The side-scrolling brawler seemed lost in time, just a memory of the 90s. Games like Streets of Rage and Double Dragon are timeless classics for those that grew up in that era, not forgetting one of the best games on the Sega Megadrive, Golden Axe, that Wulverblade is so inspired by. Wulverblade is unashamedly trapped in the vortex of the arcade era, motivated by the nostalgic memories of many childhoods, creating a beautifully animated, modernized side-scroller for the 21st century.
Set in 120 AD, during the Roman occupation of Britain, Wulverblade gives you the sword of what closely resembles a Pict, although described as a Northern Briton (the Scottish before Scotland), resisting the legions of the Roman Empire. No small feat. The treachery of the Britons that ally with the Romans antagonizes the main hero, Caradoc, to take the fight to the Romans. He is joined by the brute Brennus and the menacing Merida-inspired Guinevere to return Britannia to the Brits.
The three heroes have their strengths or weaknesses, with Caradoc the all-rounder, Brennus the slow powerhouse, and Guinevere swift but without force. This balanced approach leads well into the gameplay itself, with hordes of different foes requiring different strategies. Guinevere would certainly be best at solving a traitor with a bow, however, a swordsman might well be best left with Brennus. With an array of different enemies coming onto the screen at once, character selection will often be left to play-style.
The gameplay itself is exactly what you’d expect from a game inspired by Golden Axe. The Roman legions come onto the screen from either the left or the right, and the player has to engage with them as swiftly as possible. The player can rack up combos with swift moves, and there are different ways to vanquish the foes, which are necessary to get through some of the incredibly tough levels. Pressing ‘A’ is block, and it’ll be difficult getting past level two without it, let alone completing the game. Combining block while double-tapping forward or back will perform an evasive roll, critical to defeating the well-armored foes and getting behind them. Double-tapping also allows the hero to run, which allows the player to charge at the enemies with a shield, knocking them back. Pressing attack and jump together performs a special move that will disperse the tightest of crowds, but it will also remove a small portion of your health.
These are only a few examples of the different moves the hero is able to perform in Wulverblade. However, this is where some of the problems lie. Whilst there is plenty of gameplay, the controls are a little messy at best. Attack and picking up an item on the ground are both assigned to the ‘Y’ button, meaning that it’s not uncommon for the player to be caught picking up an item whilst trying to push back the Roman legion. This can lead to a quick demise for the player, all of which could have been solved by better controls. The ‘Y’ button is also used to throw items you can pick up from the ground such as a dagger or a dismembered head, leading to an over-reliance on one button.
It’s a real shame the controls haven’t been utilized properly because the animation is absolutely gorgeous – if the player is not too squeamish. Whilst the immediate picture is that of blood and gore, with decapitations quite visual, the background offers a lot of charm and thoughtful details. A lot of the inspiration comes from actual locations in the British Isles, and the beautiful silhouettes of the background really bring the foreground to life. The vibrant colors reflect the gaudy personality of the game itself, a clever reminder of the more Gallic revolt against the Romans, the French comic Asterix.
Wulverblade is a game destined to the Nintendo Switch’s of those born in the 80s. The game is difficult, and those that have never experienced a side-scrolling brawler are unlikely to get very far before giving up. This is a game for the experienced player, those that kicked their way through Streets of Rage or sliced their axe through Golden Axe. Wulverblade might struggle to inspire a new generation to the format, but undoubtedly that wasn’t the point of the game.
Amusingly, Wulverblade has an arcade mode that makes the game even more difficult, providing the player with no checkpoints only three continues. Normal mode seemed a challenge enough, with the checkpoint nowhere near the level’s boss. Wulverblade seems to pose its own answer to the turmoil over the difficult of Cuphead, and honestly, it provides the correct answer, difficulty is only a problem to those without willpower. Frustration should become inspiration, and Wulverblade will certainly be frustrating.
With difficulty in mind, the option of a second player can be essential for those having a hard time-saving Britannia. With the sheer volume of enemies that come on the screen at once, an extra axe can make all the difference. Wulverblade is perfect for the tabletop mode of the Nintendo Switch, which helps the create the nostalgic feel when playing with a friend.
Wulverblade’s lack of hand-holding is perhaps the most nostalgic aspect of the game, and actually, makes it all the better for it. Side-scrolling brawlers are supposed to be relentless and unforgiving, and Wulverblade doesn’t say sorry to anyone. It never questions itself, only answers with more brute and more intense force, punishing hesitancy with a swift blow. For the seasoned gamer looking for a challenge, Wulverblade is a must.