Bladestorm: The Hundred Years' War
It could be taken as a sign of how mature the video games market is getting, when a premise for a game is centred on the 100 years war. After so long of the same historical battles being used time after time in games, suddenly Koei have decided to be bold and different. Luckily for them, it's turned Bladestorm into a surprisingly fun game that rightfully deserves to be noticed and played by those who fancy something a bit different. Sure, the entire concept of a hack 'n' slash strategy game based on the 100 years war sounds a bit absurd initially, but once you overlook that, it is good fun. However, everything is not quite plain sailing for Koei.
For those of you who aren't familiar with Koei's previous games, the company is renowned for their historically-based strategy games on various formats. Some of their most famous titles being the Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors games, as well as the much older series Romance of The Three Kingdoms, which spanned over 10 game systems and 11 editions. All of these games were based on either Chinese or Japanese history. Despite being mostly enjoyable, if unremarkable titles, they achieved fairly minimal success in Europe. So what does Koei do? Bring their tried and tested formula to a European market by using a European war to form the plot. What Englishman wouldn't want to fight it out with the French and the same in reverse?
The game begins by introducing you to the basic concepts through the use of a barman in a tavern full of mercenaries, just like you. Being a mercenary means you can take either side depending on who's offering the most money or simply whether you want to maintain an allegiance with one side. It's nice to immediately see some welcoming presentation. The FMVs early on are immediately quite interesting to watch, very typical of Koei's past games, but they add to the experience. As well as this, a pseudo medieval language is used by the characters you encounter, a nice attempt at bringing you into the era, although the constant use of 'ye' can get a bit irritating after a while. There's a brief character creation screen which gives you fairly minimal options such as gender, face and what voice to use throughout the game.
Once all of that's out of the way, the barkeep introduces you to your options. Initially you'll most likely go for the contract option which is where the real focus of the game is to be found, but further on in the game the other options play a larger role. You also have access to a merchant, whereby you can purchase items both for yourself and your squads, you can recruit extra squads for battle as well as pick up titbits of gossip and storylines from the events unfolding as you progress in the game.
Once you go onto the contract screen, you'll see just how long this game can last. In the early stages you'll have around 4-5 missions available for you to play through, in later stages this can increase to 8 at any one time. All of these missions have different objectives but for the most part, they are roughly the same. Typically either capture a certain base or defend a base while capturing nearby settlements. Each mission also offers a different difficulty rating as well as a different amounts of money that can be earned from succeeding at the mission. On the first couple of missions the game guides you through the basic methods of combat, which is useful as the game is not immediately intuitive unless you've previously played games such as Samurai Warriors or Dynasty Warriors before. Once the first mission or two is out of the way, the game makes perfect sense. You control one mercenary who can gain control of 'squads' of troops ranging from infantry to cavalry to archers. Each squad has its own strengths and weaknesses and it's up to you to ascertain which would be the most appropriate for the situation. You can change the squad you control at any point in the game, once you find another squad that you are able to control. It all looks very arcade-like with combat being a simple matter of holding down RB to charge and perform a basic attack, and using one of the other coloured buttons to perform a special move once one is available. There's even a combo bar to demonstrate how many hits have been performed in a row and occasionally the term 'Bladestorm' will appear in the middle of the screen to indicate that your squad's powers have been temporarily boosted, which makes the action even more frantic. Each mission can take a few in-game days, with each 'day' lasting 10 minutes. It makes it quite a fast and furious game at times especially if achieving your objective seems to be slipping out of your grasp at the last second. If you really want to, you can go it alone and attack an enemy base but it's not recommended. The game is strongly focused on safety in numbers and you would do well to quickly command a squad and make sure you stick together with other AI controlled squads to ensure the maximum chance of success. This is certainly not a war that can be won alone.
As the game progresses so do your skills. Your level is based upon how much you've used a specific squad, for example if you've mainly been using swordsmen then your level would be higher than if you took control of a team of archers. It's up to you whether you want to balance this out by using different squads at different times or whether you want to stick to being masterful at one type. As well as this, you can acquire battle books at random times during the game which means you can use different types of squads as well as improve their skills in different ways. You can 'recruit' extra squads from the tavern meaning that if you want to use an extra squad as backup during a mission, they are hotlinked to one of the controller's buttons so that they instantly appear when you want them to. The same can be said of special 'banners' that are purchasable from the merchant and give you and your squad temporary boosts such as defence increases or added attack power. At the end of each mission you are assessed on how you performed within the mission and whether you achieved the objective, you are then rewarded with money and fame. Fame provides you with more job offers for the most part which helps your progression within the game, and unlocks more campaigns in different areas of the land.
It's a pity that despite all the depth offered by the game initially, that no matter how far you progress in the game, the battlefields still look exactly the same and the objectives never change. As well as this, the voice acting is somewhat embarrassing, both the English and French sides sound like caricatures of themselves but then again, coming from a Japanese development studio, this is probably no great surprise. The audio is saved however by a very good orchestral soundtrack which often links in perfectly to the action on screen and manages to project the majesty of the event.
Despite these few niggles, if you can overlook the moderate repetitiveness of the missions in Bladestorm, and conquer its slightly confusing initial battles, it's an extremely rewarding and fun game. The game makes for a refreshing change on the Xbox 360 by building upon the small success of Dynasty Warriors in Europe, and focusing on something a bit more European in feel. Its quirkiness remains Japanese, but in the good way. Bladestorm won't sell anywhere near as many copies as some of the big hits we've seen in the past few months, and it is probably unfortunate that it arrives in the midst of so many huge hits. But hopefully once the dust has settled, people will notice this game, take a risk and be pleasantly surprised. Bladestorm definitely harbours room for improvement, which we will hopefully see in a future sequel, but for now, it's certainly worth your time, and will keep you busy for many a long winter evening.