Hack and slash action-adventure games have reached a pinnacle of success in recent years, largely thanks to Sony’s God of War franchise, niche standouts like Asura's Wrath and even mediocre derivatives like Dante’s Inferno. Bloodforge, released as the first title in Microsoft’s Arcade Next initiative, is a lacklustre entry in the genre, showing promise in theory but failing in practice. Featuring the unimaginatively named Crom - a barbarian warrior living a sedentary post-war life that consists of hunting while wearing skulls as headwear – the story gets off to a brisk but clichéd start as his family are mercilessly slaughtered, prompting a bloody quest of vengeance against a pantheon of gods. Sound familiar? The immediate problem with Bloodforge is the shameless lack of originality on show, with everything from gameplay mechanics to the story itself taken from the book of Kratos. For all intents and purposes it might as well be the Ghost of Sparta himself underneath Crom’s bony helmet, constantly shouting and threatening gory death at anything that crosses his path, albeit in a pseudo-Celtic setting and with about half the anti-hero charm.
The main campaign of Bloodforge follows Crom as he seeks revenge, in a roughly five hour long campaign of crimson drenched combat, through a handful of levels. Gameplay consists of heavy attacks mapped to the Y button, lighter melee hits mapped to X, ranged attacks on B and various combinations of the three strung together in order to decimate enemies. This combat would suffice were it not for a schizophrenic camera, sluggish controls and a lack of variety that looms larger than any of Crom’s diabolical nemeses. The camera is by far the worst offender – when running it sways from side to side, like a drunken cameraman, quickly producing feelings of seasickness. Enter combat and the camera becomes even more frustrating – any hit can cause it to suddenly flip to the other side of Crom, leaving you disorientated. Use a fast-attacking weapon and the camera jerks all over the place, moving the slight nausea into realms of unbearable, epileptic torture. It doesn’t help that any weapons used to feed Crom’s insatiable bloodlust are unresponsive, underpowered or just incredibly dull. There’s the trusty sword, the slower but more powerful hammer and the weaker but combo-boosting Wolverine-claws – all of which come in various incarnations as you progress through the story. All have specific move sets but these are finite and quickly become monotonous. Use the ranged crossbow and some enemies can be whittled down from afar, albeit at a glacial pace. Unlike better genre stalwarts, Bloodforge lacks precision in the combat – unforgivable in such a combat-heavy title. You’ll often end up missing enemies altogether, eventually resorting to the same combos that usually end in an entertainingly bloody but repetitive finishing move. For the first few minutes it’s bearable; for five more hours it’s a real slog even taking into account the occasional special move that Crom can unleash.
It doesn’t help that one of Bloodforge’s key selling points – the Frank Miller inspired visuals – are initially stunning but soon become tiresome as well. While the Unreal powered engine adds an impressive sheen to the monochromatic visuals, once things start moving it soon devolves into a murky mess where it’s hard to differentiate Crom from his enemies. Couple that with a dodgy framerate once more enemies enter the fray and you’re left with a combat system that lacks finesse, sabotaged by its own engine. For a game that’s all about chaining together attacks it’s both a hindrance and a disappointment – one that should have been identified and rectified early in development. Enemies are strikingly weird at first glance – a mixture of mythology and S&M strangeness that are as unsettling as they are quick to dispatch – but they are all painted with the same dirty paintbrush, meaning it’s often hard to work out which barbaric, sword-swinging hunk of meat in the scrum is under your control.
With a name like Bloodforge you’d expect gallons of claret splashed about the screen and the game certainly pays off in that respect. Battles end with the area daubed in red and, in a rather unsubtle method of player direction, act as bloodstained directions to the next arena. Not that you’ll need any pathfinding skills: every level is really just a linear series of trenches with the occasional off-shoot containing power-ups or another skirmish. Environments run the gamut from dingy mountain wilderness to equally dingy swamp with only the final abstract level presenting anything new. There’s nothing in the way of puzzles or set pieces, bar the end of level boss fights which feature yet more God of War rejects embroiled in quicktime events. By the end of the campaign you’ll have played the same small-arena fight a hundred times with only the smallest variation in enemies (and none of them rising above anything that hasn’t been seen a million times before.) While the bosses are entertaining in terms of scale and over-the-top gore, they are few and far between. However, one in particular is the exact opposite of fun, consisting of two attack patterns that see you dodging right and left, battling the camera at the same time. The Celtic slant on the story could have been ripe for ideas; it’s a shame that so many parts of Crom’s tale have been done before and in much better fashion. Even the voice acting is off-putting; your guide through the wastes has what could only be described as an out-of-place Jamaican accent and Crom’s wailing ‘NOOOOOOOOO!’ near the beginning is less mournful and more unintentionally hilarious. Aside from the B-movie voice acting, the soundtrack is well done but lacks variation as well. A bombastic brass ensemble starts up with every fight you enter which, given the frequency of those fights, means it’s pretty much the only music you’ll hear outside of level transitions. Again it takes its cues from God of War and could have used more Celtic influences to set it apart from Greek mythology.
Beyond the main campaign, Bloodforge adds social gaming features to each skirmish in order to challenge any friends who picked up the game. Blood Duel directly compares your scores for single player (and can be turned on as default from the start) while Challenge Mode does what it says on the tin, offering challenges (mainly killing things) to best. Rather annoyingly, you have to be friends with someone who has downloaded the game to access either of these modes and it’s unlikely that this is the case, given the game’s appeal. Around half the achievements are linked to these modes so it almost comes off as a sales booster, prompting achievement chasers to recruit friends to buy the game.
Bloodforge is a decidedly mediocre experience, rendered even more inconsequential in comparison to the titans of the genre. It could be forgiven its lack of originality were it competent in terms of its most basic game mechanics. Unfortunately, Crom’s journey is a constant slog of repetition, bad camera and indecisive art direction that any parts purloined from other games only remind you of their inferiority to the source material. For 1200 Microsoft Points everything but the graphics is overpriced and underdeveloped. If it played half as well as it looked it would be worth a go. The graphics might be bleeding edge, but everything else is a botched transfusion from other, better titles, that’s coagulated into a rotten mess.