The humble side-scrolling brawler was once a huge draw in the gaming industry, with titles like Double Dragon, Final Fight and Streets of Rage providing players with gratifying and visceral combat (usually with a friend in tow) across a wide range of stages and settings. When the arcades began to lose their importance in the late '90s this style of game all but dried up, and outside of a few notable examples we've seen little activity in this genre recently.
Wulverblade is a game which unashamedly harks back to this almost forgotten era, a time when all gamers needed were a handful of characters to play as, a generous helping of moves and enough willing enemies to punch, kick and throw. The game's creative director, Michael Heald, is open about his love for the genre, citing classic examples such as Golden Axe as a considerable influence on Wulverblade's development. However, to assume that this title does little more than recycle old ideas would be doing it a massive disservice; instead, Wulverblade takes the core mechanics of the scrolling fighter and adds in layers of complexity, gorgeous presentation and a deep and meticulously-researched storyline.
Set during the Roman occupation of Britain in 120 AD, Wulverblade places you in the sandals of a tribe of Northern Britons who, like the famous Asterix and Obelix, are intent on resisting the iron rule of Rome. However, unlike the famous French comic duo, the protagonists in Wulverblade don't want to make fools of the Romans – they want to dismember them limb by limb. The storyline involves fighting not only the legions of Rome but also other Britons who have sided with them, a treacherous act in the eyes of Wulverblade's main hero, Caradoc. With attacks from other tribes on the rise and the might of Rome guiding the carnage, Caradoc – along with the powerful Brennus and the swift Guinevere – decide enough is enough and set out to turn the tide and bring peace not just to their Northern homelands, but the whole of Britain.
Each member of this heroic trio is blessed with different strengths and weaknesses; Caradoc is an all-rounder who offers a good balance when it comes to speed, power and defence, while the brutish Brennus is stronger and slower. Guinevere is the fastest of the three – something that comes in handy when juggling enemies with combos – but is weaker when it comes to dealing out punishment. Standard attacks create automatic combos, and it's possible to grapple with enemies for headbutts and throws – the latter of which will cause nearby enemies to scatter if they're hit by a thrown foe. Jumping attacks comprise of standard slashes and a powerful downward hit, and you can double-jump to get yourself out of tight spots.
Unlike many traditional side-scrolling fighters, it's possible to block by pushing the 'A' button, and this becomes an essential tactic quite early on – especially as it can be combined with a double-tap forward or back to trigger an evasive roll which allows you to get behind your enemy. A double-tap combined with the block button performs a knock-back move to open up enemies who are also equipped with shields or other means of defence, and by tapping block at the right time you can counter into a devastating combo; this action even slows down time slightly to highlight your chance to retaliate. Double-tapping also causes your character to enter a run (something you can also do by holding the 'R' button) which turns into a shield-breaking charge move when you press attack. Pressing attack and jump together performs a special move which is handy for crowd control, but saps some of your health.
Speaking of specials, once per stage you can call in the assistance of a band of ravenous wolves by holding down ZR and pressing either attack or jump. Furthermore, during combat a blue meter under your health bar slowly increases, and once it reaches its maximum you can enter your 'rage' mode, where your attacks cause more damage but you cannot be harmed. Entering this state also causes your health to replenish, so timing your use of it is essential if you want to survive the game's tougher levels.
As you can see, there's a lot to Wulverblade's basic controls – but there's more still to discover. Picking up heavy weapons unlocks your heavy attack (mapped to the 'X' button) which can be used in normal combos for additional damage. The catch here is that these weapons don't last forever and should therefore be used sparingly. Thankfully, you don't have to be quite so picky when it comes to other armaments, as practically anything that's not tied down can be picked up and thrown in the general direction of your foes. This includes pots, stones, swords, daggers and even human limbs and heads. Finally, it's possible to randomly stun enemies with certain moves, which causes them to pass out for a short period. Press attack whilst stood over their prone body and you will perform a grisly execution which boosts your 'rage' meter considerably.
For the first level you may not even realise half of these moves exist, as it's pretty easy to finish the opening stage just by relying on combo attacks alone. However, the difficulty level in Wulverblade takes a sharp upwards tick when you reach level three; by this point you're fighting against highly-trained Roman auxiliaries who are armed with dual weapons and shields. It's also by this point that you're having to contend with archers (who hang back and attack at a distance), assassins (similar to archers, but faster) and enemies who can unleash power blows (denoted by the exclamation mark which appears briefly before they attack). These threats – twinned with some end-of-level bosses that are so hard to defeat we almost thought we were playing Dark Souls for a moment – make it abundantly clear that Wulverblade isn't a mindless button-basher which can be bested with sheer brute force; it's a surprisingly deep and challenging experience which calls for tactical play as well as aggression.
Do you focus on keeping enemies split up so you can deal with them in packs, or do you exploit the speed of your evasive roll to bunch foes together and attack them from behind? Do you pick off archers and assassins first or deal with the more powerful threats before turning your attention to these irritating pests? Are you best off grappling with enemies in an effort to stun them and therefore gain a 'rage' boost with the resultant execution attack? Should you use the environment (such as spikes which instantly impale your opponents and campfires which set them alight) to make your job easier? Or maybe you feel cocky enough to keep your guard up and wait for the chance to counter, thereby unleashing an unholy counter combo which incorporates your heavy attack? The answer is rarely easy and to truly succeed in Wulverblade you ideally need to combine all of these strategies to suit the situation you find yourself in.
In terms of presentation, Wulverblade is simply stunning. While some may take issue with the way in which characters are created and animated via segmentation rather than traditional hard-drawn techniques, this approach does at least offer silky-smooth movement which looks stunning in motion. While there are naturally a set number of enemy types to face, the fact that their physical attributes are mixed up a little helps give a sense of variety. The hulking boss characters you face are also unique and full of character; the choice to use cartoon-like visuals may be at odds with the often bloody nature of the action, but it allows Wulverblade to stand out from the crowd. On the audio side of things, the game's soundtrack sets the tone perfectly and the use of voice-acting and narration is superb.
While you'll spend plenty of time gazing appreciatively at Wulverblade's wonderfully-rendered cast of heroes and villains, a special mention must go to the atmospheric environments, many of which take direct inspiration from real-world locations in the British Isles. You'll ramble through rain-soaked wastelands and dense forests (the latter of which come complete with startled wildlife, the silhouettes of which can be seen dashing through the background) as well as barge your way into hostile villages and fortified Roman bases. Throughout the quest you can unlock historical data as well as some stunning photos – snapped especially for the game – of the actual places which inspired it. Also included are notes on the history and lore of the period, which set the scene perfectly and gives Wulverblade a sense of realism, despite the fact that much of its plot is clearly based in fantasy and fiction.
Wulverblade's Normal mode is perhaps the best place to start your adventure as it features checkpoints and unlimited continues. However, in keeping with its coin-op origins, the game's Arcade mode provides a brutal challenge, giving you three continues and three lives per continue. We consider ourselves to be seasoned arcade veterans here at Nintendo Life but this proved to be too tough an ask even for us; in fact, even in the more casual Normal mode, Wulverblade is an often sadistically tricky game which takes delight in punishing your every mistake and giving you as little leeway as it can get away with; bosses pepper you with unblockable attacks while standard enemies have an annoying tendency to swarm you completely, giving you very slender windows of opportunity in which to react and fight back and sapping your energy in seconds. Checkpoints are also used quite sparingly, so expect to do a lot of back-tracking when you fail.
While we jokingly mentioned Dark Souls earlier in this review, the comparison isn't entirely unfounded; both games are as tough as old boots but, with perseverance, tenacity and the right tactics, they can be beaten – our only worry in Wulverblade's case is that modern gamers aren't as willing to face a stern challenge as those who grew up around arcade titles rigged to gobble coin, and may become disillusioned when the action hots up. This writer is happy to admit to becoming hopelessly stuck on more than one occasion, but the satisfaction of finally overcoming a tough boss outweighs the pain of that hardship. However, other players might not be quite as patient, especially if they're not particularly fans of the genre; Wulverblade has no time for novices and newcomers and that naturally impacts its accessibility.
With that in mind, having a second player involved is not just recommended, it's practically essential. Wulverblade supports all of the Switch's various control configurations, including a single Joy-Con for each player, which means it's very easy indeed to rope someone else in to assist in your bloody liberation of Britannia. Given the sheer volume of enemies on-screen at any one time, having an extra pair of hands really does make all the difference, and if you find yourself repeatedly coming unstuck when playing solo, it's a good idea to try some co-op before chucking in the towel. Outside of the main game – which is positively packed with secrets to unlock, historical info to find, special weapons to acquire (each of which has its own lore and origin story) and even comes with built-in achievements – you can also take part in the Arena mode, where you pick a location and face-off against wave after wave of enemies, with your score being uploaded to the global leaderboards at the end. Getting to the end of the game takes around four to six hours, depending on your skill level, but reaching the end credits doesn't signal the conclusion of Wulverblade's lifespan – grabbing all of the secrets will take multiple play-throughs.
Despite its modest hack-and-slash origins, Wulverblade manages to pack in a lot of content, depth and unlockable elements, and these allow it to transcend the usual limitations of the genre. The action rarely becomes too repetitive because there are always multiple ways of dealing with the hordes of enemies which present a genuinely stern test, even for seasoned players who fondly recall pumping coins into the likes of Golden Axe and Final Fight all those years ago. Simply finishing the game's epic story is the kind of challenge that will keep you glued to your Switch for a considerable length of time, but the Arcade mode – which goes truly old-school – awaits those who feel cocky (or foolish) enough to take it on. Wulverblade's lack of hand-holding reminds us of a time when games really did push the player in order to maximise their enjoyment, but it could prove too taxing for those who are entering their genre cold; with this in mind an easier "casual" mode might have been a wise choice as we fear some will give up when they encounter one of the game's many painful spikes in difficulty. Like the games that inspired it, Wulverblade is best played with a friend – not just because it's more enjoyable, but because it blunts the almost sadistic difficulty level. Wulverblade therefore might not be to everybody's tastes, but if you have even a passing interest in genre then we can confidently predict you'll get along with this famously – and you may even learn something about the history of Roman Britain in the process, which isn't something you can say about every video game.