Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios / Developer: Climax Studios / Price: 1200 Microsoft Points / Played on: Xbox 360 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Language, Partial Nudity, Suggestive Themes]
Bloodforge should be a great time. You play a crazed warrior who runs along gloomy landscapes while slaughtering bloodthirsty, gruesome hordes of an evil pantheon of gods. But while it drips with cinematic style and unrelenting action, the game is held back by camera issues and a game-breaking exploit that can’t be ignored. I wanted to like Bloodforge more, and I had more fun than I’d expected. But overall, there’s too much wrong with this game for me to wholeheartedly recommend it.
As Crom, a Celtic warrior whose destiny has brought him into conflict with the ancient divine pantheon of his land, players run through desolate landscapes and clash with wave after wave of the gods’ minions. Every time Crom enters a new area, he fights an enemy horde, many of whom are recycled from past stages. Along the way, Crom collects his enemies’ blood, which can be used to unleash berserker mode, where attacks are faster and deal more damage. Crom also finds advanced melee weapons that he can swap out on the fly, including a greatsword, a warhammer, and claws. Each weapon has its own set of moves, which can be strung together for big combos—and the higher his combo, the more blood he collects, and the sooner and more often he can go berserk. Crom’s also blessed with magical rune attacks that invoke the powers of some allied gods who help him smite foes. Collectible power-ups augment attacks and powers, too. All told, players have tons of options with which they can dispatch bad guys—but in the end, none of it matters.
Because Crom has a crossbow.
Crom’s crossbow has unlimited ammo, auto-aiming, and time-negligible, automatic reloading. Crom can also outpace every single foe with ease. This means that with very few exceptions, there’s almost no reason to ever engage enemies in melee combat—you know, the thing that this game was pretty much made for. When beset with only one or a horde of nine enemies at a time—even bosses—Crom never has any trouble simply running away, looping around the groups of attackers, and quickly firing off arrows at the bad guys.
While melee attacks pack a far more powerful punch, fighting in melee opens Crom up to damage. His only defensive move is an unreliable evade, where he rolls away from attacks, sometimes just in time to avoid hits, sometimes not even close. There are a few counters built into each weapon’s move set, but with so many enemies attacking all at once (Crom tends to be outnumbered during almost every encounter), it’s nearly impossible to make these work well and keep from taking damage. Crom’s best bet is always to just crossbow, crossbow, crossbow. And good news—the crossbow receives upgrades just like the melee weapons, meaning that its damage-dealing powers keep pace with the enemies Crom faces.
Every so often, he’ll run across a few big fat enemies—fleshy man-tanks who, amazingly, have the ability to outrun his smaller, fitter-looking enemy coworkers. Tanks rush up to Crom anytime he gets some distance, partially negating the crossbow’s game-breaking powers. That’s where the one-hit kill move comes in. When berserking, if Crom has a full blood-meter, he can spend the whole meter to just start demolishing a single-enemy, prompting the player to start mashing one of the four face buttons on the controller. This takes out the tanks with no trouble, and frees Crom up to whip out the crossbow again.
It would have been nice if the game’s melee combat could stand up on its own to feel balanced and challenging. And while the comparatively few melee fights I did jump into were kind of fun, they were still filled with more frustratingly cheap hits and enemy-choked cluster-fights than I would’ve preferred. When you get right down to it, if every single boss fight can be won by running away and sniping with ranged attacks, there’s something pretty wrong with the fundamental core of the game.
Bloodforge seems to tell something of an origin story of Crom Cruach, a legendary pre-Christian Celtic deity, who also serves as the inspiration for the Crom worshiped by Robert E. Howard’s/Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian. Crom starts out as a simple warrior, who wears a desiccated animal skull for a hat, carrying a boar home to his wife for dinner. The two live blissfully in a thatched roof hut in a snowy village. But after suddenly being attacked by a group of fancily armored enemy soldiers, Crom is tricked into slaying his own wife.
Then a lady who is also a raven of some kind says that it was some other evil god that tricked him, and sets him on a path to slay every evil god who stands in his way, along with their minions. As an evil-slaying tool, she gives him the bloodforge, which is a bony gauntlet that collects, well, blood. At least, I think that thing’s the bloodforge. Maybe it helped him get to the bloodforge. I’m not sure this matters. Anyhow, Crom’s story tackles the nature of fate and destiny versus free will, as told through many, many acts of violence.
The dialogue is cliché-ridden, and there are few surprises along the way. The only parts of the story that are hard to keep track of are the various gods Crom encounters, mostly because the pre-Christian pantheon of Celtic gods is obscure when compared to the more well-known Greco-Roman and Norse gods who have appeared in countless movies, comics, and video games. It’s cool to play a game based on a little-known mythology—but to be honest, I’m not even sure the gods Crom encounters are historically real. Whether Bloodforge’s mythological trappings are based in genuine myth or cut from whole cloth doesn’t matter a ton, since the story isn’t particularly compelling anyway. But it’s fun enough in Hollywood action movie terms, and doesn’t really detract from the experience either.
The controls are standard for a game of this type: Crom makes light attacks with X, heavy attacks with Y, jumps with A, and crossbows with B. When in the thick of combat, any combos or special moves you might have studied disappear into a button mashing frenzy, and Crom responds well enough. But often times, enemies gets in plenty of cheap shots, regardless of whether or not you’ve hit the evade button. In short, the controls work well, but not great. The controls don’t feel so good that you’re itching for more bad guys to beat up (though there is no shortage of those)—they’re more a means to an end.
The shoulder bumpers aren’t very well utilized, though. Hitting the left bumper uses items, like health power-ups, while mashing the left and right bumpers together activates berserker mode. But whether it’s because of the heat of battle or just poor responsiveness, sometimes an item gets accidentally used when all you want to do is go berserk. It’s clunky and annoying when this happens.
The world of Bloodforge is one of dark shadows, thick lines, and shaky camera work. The visual aesthetic has a lot in common with movies like 300 and Immortals, and that’s not a bad thing. While there are a few jagged textures here and there, the visuals do a lot to save this game from mediocrity. The level design isn’t anything too special in terms of gameplay, but the frozen wastelands, rain-swept bluffs, murky swamps, and freaky otherworlds are very cool to look at. Navigating them is kind of a pain, though, as every path tends to look the same as the one before it.
The game’s character designs are really great, though. Crom himself is visually interesting, wearing that great dead-animal skull (Is it a prehistoric bull? Some kind of mega-stag?) for the entirety of the game, while a tattered, tartan-pattered cloth swings as he fights. The gods he fights are imaginatively hideous, and make for some thrilling encounters, if for no other reason than how creepy and weird they look as the vomit blood on you. On that note, the enemy deaths are really fun, what with all the torso-choppings and beheadings.
Sadly, the visuals are marred by a nauseating camera. The camera that follows Crom seems to take a page from films like Cloverfield, shaking as Crom runs and fights. While in combat, the shaking gets worse, and even starts to show framerate hiccups when there’s lots of action on-screen. Sometimes it swings into environmental features, like walls and rocks, making it difficult or impossible to see what’s going on.
The voice-acting is very much on par with what you might find in a SyFy original movie—lots of overacting, strained performances, but genuine commitment to the role, for whatever it’s worth. Crom sounds like a guy who hangs out at the local record store, hovering exclusively in the heavy metal section, and who won’t stop talking about how many times he’s seen Iron Maiden or how sick Gwar’s last show was. It’s fun stuff, if pretty dumb. The music also evokes epic, mythology-based movies, though like the gameplay, it’s pretty repetitive. Not too bad, but not too good either.
Despite my many problems with this game, I still found myself having some fun. But I suspect much of that was due to trying to see just how much I could abuse the crossbow combat exploit and get away with it—which, as it turned out, was the entire game. This isn’t the worst way to spend a few hours, and I imagine that playing this game while surrounded by a group of rowdy, drunk, like-minded friends would help make the experience somewhat more enjoyable. However, based on the game itself, it’s hard to recommend it without extreme reservations. Buy this if you’re bored, and want a gory time-waster. Otherwise, don’t bother.