Genre: Action Adventure
Developer: Ubisoft Shanghai / Tiwak
Release Date: November 13, 2007
Beowulf, killer of monsters. Beowulf, killer of men. Beowulf, the cheerleader. Beowulf ... the button-masher. Yes, it's another one of those licensed movie games, and unlike the film on which Ubisoft's Beowulf is based, the fun factor can quickly become overshadowed by a pale imitation of the film and button-mashing madness, all stained red with plenty of repetitive blood.
Beowulf serves as a complement to the medieval-themed movie, adding in the missing material from the time between Beowulf becoming a king and confronting what he has become. It paraphrases the film so if you haven't seen it, a lot of the story isn't going to make much sense, as it does an extremely poor job of retelling it. This is a game for fans of the film who can't get enough of Hollywood's retooling of the legend. If you are an English major, don't expect it to be any more accurate than what you might have seen in the theater. Although it supposedly covers a 30-year gap in his history, playing through this title should only take six to eight hours.
To Beowulf's credit, the gory details and bloodthirsty backdrop of the feature film have been brought over, with every femur-busting move delivered by the heroic figure himself. The first few moments of the game guide you through Beowulf's basic combat and grapple moves, showing you how to punch, stomp and cleave your way through his foes. Grappling your enemy offers even more brutality, thanks to all of the nasty attacks that you can perform by using the face buttons to brutalize the punching bag that has fallen into your hands. All of the movies cause so much blood to gush forth that it paints the land red.
It's not enough to simply hit the correct buttons when you grapple, though. You have to repeatedly mash your choices for most every move, which quickly kills the thrill of combat, turning Beowulf the monster slayer into Beowulf the button-masher. God of War's Kratos did the same thing for particularly huge monsters, but imagine having to do several of these for every peon who stepped into his path, if only to kill them more quickly, thanks to most every enemy having stone skin.
It doesn't matter if it's a painted pagan whose skeletal frame should split in half from Beowulf's blade, or a hardened Viking warrior. Most foes will usually get back up from a beating unless Beowulf grapples and crushes them to death in the first go, and even then, there are enemies who will shrug that off, too. Bosses are even worse in this respect, as a few will have segmented life bars, such as Grendel at the beginning, which teaches you how to deal with one. After whittling down their segmented life bars, the only way to keep damaging bosses is to grapple and button-mash according to the prompts onscreen. This wouldn't be so bad if it was actually a challenge, but instead, it simply feels like an excuse to callous your thumb.
If you fail, bosses miraculously regenerate a chunk of health so you must beat them down and grapple with them again. It also doesn't matter how much smashing, punching, piercing and slicing you do; until you grapple with the boss and "break through" that marker in the health bar leading into the next segment, you won't be able to do anymore damage. It's as if someone took a look at God of War, saw how some of the bosses had button sequences that had to be followed to kill them, thought it was a great idea, and lengthened it three or four times.
The combat can actually be satisfying in small doses, were it not for the simple fact that the most brutal moves elicit relief that the fight is over … until the next army of clones show up. Much of the game can play out like Dynasty Warriors, only less fun, by throwing endless hordes of pagans at you that you'll need to cripple, break and kill as they emerge from their hidden monster generators. You can also, on occasion, get juggled by enemies if they manage to crowd you, killing you before you realize what has happened. With all of the button-mashing and lemming-like enemies you'll face, the repetitive pacing of combat quickly wears out its welcome.
Because you need an extra challenge, weapons wear out. Steel swords, spears, axes — they'll all eventually shatter in your hands, forcing you to either find a pile of weapons nearby and button-mash to pry one loose or rely on Beowulf's knuckles. There are hidden weapons in the game world that won't break as often, but that's about their only benefit, since they seem to do as much damage as the ones forged by Joe the Blacksmith in the next village. It's disappointing that the only saving grace to finding a better weapon is in it taking longer to break, but that's what you can come to expect with Beowulf.
Beowulf can also "hulk out," or go into a berserker rage that turns him into the Terminator. Holding down the R2 trigger will slowly enrage him, although getting damaged will also boil his blood, filling his carnal gauge until it triggers his transformation. As his carnal meter slowly drains, his carnal power makes him invincible and adds even more damage, gore and savage ruthlessness to all of his attacks. If he's near special fire pyres, it will, for whatever reason, set off explosions when he rages and allow him to quickly kill most everyone around him, including once-untouchable allies. If anything, it makes the button-mashing easier and can help break you free from being juggled. Thanks to the bloodlust blinding his eyes, though, everything around him is fair game; you can return him to his normal state with a flick of the R2 trigger. Beowulf will come out of his trance stunned, and with extremely low health, but none the worse for the wear, unless he's surrounded by enemies or has killed one of his allies, which can hurt his chances for survival.
Beowulf is accompanied by a merry band of thanes that tries to cover his back without much success, usually forcing the hero to add the title of "wet nurse" to his growing list of appellations. The beginning of the game makes it clear that without your thanes, you are nothing. If all of your thanes die in battle, that's the end of you. Of course, if Beowulf dies in battle, well, that's another thing.
In Beowulf, you can order your thanes to roll open stone doors in the wilderness, turn wooden cranks and chop away the wooden supports for boulders, but they also have about as much intelligence as the rock they've just moved. They'll fight well enough on their own, but they'll often stand around while their compatriots fight for their lives several yards away, or fail to assist each other if one of them gets in a bad spot. In that case, the thane in trouble will whine for help even when he's surrounded by others of your merry band, so you must enter the fray and heroically save him from death, since no one else can seem to do it.
There are also bizarre moments in the game that turn Beowulf into a cheerleader. A circular ring comes up with highlights, and you have to either press the Square button or hold down the Triangle button as Beowulf's raised fist pumps his men into song and merrymaking. Whether the task is luring Grendel out to fight or turning a giant wheel, your thanes will do what they need to do, albeit at a slow pace, and they'll work faster with some encouragement. Beowulf can also power up his men to do more damage and defend themselves better by inspiring them with a heroic moment that imbues them with a blue aura of goodness. Thankfully, this depends more on how well he does in combat than in raising the roof.
Beowulf's adventuring skills also enable him to scramble up walls or jump from post to post, but the sluggish controls make it a clunky experience, especially when the game gives you little to go on. At one point, I had to swing across to another post, except I didn't know how to do that until I accidentally discovered it after several frustrating failures. Although there's supposed to be a tutorial mode in the game to give you hints as to what to do, it doesn't work.
Visually, Beowulf looks pretty good in many respects, despite the limited number of locales, whether you're slogging it out in the swamps or sailing through an icy cathedral, and the carnal effects of your actions drench every pixel in buckets of blood. Sound effects are gratuitously crunchy and squishy, and much of the voice acting, with the versatile Sir Anthony Hopkins contributing to his role of King Hrothgar, is tolerable, if not as repetitive as the button-mashing. The whispering screeches that nag you through your speakers whenever Beowulf builds up his carnal meter do quickly get old, though. The orchestrated score that follows Beowulf's exploits offers plenty of ear candy; given the visual and audio elements that it shares with the film, the game presentation isn't bad.
As you complete the episodes that comprise Beowulf's story, you'll also earn carnal and heroic tokens that you can use to purchase upgrades. Carnal tokens go toward Beowulf's carnal abilities, while heroic tokens go toward his thanes, their ability to defend themselves your use of "heroic storm" to pump them up. Depending on what you do in the game, it will end either with you remembered as a monster slayer or heroic king. If you use carnal rage a lot and kill most everything in your path, you can guess in which direction the needle will swing. This can feel inevitable, since there are quite a few enemies that can't be killed without becoming a monster slayer. Even when you finish Beowulf, there isn't a whole lot of incentive to go back through it again, unless you absolutely have to get every in-game achievement.
There are times when it's great to wade into battle and cut a bloody swath of destruction through your enemies as you try to save your people, but that kind of excitement lasts only for the first hour or so. Thanks to its ability to maul the movie that it supposedly follows, Beowulf is a poor substitute for the film and an even more frustrating experience on the console, given its clumsy fight mechanics, uninspired enemies and the repetitive button-mashing. In the end, Beowulf will leave you with an arsenal of broken weapons and a sore thumb by which to remember its legacy.
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