A small caution for everyone for this review: if you are in any way offended by the colours red and brown or combinations of red and brown, you will be offended and probably need to go and vent about it on Tumblr, where it will be mislaid amongst the porn, shirtless men, cats and fandom bickering, none of which really matters in the grandest schemes.
Instead, let us rendezvous at a more sane place, way back before Tumblr was even a thing or deserved to be a thing. The year is 1993. I would have been all of 10 years old and I probably wasn’t even aware that this game existed, long was it buried amongst the triple A titles of the time. It’s been known as something of a hidden gem in recent years and although it’s vaguely understandable, there is a problem with giving it as grand a moniker as that.
It’s not actually that much fun.
Which I’m sure you’ll agree is CARDINAL SIN in the world of gaming. Oh, so your game’s accomplished, polished, good-looking and a lengthy adventure set to challenge every gamer who dares try it? Good. Good. Is it fun?
So plot-wise, we are introduced to our three characters right from the off. They are BOOBIES, BUFFMAN and… HOMELESS OLD MAN.
(Better known to everyone else as Huntress, Warrior and Sorcerer… but looking at the old guy, you’d be hard-pressed to recognise him as anything BUT an old homeless guy…)
What the plot boils down to is that the Dark Lady Mannax (note the fact she’s called MANnax, despite being a lady…) has conquered the kingdom and rules over everywhere with an iron fist. The world has fallen into despair and the only way to save everyone is to defeat her. Of course. The most basic of basic plots on hand here. There’s not actually much exposition given to you in the game, even when The Master (yup…) has a little bit of dialogue in between levels. This usually involves telling you where you’re going in that level and… that’s it. No ACTUAL story is given to you in this game, other than “GO ON YOUR QUEST AND BE CAREFUL!” as opposed to “I DON’T CARE, GO BEAT UP THAT BITCH IF YOU WANT TO, I’M WATCHING GAME OF THRONES, LOL BYE!”
Initially, I had to admit that I thought the third guy, the old man/sorcerer, was in fact the same guy as the old man looming over the character select screen like some badass playing God or something. The kind of ‘WISE FROM YOUR GWAVE’ character that summons them to do deeds he could CLEARLY sort out himself if only he could be bothered. Yeah. That guy. Seriously, games with these mystical lords sending out heroes on quests when in reality they could SOLVE THE PROBLEM BY THROWING MAGIC EVERYWHERE are the worst kind of people. If you could save everyone in the first place, why don’t you fucking well do it?
“Well there are rules…”
NO. THERE AREN’T. YOU’RE MAKING IT UP. I’D PREFER TO BE THE MYSTICAL LORD MAGICKING EVERYTHING BACK INTO EXISTENCE THAN BE THE SODDING HOMELESS VAGABOND TRYING TO SHOOT EVERYTHING WITH A LAME STICK OR WHATEVER. NO ONE WANTS TO BE THAT GUY.
EVEN THOUGH HE’S ACTUALLY QUITE GOOD IN THIS GAME.
Truthfully, as stupid as the poor guy looks in this game – shame on you developers – the old man has the best ranged attacks of all three of the main protagonists. You can hit from afar, thankfully, but his strength is pretty much his weakest trait. He doesn’t hit for much damage so much of his time is spent twatting his stick into the ground and throwing magic from a distance multiple times until the thing in front of him dies. In the case of the other two characters, Buff-boy has the strongest attack (as per every game) and the shortest range, meaning you have to get RIGHT in there to do the max damage, which is definitely not the desired course of action sometimes.
Lady Von Boobington suffers the lowest defence (WELL SHOCK ME SHOCK ME SHOCK ME, IF YOU PUT HER IN A FUCKING BIKINI…) but has better sword range, jumps higher and moves faster. She’s probably the best all-round character as her movement does sometimes make it easier to get out of tighter situations. And what’s even better is that she eventually gets a crossbow weapon to do long-range attacks… pretty much making Old Git fairly useless by comparison (although when he robes up, he does look a million times better and actually looks like more of an actual character and less like a random man plucked from sleeping rough outside of a dive bar’s back entrance.
Now, the red and brown colour scheme that I mentioned earlier is one that you will need to get used to and one that does saturate the game from start to finish, giving it what should be quite a sinister feel. In essence, the fact that EVERYTHING is tarnished by red and brown doesn’t make it anywhere near as sinister as it ought to. It doesn’t have that scary feel about it that it clearly seems to want. It’s not horrifying, it’s not off-putting… it’s just red and brown. It’s not even used effectively enough to give off a sinister vibe. It’s just… red and brown.
And not even varying shades of it.
Which is actually something of a shame given that the game itself does look rather pretty. When confronted by the game in flat screenshots, you’d be mistaken for thinking the game was beautiful to look at throughout but in reality, when it moves, it’s oddly unsatisfying. There’s not enough animation for each of the characters, with frames floating in mid-air for jump animations and sword attacks generally lasting only three frames at most. It’s somewhat of a disappointment in motion because for a game that clearly put in the effort to actually look nice, it sure does seem a bit underwhelming.
A lot of the backgrounds that do manage to look reasonably nice are often covered by the usual underground gubbins, where backgrounds get covered by the rocky interiors of mountain paths and castles and whatnot. So despite beautiful-looking volcanoes getting a lit trail of lava pouring out, we don’t even see it very often and instead have to deal with the usual rock-face and brickwork that we get in these sorts of olde-worlde action platformers.
At least there isn’t a forest to negotiate. Although a red forest would actually have looked quite intriguing, truth be told…
But already, my biggest bugbear is that everything is ALMOST really good. ALMOST. The graphics look lovely AT TIMES. The characters look lovely AT TIMES. It feels as though there were too many corners cut here. Even with some of the enemy graphics, the biggest annoyance are the colour palette changes. We’re bombarded by similar looking enemies to chop up and magic to death but even in the same level, you might get three different colours of the same enemy, some of which can be beaten in one hit, or two hits… it all feels a bit perplexing. In the opening level, there are grey demon-like creatures shuffling about and most take maybe one hit, depending on the character. And then one comes along who needs three hits to take out… and yet there are orange-looking ones in the same level that need two hits… MAKE UP YOUR MIND, GAME.
But despite the inconsistencies, there are a lot of things that Blades of Vengeance has going for it. For starters, there’s a lot more depth to the game to give it a little bit more variety. You can collect bags of silver throughout the levels, which do not add to the score as such, but are used as currency. At the end of each level, you can trade your silver in for potions, bonuses, armour, etc, and this does make the task of finding these bags of silver a bit more… interesting. They’re scattered in chests throughout the levels but there aren’t actually that many to be found. Occasionally – VERY OCCASIONALLY – an enemy might drop a bag on you but even then, it’s incredibly rare and unlikely to be much help. Exploring the whole level is the only way to get the silver you genuinely need to help you. Healing potions and other items for sale are reasonably costly but it’s armour that costs the most (20 silver) and you WILL need some of that because this game has one major, very memorable factor to it…
IT’S FUCKING HARD AS NAILS.
Blades of Vengeance both suffers and stands high on its difficulty curve. It is VERY unforgiving but that also gets you, the player, to be VERY careful with how you play the game and how you choose your abilities at the end of the level (SHOULD YOU EVEN GET THERE) because everything hurts, everything can pretty much do you in in a couple of hits and there’s fall damage. In a 2D platformer.
So… if you get hit by an enemy and fall of a high ledge, you could EASILY die from just that single hit alone. Seriously. And that will take away one of your three lives. Of which you only have three. And no continues – NO CONTINUES – and the only other way to obtain new lives is to BUY THEM at the shop at the end of the level (SHOULD YOU EVEN GET THERE) which means EVERY PART OF THIS GAME is a massive death trap waiting to happen and you will have to be ON IT to even get to level 5. Realising that the game has more than 8 levels is one of the most discouraging things that I could possibly imagine because HOLY SHIT THIS GAME IS HARD. It is, without doubt, one of the hardest games that I’ve played in some time and I’m not saying that as a bad thing. I’m saying that as a warning that if you’re not prepared, you will get incredibly frustrated.
Which… might be part of the reason it’s not as much fun as it ought to be.
If a game is hard for the sake of adding more longevity to the game, then it’s not good. Pure and simple. If it’s hard because there are too many inconsistencies, then that’s even worse.
This straddles that line somewhat because the game itself doesn’t really stick by its own rules enough. You’d imagine the characters would get stronger as the game progresses but in reality, the enemies do get exponentially stronger and you’ll easily still die from similar enemies in a couple of hits like on level 1. As such, the game feels very dissatisfying to play and less fun than it ought to be. It’s not a CRIME per se, but when you see an enemy that you killed in one hit die before need three hits in a later level, you begin to wonder what’s going on. At least in games like Streets of Rage, similarly palette-swapped characters get harder to defeat later on. The initial colour of each enemy remains the weakest type even when they show up later. Here, the same cannot be said.
And what might have been a good feature to add would have been the chance to swap between the three heroes at any time? It was going for vague RPG ideals so it couldn’t have made things worse.
So despite not being a MASSIVE hidden gem, it’s not exactly a turd by any means. It’s an ALMOST GOOD game that feels a bit underdone and crusty. It’s like a really badly-made brownie that gooey on the inside but a bit burnt on the outside so it tastes a bit like licking a pencil.
And that, gentlepeople of the Interwebs, is one of the weirdest analogies I’ve attempted on this blog.
You’re almost welcome.