Blades of Time is the follow-up to X-Blades from 2009. Blades of Time features the same protagonist as X-Blades — Ayumi, the blonde, buxom, pig-tailed adventurer — although the character design feels like something circa 1997. Blades of Time is a melee-heavy action/adventure title that spans a number of unique stages and intertwines an interesting time manipulation mechanic. However, the experience is seriously marred by uneven controls, difficulty spikes, and an awful story.
The tale doesn't require prior knowledge of X-Blades and can be easily summarized, so it makes you wonder why every character in the game is so long-winded. Ayumi sets off to find riches on an island but finds that there's a reason nobody returns from this adventure. She gets caught up in an age-old conflict and is forced to fight her way back to freedom — with help from a couple of mysterious entities and her current partner-in-arms.
The island is divided up into a series of sections, and these levels represent one of the better aspects of the game. Stage variety is pretty grandiose, featuring some lush environments full of bright colors and high contrast. It reminds me a bit of a modern-day Kameo in that the environment outshines the character models and enemies, and it becomes the visual star of the game.
Ayumi comes equipped with dual swords and a gun, which can be swapped around with replacements found throughout the game. The focus in combat is typically on melee attacks; Ayumi can dash around the screen easily enough, darting in and out to perform a series of small combo strings to take down foes. This isn't as deep as a Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden, but for the most part, combat is decent when it works.
When you take Ayumi into the air, you lose a certain amount of control. She has a single- and double-jump move, but her double-jump propels her forward as much as it does upward, and that feels pretty awkward. Upon landing, there's a momentary pause that doesn't feel natural, and it keeps her movement from feeling fluid when using the jump mechanic.
To alleviate some of the jumping awkwardness, Ayumi can lock on to a foe while in midair and then dart in to attack. This move is also used to traverse some vertically themed areas, where Ayumi locks on to floating corals and plants and link her jumps to get elsewhere.
Another piece of Ayumi's move set comes in the form of prompted executions and counters. At times, when the health of an enemy falls low enough or they've opened themselves up from a big attack animation, you'll get a button prompt above that foe's head. Hitting the prompt causes Ayumi to attack, and it often results in an instant kill. The issue is that it seems to work about half of the time. It's more noticeable when it's used for counters, but I had countless occasions where I'd hit the button prompt and Ayumi did nothing. This often led to me getting decimated by the powerful attack I was attempting to counter.
As a whole, combat can feel pretty frustrating. Proper use of the time-twisting mechanic makes things easier, but it never really felt intuitive. Ayumi can roll back time for about a minute or so, which reverses everything that's occurred. When time restarts, it picks up where it left off and leaves behind a clone of Ayumi who plays out the actions you just performed. Having a clone with which to attack is certainly useful, and it's key to overcoming a number of bosses and puzzles throughout the game. It also becomes very important for taking on some of the tougher enemies in the late stages of the game. The issue is that basic enemies don't come equipped with a life bar, and it's hard to get an idea of how damaged they actually are. A lot of late-stage enemies take a ridiculous number of blows to defeat, and committing to one strategy often feels like a game of chance.
It's a shame that the combat never really clicks, especially since there are some smart mechanics involved. When Ayumi defeats enemies, she gets the equivalent of experience points, which are automatically spent at certain altars throughout the game. These altars allow you to decide which powers you'd like to unlock, most of which are combat-related, magic-infused attacks. Ayumi gains abilities to unleash earth, fire and ice attacks to cripple foes, and the abilities can be upgraded a couple of times. These moves are performed by charging up a combo bar with basic attacks. The combo bar has two special orbs to fill, which then allow you to pull off the special attacks. Certain elemental attacks can be more useful than others on different enemy types, and later, your attacks leave lasting elemental effects on your current blades, which become even more useful. This reward system for performing strings of attacks is pretty unique and inventive, and it's one of the best ideas in the game.
However, there's a lot wrong with the game, and it outweighs the good. For instance, Blades of Time also incorporates a ranged attack mechanic, equipping Ayumi with a rifle that can later be changed to other weapons, like a machine gun. Ranged combat is a chore to use, as it really slows down Ayumi, takes away her maneuverability, and feels remarkably clunky. Aiming is slow, your reticle feels imprecise, and enemies can knock you off your aim with a single hit. Combine this with Ayumi's low tolerance for damage, and you'll often be aggravated when having to shoot it out with any opponent.
Another annoying aspect that's tied into the story progression is Ayumi's constant need to narrate the events around her. She is one of the chattiest protagonists I've ever encountered in a video game, and it feels like a crutch for whoever wrote the story. She'll describe events that just occurred, conversations that just transpired, and constantly remind you of things in prior chapters. Unless your attention span is remarkably short, you'll want to mute her very quickly. The only allowance that keeps her narration tolerable is that the voice-over work isn't half-bad, but it's not quite enough to justify the babbling that goes on here.
Beyond the single-player content, there's a half-baked multiplayer mechanic. This mode can be done as a versus or co-op game, which sees you battling for control of a small map by taking out totem pole structures that represent the areas controlled by your opponent. To aid you, there are a number of AI-controlled characters at your disposal, and they simply pour out in waves and throw themselves at your opponents. You have no direct control over what they do or how they fight, leaving you to do most of the leg work and strategizing. It's not fun to play, and it feels like a waste of development time.
Even at a budget price, I'm not sure that I'd recommend Blades of Time. It can be pretty to look at, and there are some decent concepts behind its combat system. It's also a better game than the middling experience provided by X-Blades, but not by much. As a whole, it feels like it could have used far more development time and play testing than it likely received. It's probably worth a rental if you're really curious, but I wouldn't suggest a purchase.
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