There are only a few studios that you could consider masters of the art of melee. With a name that perfectly reflects the reason for their existence, Ninja Theory whose catalogue of games include Hellblade, DmC and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, have always married their technical combat know-how with compelling storytelling. That is, until now. For their first game released as part of Xbox Game Studios, they’ve brought us a melee focussed team brawler. Fancy Overwatch with fewer guns? Welcome to Bleeding Edge.
If Overwatch is a hero shooter, Bleeding Edge is a hero brawler. Two teams of four distinct character types compete across a range of arenas for dominance over their opponents, with their main method of interaction being smacking each other in the face. How’s that to play? Well, those DmC, Hellblade and Enslaved links are strong, and it’s like filling an arena with hyper-stylised Dantes, Monkeys and Senuas, and letting them have at it. From a combat point of view, that’s as good as it sounds.
The lightest of settings puts Bleeding Edge in the near future, where a penchant for bionic body modification has led to the outbreak of an illegal fight club for enhanced individuals. With that in mind, the character design stretches from the freakish to the fantastic, with each hero bagging themselves a satisfying line of contrasting abilities to keep encounters fresh and engaging every time. Much like Overwatch they’re split across Damage, Support and Tank classes, and Ninja Theory have done a great job creating a memorable and unique crew to choose from.
Damage dealers like the guitar-wielding heavy-metaller Nidhogg, can not only thwonk you over the head with a Flying V, but set other players alight with fire breath or create Delorean-esque tracks of fire by sliding on their knees. Others take body modding to the extreme, like Buttercup, a weighty female tank who’s basically turned herself into a human motorbike. Where many of the other characters can call on a hoverboard to nip around the map, she lies herself down like a diner-themed Transformer and becomes her own vehicle.
There’s also Kulev, a horrific walking corpse, where the mechanical boa constrictor wrapped around the body is the sentient being in charge of the decaying meat puppet. Pegged as an advanced character, his area of effect curses can be lethal in the right hands. Ninja Theory try to coax you towards the more straightforward characters to begin with, but there’s bound to be at least a few amongst the initial eleven that really resonate with you enough to put the time in with them, no matter if they’re considered tougher to master.
Some are more typical, like Daemon who’s… well, a guy dressed in Samurai gear and a gas mask, but they make up for it by being a delight to control, harrying your opponents with slick melee moves. Similarly, there’s often a feeling that we’ve seen a fair few of the special attacks and abilities before – Makutu’s a brawling tank with a charge attack, Zero Cool is a hover-chair Mercy and a digital Mei wall – but that familiarity makes them easier for newcomers to jump in before exploring more unique characters, switching up their ultimate abilities, or fiddling with the perk loadouts.
This is a live service game, and we’ve already seen the next character that’s on the way in the shape of Mekko, a dolphin in a mech suit. It’s a cool, pretty out-there design – who doesn’t miss Ecco The Dolphin? – though when Overwatch has given us a hamster that can control a mech, it’s not quite as unique. Still, it shows that Ninja Theory can be in this for the long haul, and with Game Pass putting the game into many more hands than it might otherwise have found, it’s certainly set for a decent start.
Once you’ve picked your crazy character it’s time to take them into battle, and at the outset Ninja Theory have given you two different modes to sink your teeth into: Objective Control and Power Collection. Objective Control is a blend of Domination and King of the Hill, tasking you with sitting on changing objective point for as long as possible, while stopping your opponent from doing the same thing. Sometimes it’s one point, sometimes it’s three, splitting up and drawing the fight to different parts of the map.
Power Collection is the more interesting of the two. You have to search the arena for power cells, destroy and collect them, hoarding them until the collection phase where you can drop them into a Drop Zone. However, you can lose everything you’ve collected if the enemy team takes you down, and vice versa, causing the Drop Zones to become killing fields for the unwary, and allowing for huge swings through the course of a round.
The different arenas each add a few extra wrinkles of their own, including train tracks that run through the centre of the maps and over the Drop Zones, meaning they kill you if you’re not careful about where you stand while you’re trying to drop power cells off. Others see the Drop Zones moving along set routes, some of which head through electrified barriers meaning you have to time any drop offs. Visually, they’re all smart enough, and the layouts are solid, but few show a real spark of imagination. Fortunately, you’ll be too busy trying to triumph over your opponents to really care. Just don’t forget that you need to play the objective as well, yeah?
As with any team game, communication is key, but as we well know, not everyone wants to let just any old person talk directly into their ear. Who knows what horrendous things these strangers might say? Knowing this, Bleeding Edge has taken a few pages out of Apex Legend’s book and brought in a ping system so you can communicate without, you know, actually communicating. You can easily ping items and objectives, focus on particular enemies, and issue basic commands, and it feels invaluable when you’re playing with people you don’t know.
Bleeding Edge’s biggest problem right now, is that there isn’t enough of it. Forgetting the fact that there’s only two mode types, the main annoyance is the lack of different emotes and character skins. Fortnite and Overwatch have shown us that you don’t necessarily have to offer a huge amount of variety if you can reward people’s play time with enough visual flair.
As it stands though, there are three emotes per character, and the only remotely different player skins available are those you got for playing the Bleeding Edge beta – everything else is just alternate colour schemes. Sure, there’s a bunch of different hoverboards, but they don’t see that much actual playtime. I can understand letting players get used to the mechanics, the focussed game types and the character roster, but there’s not enough reward for putting the time in right now. Ninja Theory need to start rolling this stuff out quickly, or face losing any initial player base they might be building.