Wulverblade is one part Golden Axe clone, one part history lesson on the conflict between the Picts and the Romans during the Roman invasion of Scotland. Not exactly two things I’d imagine in the same game, but it certainly made an impression on this avid fan of the genre – my love for Streets of Rage 2 is undying. While it certainly has the spirit of the subject at hand, there are a couple of glaring issues that hold back this new entry into an infrequently tapped genre.
Set in 120AD in Roman occupied Britain, Wulverblade edges that fine line between the gritty realism of history and a slightly supernatural fable. The trio of Picts that can be chosen to play as all seem to have a deep connection with wolves, making them savage in their efforts to drive Romans out of what will become Scotland. It’s certainly got more legs than contemporaries in the genre which all seem to mostly be about rescuing a kidnapped friend, and that’s is a welcome change.
One thing that Wulverblade is keen to point out in the game’s extras is that the historical context may or may not be accurate, despite 5 years of historical research by Wulverblade’s Creative Director, Michael Heald. Historical accuracy in fiction is a fascinating discussion and one that was touched on a couple of years ago when Hilary Mantel was interviewed about the subject.
While not exactly the same, the only real person I could find in the game’s story was Emperor Hadrian – the Roman leader who commissioned the famous wall – but the amount of dedication put into researching and presenting the findings is highly commendable. The historical vignettes found in the game are by no means a definitive source, but it may provide a starting point for budding historians to begin looking more into the period. This what I reckon Michael Heald was trying to accomplish and he thoroughly succeeds.
This dedication to detail comes through quite nicely in the stages and designs of the enemies. Yes, they do unfortunately suffer from slack-jaw, but their garments are from what I can gather historically accurate, and the locations range from forests, to Roman forts, to a set piece in a stone circle that the Romans are using as an arena. All the while there’s some lovely if somewhat intense folk music augmenting the tension.
If only the characters were easy to control. Jumping in particular is difficult to master as you can only jump on a horizontal plane, meaning jumping vertically or diagonally is impossible. This makes avoiding certain attacks a nightmare as the only option is to walk up or down which is quite slow. Running is also horizontal only, but contemporaries in the genre have done this in the past which makes it somewhat more acceptable, even if it still feels restrictive.
That’s not to say the characters can’t do much, in fact looking at the controls reveals that actually there’s a lot of moves for everyone, such as a double jump, ground pound, and a couple of charge attacks. Not everything is revealed initially, so the finer touches such as Brennus’ ability to pummel downed enemies or Guinevere’s aerial combat require a bit of reading.
Plenty of games get more taxing as the game progresses, but I honestly found a few things hampered the flow in Wulverblade. For one, the damage output and lack of warning from the assassin enemies was absurd at times. There’s also an issue where some levels are much more difficult than later levels were, with one level having a significant difficulty spike that the game never quite reached again.
This coupled with the fact that having long loading times and only one checkpoint in each level around the halfway point made running out of lives a major pain in the neck. It’s obvious this was done in the campaign to flesh out the game a tad, since the entire game is only 8 levels long, but the backtracking can get somewhat repetitive.
Wulverblade can, of course, be played cooperatively and in all honesty due to how enemies swarm in single player; this is probably how it was meant to be played. There’s an arcade mode which challenges players to complete the game with 3 lives for each of the 3 continues given at the start of the game, and an arena mode for those who like to rack up high scores for global leaderboards. Curiously there’s also one further mode that didn’t unlock despite finishing the game. Hopefully this is due to something I missed rather than anything else.
Despite the setbacks, I enjoyed romping through Wulverblade’s long levels with hordes of Romans and converted natives to slay in the name of freedom. I appreciated the historical edge the game had to it, even learning a few things without ever being pressured that I was being educated. Even though the controls and balance need refining a fair bit, I still recommend this ultraviolent take on British history.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch