Crafting a difficult side-scrolling horror game is a science. Do it right, and you have the likes of Castlevania or Ninja Gaiden, where you'll run into frustrating parts but you know it can be beaten with perseverance, some observation, and a little luck. Make it too difficult for the average player, and you have something like Ghosts 'n Goblins, which was notorious for being so hard that many controllers were broken before a majority of gamers deemed it impossible to finish without a Game Genie. Blood of the Werewolf, a new game from Detroit indie developers Scientifically Proven and Midnight City, the indie-publishing arm of Majesco, is the latest to try its hand at creating a game that appeals to platforming fans and those who enjoy tough challenges. While the result isn't quite the kind of balance one would hope for, it remains a good effort from the team.
In Blood of the Werewolf, you play the role of Selena, one of the last werewolves left on earth. Along with her husband and child, she migrated to America to escape the persecution in her homeland. However, peace doesn't last long; a group of monsters kill her husband, kidnap her child, and leave her for dead. After recovering from her wounds, Selena does whatever it takes to get her baby back.
Aside from the opening cut scene, the game doesn't dwell on the plot much. In between each level, you get cut scenes, but they're not visually enticing. There are character portraits and a graphic of Selena endlessly running through a different backdrop. Very few scenes feature someone other than Selena, and most of them emphasize her resolve to rescue her child. This isn't bad, since the scenes are short enough to keep you interested and you can mistake them for loading screens, but don't expect an epic tale.
Though the game is a pure side-scrolling platformer in the same vein as Ghosts 'n Goblins or the original Castlevania games prior to the PlayStation incarnation, it takes on two different vibes due to Selena's dual incarnations. In indoor areas or any place devoid of moonlight, she's a regular human being with variable jump height and distance. She sticks to projectile attacks, using her crossbow to attack enemies and hit switches. Along with way, you can upgrade her weapon arsenal to include multi-shot arrows and flaming arrows, each one increasing in strength when you obtain more power-ups. While she can defend herself as a human, most of the time is spent on platforming, jumping great distances and avoiding spikes and other traps.
Once you make it outdoors or get exposed to moonlight, Selena takes on a lupine form. While platforming is still a focus, there's more combat. Melee is the primary form of attack, with two strikes of varying strength depending on how long you wait to unleash the claw slash. You can pick up other powers, including charging, healing, and a dual fireball move. You can change the distance and direction of her jumping, even in midair, but now you also have the ability to double-jump.
All of the trappings of the genre are here and executed as well as possible: secret areas with upgrades, sigils to collect for health upgrades, enemies strategically placed to impede progress, and seemingly impossible jumps. The level design feels like it could've come from the 8- or 16-bit eras. The emphasis on platforming skills is really the hallmark of the game, as many of the levels are either littered with traps or mechanics that both aid and hinder your efforts to progress. Fans and mountain winds either reduce or elongate jump distances. Spike mazes are filled with unstable platforms, and elsewhere, moving platforms take you through labyrinths of fireball-spewing machines and quick-moving pistons. They start off hard and only get harder as you progress, but they're all conquerable. Your sense of timing and jumping skills are really put to the test, with appropriate breaks to let you catch your breath.
Interestingly, one of the things that make the difficult platforming more palatable is the presence of a few modern mechanics. The checkpoint system is rather generous; only a few levels have some areas where long sequences need to be repeated. The timer has been abolished, and so has the need for finite lives. Best of all, the load times between death and resurrecting at a checkpoint are almost nonexistent. You may see the death screen multiple times, but you'll get back into the game very quickly.
There are a few things that mar the experience. For those who refuse to use a controller with the game, you'll find the default controls to be a little cumbersome since you need a modifier key to use the jump key to climb a ladder. Considering how many areas require precision between jumping and grabbing on to a ladder, this can make the title even more frustrating. The idea of a knockback when getting hit isn't that bad until you discover that the distance can be substantial. Most of the time, you'll recover just fine, but in the later levels, when things start to get really hectic, you'll be cursing the fact that the mechanic is causing you to die all the time. The same can be said for the bats and birds, which are both small and have movement patterns similar to the Medusa heads in the original Castlevania game. Coupled with the knockback mechanic, they are more of an annoyance than a challenge. Then there's the ending, which is an obvious setup for a sequel but still feels unsatisfying.
Probably the most frustrating element of the game is the boss fights. Usually, this is because the fights are too difficult or the boss characters do many impossible or unfair things. In this title, however, the complaint is that the boss fights are simply too easy. Though they try to mix things up, the patterns are easy to recognize, and the tells are so obvious that you know exactly how to react before the attack is unleashed. The boss fights that require you to be in werewolf mode are the only ones that pose any difficulty. They aren't boring, but it's odd to see a rather important part of any platformer be the easiest part.
Graphically, Blood of the Werewolf looks good. The angular style of the characters looks rather nice, and the environments match the aesthetic perfectly. Despite the horror setting, the game is rather colorful, and the entire color palette is used. The environments have some great depth due to the abundance of foreground elements, an effect that would be immensely pronounced if it were shown in stereoscopic 3-D. It's also rather easy to see your character no matter how far or close the camera zooms in. It only becomes problematic when you encounter the bats, who do a good job of hiding if you aren't looking for them. The only part of this category that falters is the animation. Walking and climbing may seem a little fast, considering the game uses polygon models instead of sprites, but you'll get over that quickly. It's odd to see Selena fire her crossbow while remaining stiff as a board, and her werewolf slash barely registers. A tiny paw is completely covered up by the larger swipe trails. It is a little thing, but it's still noticeable.
The game sees a similar story in the sound department. The music is standard platform material, but it correctly gives off a haunting vibe without going too far into creepy territory. There are some standout pieces in the mix that are punctuated by some instrument use and vocals. There aren't too many vocal performances in the game, but the performances the actors give are well done. This is especially true of the actress for Selena, whose emotions come through strongly in every scene. The effects are also nicely done, but the issue is that they don't play all the time. You'll encounter more than a few instances where the necessary effect is either lowered to a great degree or simply fails to play, lessening the impact of the action.
Blood of the Werewolf is a good homage to the side-scrolling horror platformer games of yesteryear. The action is nice, and the platforming is solid with challenges that are tough but never seem impossible. It also sports a good presentation with visuals and sounds that are great for an indie development team. It could be better by removing a few old-school traits to make the game less frustrating, and making some of the boss fights tougher. It scratches the classic platforming itch rather well, and genre fans will be pleased.
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