Over the past few months we've seen an influx of incredible games from smaller studios on Switch and Nintendo's platform feels like a perfect fit for them. We here at Nintendo Life highlighted a bunch of titles in our recent Nintendo Life Indie Spotlight, and the platform holder's Indie World Showcase broadcasts regularly highlight the wealth of indie games in the works.
One in particular that we've had our beady eye on is Blue Fire from Robi Studios. You play as Umbra, a diminutive warrior fighting to banish the Black Shadow from the land of Penumbra in a 3D combat-focused platformer, with a Zelda-like base and lashings of Dark Souls added for good measure. We spoke to Santiago Rosa, co-lead at Robi, back in May to find out a little about the game, and we recently spent some time with a PC demo build.
First impressions are rather good. The build we played consisted of two areas: Fire Keep, an opening castle-style level with corridors, locked doors and grand halls; and Uthas Temple, a darker dungeon which introduced wall running, more advanced combat, and some Zelda-style environmental puzzles. Nothing too taxing — think treasure chests with keys to locked doors, lever-activated timed gates, statues to possess and move to touch plates, that sort of thing.
While that all sounds very familiar, the focus on acrobatic platforming gives this a more complex flavour than a darker-toned indie Wind Waker. Those levers, treasure chests and environmental elements are less prominently signposted than Zelda veterans might expect, too; several times in the Uthas Temple we were left scratching our heads having explored everywhere and seemingly hit a dead end.
Once you realise that this game isn't going to lay out the standard glowing breadcrumb trail or highlight unusual-looking environmental features via a Navi-style guide, it's easier to enjoy the search — you actually have you use your eyes and the camera to scan your surroundings. Abilities like wall jumps, double jumps and a dash move unlock and enable you to traverse large gaps and avoid spikes, crumbling platforms, and other hazards. In Fire Keep we entered another realm on a Quest which involved negotiating a platforming gauntlet to earn a Void Soul, a doohickey which will presumably become important later in the game proper.
leaping around the environments feels all-at-once balletic and dangerous
Umbra's abilities combine with sword strikes and a classic 'Z-targeting' system and form the basis of a versatile combat system. It's easy to pick up the basics; on our trusty Switch Pro Controller, jump was on 'B' with 'Y' dealing horizontal sword strikes and vertical strikes on 'X'. 'ZL' toggles on targeting and the opposite trigger activates the dash. You can replenish your health by hitting 'Up' on the D-pad.
It's a standard interface, then, and one which works perfectly well. The dash can be activated multiple times on the ground but only once in mid-air, so zipping across chasms feels all-at-once balletic and dangerous. It's satisfying to suss out the environment and nail a manoeuvre to a hard-to-reach platform. In some ways it feels like the zippy movement of Hollow Knight or another 2D action platformer has been transplanted into a 3D Zelda-like framework.
The basics work well although strikes lacked weight compared to some other 3D action games we've played, especially against the smaller slug enemies. We'll be interested to see if the Switch version uses rumble to give fights a little more oomph, or if feedback is different against larger enemies. The dash move homes in on mid-air foes and you can maintain altitude by using vertical strikes against them. The timing is tricky, but there's potential in the system if later enemies force you to get strategic.
Performance-wise, it's an Unreal Engine 4 game and we were running it on our overworked and massively underpowered Dell laptop. Beyond a hard crash near the end of the demo, it acquitted itself admirably on our very modest hardware. Knocking the resolution down to 720p resulted in a fairly solid 30 fps in the sections we played, so the Switch experience should be smooth. The game has been rescheduled from its original Summer 2020 release date to Spring 2021, so we'd hope everything will be nicely optimised. Visually, Blue Fire is pleasant enough and Umbra is a cute character (you can switch out his costume and weapons via an inventory menu to add some personal flair), but Blue Fire certainly isn't pushing graphical boundaries — we've got our fingers crossed for solid Switch performance.
Blue Fire certainly isn't pushing graphical boundaries — we've got our fingers crossed for solid Switch performance
The camera is the only thing which felt a tad cumbersome in this demo. We headed into the Settings menu and upped Auto Adjust from default 'Slow' to 'Fast', which helped considerably, but rare was the time when we weren't nudging the right stick. The targeting takes care of the camera in combat, but the constant adjustment while you're knee-deep in precision platforming may get tiresome. Given the acrobatics and attacks you'll need to chain together, adding camera tweaks into the mix is an extra layer challenge that might be too much for some, and we can only imagine that level design will get more complex later on.
The demo felt challenging but fair. We're not sure how the final game will deal with death — you're deposited back on a nearby platform minus a bunch of hearts if you fall into water, and this build plonked you back at the start of the area once all your health was depleted with all enemies respawned (although treasure chests we'd opened remained plundered). The fonts and atmosphere may play on the Dark Souls theme, but difficulty-wise, this occupies a middle ground between Nintendo's forgiving approach and From Software's series. It doesn't suffer fools gladly, but it'll tolerate them for a spill or two.
Overall, we were left intrigued to see what other tricks Blue Fire has up its sleeve. Those Zelda/Souls genre touchstones set some mighty high expectations but, on current evidence, Robi Studios have put down a very solid base and hopefully the developer can build on those fundamentals with flourishes to give little Umbra and the game at large its own identity. The combination of sharp combat encounters with added platforming challenges all wrapped in a cutesy fantasy package has potential, and if later game areas can up the ante in interesting ways, Blue Fire will certainly be one to keep an eye on.
Blue Fire is currently scheduled for launch in 'Spring 2021'.