular location to protect or invade but before long it simply becomes about taking over strongholds until the player has had enough and chooses the end the battle themselves. On one hand this is welcome because there are no escorts or strongholds where you lose the battle if you fail to protect them. But in the end it all comes off as rather un-fulfilling as there never seems to be any motivation to perform admirably in battle. It's definitely one of those games where you get out of it what you put into it and for some gamers that just isn't enough.

As for myself the main reason I kept playing was I continually holding onto the vain hope that it would actually end. Sure there is a new difficulty available after the credits roll but said credits come after one of the most anti-climatic battles I've seen in a game. I strode into the enemy's base, defeated the base commander while the King of England wasn't looking, and I won...well I guess I only won the battle. Dynasty Warriors games are known for their large body-counts and warriors capable of killing tens of soldiers with a single swing but through all the chaos they sought an end. Bladestorm seeks to continue the chaos for as long as the player is willing to stand but without any sense of finality there's no reason to put forth a serious effort.

I guess this would be the kind of game that works best when the player involves themselves in one battle a day but with that kind of output one can never expect to even reach the credits. Bladestorm offers many different side-quests and jobs but the jobs are mostly worthless and the side-quests aren't exactly what one considers a side-quest. Sure they don't take place within the bounds of the actual war but a lot of the time the player isn't allowed to progress until they have completed something seemingly inconsequential like escorting a merchant or finding just the right piece of wood. A filter would have done wonders here since it would have allowed the player to focus on either side-quests to better outfit their character or main-quests to move the story along.

Then again I guess that really doesn't matter since all things in this game come to a non-ending. Joan of Arc is never burned at the stake, Prince Edward doesn't die of illness, and John Talbot isn't killed at the final major battle of the Hundred Years War. They all stick around to lead squads and fall again and again to the player's pikemen squad. This is in my opinion the most damning aspect of the game. The player is more than capable of taking on the roll of anyone in an army but all of the named-generals stick with one type of squad, they never show anything that would make them close to a match for the player and what it comes down to is a complete lack of dynamic-play. Beyond the attacks with multiple squads there is little else for the player to adapt to as even the most powerful of generals are one-dimensional in their strategy.

Despite all of these faults Bladestorm remains a compelling and well-developed game. It's unfortunate that a sequel may never materialize as all of these problems can be easily fixed given the time and ambition. I would definitely recommend it if you're looking for a time-sink but have tired of MMORPGs, Action-RPGs, and well...Anything-RPGs. It doesn't get anywhere beyond that however so for those looking for something memorable that they'll talk about for years they're better off looking elsewhere.

Game Rating - 2.5 out of 5 stars
As I said earlier the weak generals and overall sameness of every battle is what holds this game back from greatness. Almost every general is a cavalry unit and those fall easily to pikes as well as bows. Their only challenge comes from the fact that usually they're so high-level that they can defeat the player in a couple hits. The game also tends to give too many advantages to the player. Morale is a key part of battle since after doing enough damage or collecting special items the player becomes invincible for a short time. This can be easily abused to the point where I went entire days without a scratch. I could ignore this aspect to maintain balance but enemy generals are capable of doing it as well (though they're incapable of doing it properly since I've watched them ignore me or the base entirely to pound on some troops in the outskirts).

My Rating - 3 out of 5 stars
As I admitted earlier I spent a good 50+ hours on this game so there is obviously something there that kept me playing for such a long time. The squad-system is really good and though battles are predictable I was finding new squads to play around with or new strategies to try to get through them faster and with less losses. I would have given a higher rating if the game had just given me more of a reason to care about the on-going war. The Dynasty Warriors franchise eventually got me into reading the Three Kingdoms due to the depth of its cast(despite the many artistic liberties Koei took) but with Bladestorm I was supposed to be attached to a bunch of people that talked about nobility, justice, and all that other junk but all it did was leave me uncaring and empty.

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