God of War isn't the first game to feature vicious and bloody combat set against a culture's mythology, but it is probably the most familiar title. The story of Kratos rebelling against the Greek gods is worth telling, and the copious amounts of blood and swordplay certainly make it appealing to those who don't care much for narrative. It is for these reasons that some developers use it as a blueprint for creating their own action titles. Climax Group, a developer who has had experience in a myriad of genres, is no stranger to this type of action as evidenced by its work on Ghost Rider for the PS2. Now it's dabbling in brutal action in Bloodforge, an XBLA title that can be succinctly described as a Celtic God of War.
The story is a familiar one. You play the role of Crom, a warrior who has grown tired of combat and wants to settle down with his wife and raise a family. One day, he comes back to his village after a hunt and finds it burning. While trying to save his wife, he is tricked into killing her instead. Realizing what he's done, he goes on a quest for revenge against the gods who are hell-bent on destroying him.
As is the norm for revenge tales, you tear everyone limb from limb. With a sword, talons or warhammer, you unleash combos on hordes of well-armed enemies of various sizes. The weapons follow the usual blueprint in that the sword is the most balanced, the talons get in more strikes but cause a low amount of damage, and the warhammer provides maximum damage with the slowest speed. Inflicting enough damage on your enemies allows you to perform finishing moves, and absorbing enough of their blood initiates a rage mode where your moves inflict more damage and gain more currency with a higher combo count. Magic can be used on its own or infused into your melee weapons. A crossbow can hit enemies at a distance but inflicts the least amount of damage, and items can replenish your health or give you more blood to exchange for more powerful magic spells.
Interestingly, Bloodforge does away with most of the expected action game conventions. There are no puzzles, so you don't have to solve an obtuse block riddle to gain entry to a new area. Performing acrobatic feats are also out of the question. You can jump, but you'll never need to cross chasms, run up walls or swing to other areas. Quick Time Events (QTEs) are also gone, though you'll sometimes button-mash to inflict a gory finishing move on enemies. Blocking is also gone, as are other defensive moves, like parrying or deflecting. You can roll away from enemies, but the roll seems uncontrollable, as you'll often roll twice when you only pulled the trigger once. The roll seems too powerful since the enemies' hits are nullified as long as you're in the rolling state, even if the blow clearly made contact. Finally, there isn't a lock-on system here. If you want to hit the enemy, you have to target him manually with the free-form camera.
With nothing else to worry about in the gameplay, Bloodforge relies on the gameplay to carry the four-hour quest. On the surface, the combat seems fine. Every blow you inflict, even the quickest ones, looks damaging, and the copious amounts of blood make each hit feel brutality. Finishing moves looks especially gruesome as limbs are strewn all over the place, heads fly off bodies and stomachs are slowly cut apart. What you'll realize after a short time is that the combos don't seem to matter. The most basic of blows is enough to take care of practically every enemy, and dodging comprises the rest of your attack tactics. Even though you have a variety of moves at your disposal, you never have an incentive to learn them, let alone use them.
The lack of combat depth is better exemplified in your fights. The basic set of soldiers only requires button-mashing, and handling hordes of them only requires that you mix it up with some defensive rolls. More advanced enemies require the same thing, and you'll soon recognize the patterns to easily handle each foe. The boss fights are more disappointing because they seem far easier than some of the regular fights. The first boss fight is a perfect example: Aide from the ground slams, none of his attacks hit you as long as you stand close to him. The other bosses require a tiny bit more strategy but overall, you'll be more anxious against regular foes instead of the bosses.
The camera behaves unlike any camera in any third-person action game. Running causes the camera to bob and sway similar to the "roadie run" camera in the Gears of War series, but combat is where things go haywire. Every time one of your weapons makes contact with an enemy, the camera sways until it centers on said enemy. You'll see some swaying when it's just a one-on-one encounter, but things get really bad when you're swarmed. The camera rotates quickly in an attempt to focus on every enemy you hit. Since you'll hit multiple enemies with one stroke, you'll find that the camera never gets into a stable position to let you enjoy the carnage. Those who get motion sick should approach with caution. The camera also repositions when you perform a roll, and the cinematic scenes show you performing finishing moves. All in all, you have very little control over the camera in this title.
While the game is a strictly solo affair and focused on the story, it throws in some semblance of multiplayer. There are leaderboards for just about everything, from the amount of blood you spill to the highest combo count. Once you've reached the world hub, you can see the name of the top-ranking player among your friends for each category. The information is etched on one of the monoliths, which is a nice touch. What's more interesting is the game's challenge mode. With the regular story mode, certain battle sections display a bar for yourself and a bar for one of your friends detailing how much blood they've spilled. Once you overcome this challenge, you can enter a separate mode where you and a friend constantly try to top each other in the blood count. Every successful attempt gives you the chance to alter enemies, whether it's increased strength or hit power, until one of you fails. It is a great take on putting in a multiplayer element without breaking the game, so but it'll only be appreciated if you can stomach the combat system and camera in the first place.
The sound does a good job of evoking the feel of a grand but bloody adventure. The musical score is bombastic, evoking feelings of an epic adventure in every land you encounter and providing silence when nothing exciting is happening. The effects are meaty, and the sound of steel hitting flesh is still sickening in a good way. The voice work is good, but you get the feeling that it may have borrowed elements from God of War. Crom voices everything in anger, even when he discovers that he was the one who murdered his wife. The goddess Morrigan narrates your journey with an accent that's a mix of Caribbean, French and German while all of the villains sound like you'd expect. Again, the performances are good but not that surprising.
If it weren't for the camera issues, the graphics would be pretty impressive for a downloadable title. The cold and dark environments provide the right amount of bleakness, and no matter where you go, you never seem to escape torrents of rain or flurries of snow. Contrasting against the environments is the constant blood trail that is a grim but effective way to lead the player. Characters are well designed, and they sport some nice details that you won't appreciate until you get a close-up. Interestingly, just about all of the important characters in the game wear a mask or helmet, and while one would complain that their lack of facial expressions robs the scenes of some emotion, there's always one emotion per character at all times. Despite the erratic camera, the frame rate holds up most of the time, dipping only when loading to a new scene.
Bloodforge could have been impressive in its simplicity. Though it doesn't take advantage of the combos at its disposal, the combat is satisfying, and the focus on that makes it a decent choice for those who want action without the added puzzles and other activities. The stark graphics and booming sound also help the game fit the mold of an epic action title. However, that same lack of combat depth that may lure in some players has an equal chance of turning away others, and the idea of a competitive combat system, while great, is quickly tarnished by a camera system that doesn't know how to behave. There are far better combat games on the system, and the only reason left to check this out is if you've gone through them all and are craving something new. Bloodforge is available on the Xbox Live Marketplace for 1,200 Microsoft points ($15).
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