words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Fully Illustrated and Darkwind Media for PC, Switch, PS4, and Xbox One, originally released in 2017.
The story of Wulverblade centers around the Roman seizure of the south of Britannia in 120 A.D. with intentions toward taking the whole of the land in their northward march. But one family stands against the Roman advancement… Caradoc, Brennus, and Guinevere aren’t prepared to let their lands fall so easily. They fight their way through the Romans and their treasonous allies within Britannia, fighting for the northern clans and rallying them to action as they take blade to flesh from the northern encampments to the more fortified structures to the south.

Beat ‘em ups are notorious for their throwaway stories that act as an excuse for a handful of musclebound martial artists to take to the streets and beat the ass of every person they encounter. However, you’ll not find a more well-researched beat ‘em up than that of Wulverblade. While it’s not a historically accurate tale, insofar as three warriors laying waste to hundreds of Roman soldiers, it is inspired by historical events and locales of ancient Britain, researched over a period of five years by the game’s creative director. In fact, the game is positively loaded with supplemental material showcasing these inspirations, with written text, photographs, and even drone footage of ancient ruins and stone circles.

Fitting with this historical presentation are crisp visuals, a variety of settings, and no shortage of foreground and background elements to create the game’s setting. Allies and enemies alike wield weapons that were used in the era (with their own supplemental documentation) and are clad in realistic clothing and armor. What’s more, there is quite a lot of well-delivered dialogue, along with a narrator who introduces major events. In a nice touch – particularly for a 2D video game – characters’ mouth and tongue movements are synchronized with the dialogue for added realism. And, while the player faces the same enemies again and again, as is typical, each enemy is given a unique name.

At the outset, the player is given the option to begin the game in Standard or Arcade mode, with Easy or Normal difficulty settings, and 1P or 2P local co-op. Standard mode grants checkpoints, infinite continues, and the ability to pick up where you left off, whereas Arcade mode gives you three lives and three continues with which to complete the entire game. There is also a third mode that is locked at the start, but detailing this mode is a spoiler for the final level of the main game. In addition, the player may take on a survival mode and battle through hordes of enemies in one of seven locales from the main game, with scores shared via online leaderboards.

Players may choose between the strong but slow Brennus, the fast but weak Guinevere, or the more balanced Cadaroc. While most beat ‘em ups focus on fist-to-face action, combat here is entirely weapon-based, as inspired by the likes of Golden Axe, Sengoku, and Knights of the Round. The control scheme is quite simple, offering basic 3-hit combos for your main weapon, as well as jumping slashes, downward strikes, and special moves that damage nearby enemies while sacrificing a bit of health in the process.

Players frequently encounter dropped weapons and objects (including the severed heads of enemies), most of which can be thrown at other enemies for minimal damage. However, it is also possible to find stronger weapons that break after a short while, as well as secondary heavy weapons that open up new combat maneuvers (these also break after a while, but they last longer). With a heavy weapon equipped, players can alternate between normal and heavy strikes for a few different combo types, and heavy weapons tend to have a much longer reach. Heavy weapons are also better at disarming shielded enemies, or at least stunning them so you can follow up with additional regular strikes.

Players have a health meter and a rage meter. Health is restored in typical fashion with a bit of health restored when picking up fruit that is dropped by enemies and broken objects, and full health restoration when eating an entire cooked pork shank found at the bottom of a broken barrel. The rage meter is filled by defeating enemies and picking up “rage pouches” for a partial or full rage meter refill, and you can also gain rage by executing stunned enemies who are lying on the ground (as indicated by blue stars over their heads).

Once the meter is filled, the player can tap a button to enter Rage mode, making him temporarily invincible as he unleashes faster attacks while gaining back some health in the process. Managing the use of Rage mode can help to extend your life and take down groups of tough enemies. In Standard mode, losing all three lives returns you to the beginning of the level, the mid-level checkpoint, or the start of the end-level boss battle. In addition, once per level, the player can summon his wolf companions to charge toward enemies and kill them.

Like most beat ‘em ups, gameplay becomes repetitive as the player faces off against wave after wave of similar enemies. Even as new enemies are introduced, combat tactics vary little from one enemy to the next, particularly if the player does not have a secondary weapon equipped, which leaves him to perform the same 3-hit combo again and again as his primary attack.

Players must be mindful of archers that can strike from a distance, female warriors that can issue heavy strikes – denoted by exclamation marks above their heads to give player the opportunity to block – shielded enemies that can absorb hits without taking damage, and some unblockable attacks that may be evaded with a dodge roll. Players can also make use of the environment in some areas, such as knocking enemies back into campfires for additional damage, or skewering enemies on spike racks for quick kills.

Bosses are damage sponges with overlong health bars that take several minutes to wear down. As expected, bosses can deliver heavy strikes that deal a ton of damage, and they can call in support enemies to pick at you during the fight. On the Normal difficulty setting, arriving at the level boss with full health and all three lives is no guarantee of success, as bone-shattering attacks eat at your health quickly.

The game consists of eight levels, with transitions taking place on a map showing the cities of the day, and the Roman-occupied territory to the south. The game map also has icons of historical landmarks around Britain, and clicking on these reveals drone footage of the area along with a narrator explaining the site’s historical significance. There are also numerous pickups within the levels themselves which lead to additional details about the history of the area, its people, and the weapons of the day.

The player is ranked at the end of each level based on his completion time (a bonus is awarded for completing levels before the timer runs down), remaining lives, combos over 25x, combos over 100x, a bonus for not using your wolf support attack, and a bonus for finding secrets within the level. Scores may be shared via online leaderboards.

Wulverblade was created by Fully Illustrated, a one-man studio headed by Michael Heald. The game was developed over the course of six years in conjunction with Darkwind Media, which previously developed Blocks Indie and Kona’s Crate.