The release of BloodForge on Xbox Live Arcade is another example of the blurring of lines between full retail titles and downloadable experiences. The quality of downloadable titles in terms of gameplay and presentation continue to encroach on the standards of full retail games and BloodForge is no exception.
BloodForge tells the tale of Crom, a warrior who had given up his trade in order to settle down with his wife and family. That is until his world is ripped apart by a malevolent force which causes Crom to once again take up his sword, this time against the gods. The premise is reminiscent of God of War but trades the Greek mythology setting for that of Nordic barbarians. It does contain a few predictable twists to the standard tale of revenge but it never gets too intricate.
The story is really secondary to both the art style and combat of Bloodforge. Using a variety of weapons Crom will hack and slash his way to fulfilling his revenge. Swords, hammers, steel claws and cross bows are the weapons at Crom’s disposal. Each weapon has a significant weight to them, making the immense damage they deal very believable.
Using these weapons you can chain light, heavy and even jump attacks into combos for increased points. The points accumulated also tie into the amount of blood Crom spills. The better the combo, the more blood spilt. Blood is the currency of BloodForge that allow Crom’s Rune attacks to be upgraded. Rune Attacks are Crom’s special offensive abilities such as dealing additional lighting damage with every blow.
Spilling Blood also contributes towards filling the rage meter located at the top of the screen. Using the rage meter, time slows down and the amount of damage Crom deals is increased. This effect lasts until the rage meter is depleted.
Rounding out the combat system is the ability to evade. While Crom is a strong Nordic warrior he doesn’t possess the ability to block attacks and instead must roll out of harm’s way. Evading becomes an essential mechanic in Bloodforge as you will often be fighting hordes of enemies, each with varying attacks.
Even though Bloodforge is only a five to six hour campaign, there is a surprising amount of variety among the enemies. Each enemy has unique offensive capabilities that will require some trial and error before an optimum strategy is discovered to deal with them. The enemy characters also look quite disturbing, as if they were pulled out of the nightmarish realities of Silent Hill or the Hellraiser films.
Despite the solid mechanics and the variety of enemy types, combat in Bloodforge becomes a chore. Each level is a linear set of battle areas that need to be completed before you can progress. While the brutal combat is violent and fun that is all there is to do. The repetitive nature of Bloodforge would have benefited from platforming or puzzle elements to help break the pace of monotonous combat.
The combat can easily become frustrating due to the lack of health items during the campaign. There is no regenerating health bar, so the player must seek out health items during each level. They are often located off the beaten path and behind several hordes of enemies. Since health does not regenerate after each level or cutscene, the player must be extremely cautious when they decide to restore their health. Boss fights in particular demand the use of health items but if you decided to use them during the level, you may be in big trouble.
Bloodforge does have a great checkpoint system, with it auto saving after almost every fight. Since it saves so often you can choose to replay an area instead of wasting a health pack to beat it. The frequency of saves also benefits those who want to replay and area to attain a higher score. At the end of each fight a letter grade is assigned to your performance, similar to that of Japanese games, with S rank being perfect.
In the main menu, enabling blood duels allows the player to compete against friends for high scores in each singe player level. As opposed to chasing a friend’s numerical score, Bloodforge puts two meters on the screen. One is the culmination of your friend’s blood spilt while the other fills as you increase your score.
The second competitive aspect of Bloodforge is the challenge mode. In challenge you face off against waves of enemies in arenas unlocked by completing levels in the single player. Before each wave you can modify one of several attributes that act as difficulty multipliers. The highest wave that you complete and the accumulated score attained can then be sent as a challenge to anyone on your friends list. You can also be issued challenges by friends and attempt to match their score.
If a community is built around Bloodforge than battling for high scores on the leaderboard could actually be pretty fun. With so many other titles out there competing for a slice of the Xbox Live community however, I don’t expect either mode to get the attention they depend on.
Both competitive modes and the single player feature Bloodforge’s unique art style. The pale world of BloodForge is made up of a monochromatic colour scheme of blacks, whites and greys but is often punctuated by red blood squirting from dismembered corpses. The art direction feels like it was pulled from the pages of a Frank Miller comic and works very well most of the time. The only negative is that Crom’s character model is made up of the exact same colours as most enemies. When you’re in the middle of half a dozen enemies it can be very easy to lose sight of Crom and get hit by these enemies.
In addition to losing Crom in the gritty aesthetics of battle, the camera will often prove to be the biggest detriment to your success. The camera can be very difficult to manage at times, often getting stuck on objects or focusing on the wrong direction. While you do have the ability to control the camera, it auto adjusts as you move. Even if you position it in a way that benefits you, the moment you evade or attack a different enemy, it will change perspective. The camera isn’t game breaking, but it is just another element you have to fight with while playing.
Bloodforge is a difficult hack and slash experience from beginning to end. The combat is fluid but the need to manage health packs and fight the camera may lead to some frustration. It is not often that I get stuck on a boss battle but BloodForge did just that. I appreciate the solid fighting system and the difficulty presented but the art style is really one of my favourite aspects. While the repetitive nature of combat could have been better paced using platforming or puzzles, it was always fun. As an Xbox Live Arcade title, BloodForge works well as a hack and slash game and should hold you over until the next big action game debuts.
This review is based on a downloadable copy of the 360 version of Bloodforge.