Sharp as hell
I’ve been spoiled recently. In the past few months, I’ve reviewed three games whose graphics I could barely believe were appearing on an iPad. First was Need For Speed, then Real Boxing and now Bladeslinger. Any more of this behaviour and stupendous mobile graphics will become commonplace. I’m worried I’ll begin to take them for granted. I’m going to play Snake for five hours straight after I finish this review to gain some perspective.
So as with my Real Boxing review of a couple of weeks ago, I’ll begin with the obvious. Here’s an experiment for you to conduct: take your iPad, load up Bladeslinger, sellotape your Pad to TV, then invite your friends round and see what they say. I guarantee they’ll think you’re playing a 360. Yes, there are slight differences such as the fact that, you know…you’re not playing a 360, but just for a moment, if they’re as stupid as my friends, they could be tricked.
Yup, Bladeslinger’s graphics look that good. Unity Engine powered, they’re further evidence that mobile gaming is growing up fast like a surly teenager. Everything is rendered in superb detail; characters are massive and imposing, environments are full of artwork that demand your attention, and although they’re not interactive (it’s a bit of a curse being this beautiful –you want to reach out and touch everything), they combine with the eerie sound and intriguing story to produce a whole load of atmosphere.
You play as a steampunk cowboy with a hydraulic left arm called Jim…er, sorry, William Glaston (I know another steampunk cowboy with a hydraulic left arm. What are the chances). William returns home to the town of Hammer’s Peak after what is presumably a lengthy sojourn to discover all the townsfolk have been transformed into grotesque demons. Clearly he has to find out what’s going on. After all, if you came back from your summer jollies and your best mates had turned into creatures from hell, you’d probably want to know what happened.
Episode 1 is the first of a number of installments charting William’s investigations. From the moment you step off the train and begin the game, Hammer’s Peak is striking in not only it’s aforementioned detail, but also for it’s unearthly air. Everything is deserted; a shredded Hammer’s Peak banner flutters in the wind, dust swirls around your feet and even bales of hay make an appearance. This is the proper Wild West. It’s broad daylight, but it feels as unnerving as the darkest night.
The soundtrack also contributes: it’s intense and creepy and taut. You almost want whatever’s hiding round the corner to jump out you just to break the tension.
Bladeslinger is interesting in that it’s a full-blooded action title that is purposely designed to be played with one finger. It eschews the tried and tested virtual stick and buttons of so many slashers, shooters and third person romantic comedies, and introduces a method which aims to keep things as simple as possible by making every major action accessible with just your index finger.
Movement is handled by holding in the direction you want to travel; to look around, you do the same, but with two fingers. (Ok, fine, it’s designed to be played with one hand, not one finger). This initially feels odd –we’ve been playing with two hands on the screen for third person actions games for approximately 500 years. You’ll instinctively place your hands on screen as usual before remembering that your left hand is pretty much redundant. Perhaps you should follow William’s example and get a hydraulic one.
Movement never quite feels intuitive because of this. At first you’ll have to stop just to reposition the camera to see what’s two feet to the left or right of you; something that is normally an unconscious action in other games. After a while you’ll realise that you can move the camera as William gets about, but there’s always an air of compromise involved because it never feels totally smooth. It feels as if the game knows a stick and buttons would be the easiest option, but is trying to stubbornly force you into it’s new way of thinking.
Where the system works best is in combat. Tapping on enemies fires your gun, and swiping introduces them to the pointy end of your blade, (which is attached to your gun. What a wonderful invention). Swipe fast and perform combos to daze those naughty demons, and finish them off with a takedown move which is presented in cinematic and gory glory by tracing a set of shapes on the screen a la Infinity Blade. (Although no matter where you’re positioned, the same stock cut-scenes triggers each time, so they aren’t contextual). You’ve also got special melee, ranged and defense attacks which can be activated. And in more boring news, you can also block. Yawn.
It all works seamlessly. Whether firing your gun, punching, slashing or er…ranging, you can string together attacks that look as if you’re playing with four hands, let alone one. In this way the combat system is deep, yet accessible, and full of options, even the standard slashing has unlockable combos for you to master. It’s one of those games in that you can either memorise all the combos and look like a badass, or swipe randomly in every direction and look like a badass. There is serious badass potential here.
There are a couple of imperfections however; because it looks so good, the lack of mouth movement during cut-scenes stands out. To be honest though, I’m not sure what the answer is here. I find moving mouths a bit of an uncanny valley – the more they move, the more you can see it’s not real, so unless you can get it spot on, sealed lips is probably the safest way to go.
Voice acting is generally good, but dialogue can be a bit on the nose: ‘I better get to town and find my brother Morgan’, William informs us early in the game. I guess we need to know his brother’s called Morgan, or perhaps he’s forgotten his brother’s called Morgan. Either way, we’ve learned one thing: his brother’s called Morgan. Hi Morgan.
Another small point is that no matter the environment, William’s footsteps have the same sound of walking on grass, which is obviously a bit odd if you’re inside a ht with a wooden floor. It would also be nice if there was some way of making him run a bit faster too. Sometimes you take a wrong turn, and getting back to where you’re supposed to be invokes rather too casual a jog from old Billy Glaston.
But these are small niggles that don’t detract from the fact that Bladeslinger successfully blends shooting, combat, exploration and a bit of magic in a beautiful looking package. I think we should be glad this is only the start. Episode 2? Bring it on.
Sling your way over to Twitter and follow Kevin @KevThePen. Leave the blade though.