Backing the wrong horse.
You are a fledgling warrior. Blood runs swiftly through your unscarred arms and seizes your hands with an eager grip. Your sterile blade yearns for the glorious battlefield, to tear out the mouths of foolish grunts who mock your unproven skill. They will soon understand, if but for a cut of a second, that you are no ordinary grunt, no swashbuckling imbecile. The mere mention of your name will have them surround you in a panicked circle unwilling to strike, while you snicker and shake your head in disbelief. It’s as if they want you to reach the four-hundred kill count.
But this is not Dynasty Warriors. Surprised? For that fact alone, Koei should be delightfully applauded for Bladestorm: The Hundred Years’ War, given a yummy cake for trying to turn an oft-repeated hack-‘n-slash into a squad-based action strategy game – and then, without mercy, trampled and pierced by the swords and spears of stampeding horsemen.
Why? Well, aside from the assured entertainment their deaths would provide, Bladestorm is a fascinating, painstaking, and unrelenting tragedy. It takes a few steps in the right direction and then falls into a pit filled with overpowered tactics, unpolished mechanics, poor choices, and an identity crisis. In its attempt not to be Dynasty Warriors, it not only struggles to decide what game it wants to be, but also loses the one thing Dynasty Warriors had going for it - making you feel like a cutthroat bad-ass.
Caught in the One Hundred Years War between England and France during the mid-to-late fourteenth century, you are a mercenary who seeks fame and fortune, aligning with the highest bidder of the day. As you gain experience and renown on the battlefield, you will become further intertwined in a story involving the Black Prince of England, Joan of Arc, and all manner of crowned loyalty and grubby fellows.
The owner of the local tavern believes your eyes are somehow different than the rest – which isn’t surprising if you choose to be a Japanese warrior during the medieval times in Europe. Obviously, you’re a ronin who has been thrown from the cliffs of Kyushu for suspected homicide against the family of the local daimyo, and by the fate of the currents, has drifted around the cape of Africa and to the shores of Normandy.
Anachronisms aside, let’s just assume that you’ll pick the, err…, Caucasian mercenary. Now, when I think of a mercenary, I think of the lone-wolf, no-nonsense kind of guy who is glad to take things outside and shove pointy things up where they don’t belong. To that end, you can purchase sturdy equipment from the merchant in the tavern and hire recruits that can be summoned at your beck and call. Nothing like armored gear and hired thugs to begin your domination of the world – or at least what many people thought was the world back then: the Eastern hemisphere.
Then you step into your first battle, ready and able, and realize that you aren’t really a mercenary. You’re a mercenary leader. You walk up to some troops, take control of them, and then order them around, as if you were a ghost that could only possess a group of soldiers that looked alike. Not just your own hired troops either, but any of the English or French mercenary forces who are on your side and running about the countryside. I have no idea what kind of mercenary the English or the French would hire who could then order ninety percent of their entire force around (Aren’t they supposed to be ordering you around?), but you’re it.
Of course, you can try to go at it alone, but you’ll die in a matter of seconds. Besides, you don’t have a button to attack, only a button that puts you in an attack stance that has you swing your weapon at fixed time intervals like a turn-based MMORPG. You just want to take a sword, go up to a foe, and stab away – but you can’t. You also don’t have an experience level of your own. Only your experience with a specific squad type counts, so you’ll often switch from being level 3 to level 16 to an almost random number as you control different squads. Unlike Dynasty Warriors, you are a weakling without help.
Fortunately, there’s one way and only one way to make you feel better – horses. How romantic… but no, really. The game will emphasize a rock-paper-scissors strategy, pushing you to pit a specific squad that has an advantage over another specific enemy squad. There’s an entire chart in the manual with X’s and O’s about how swordsmen are weak against axe-wielders and how horses don’t like long, pointy trees. Each unit also has three special abilities that can heighten their stats or damage enemies in a variety of ways. But you can throw all that strategy out the window, because you’ll soon learn that charging cavalry is all you need to mow down everything in your path.
Trampling humans into meat and eyes is the only way to play this one-trick, violent pony. Nearly every major character controls a cavalry unit, so it isn’t hard to get the hint. As expected, mounted soldiers travel about three times faster than foot soldiers. Contracts you sign expire in a spare number of days and you only have ten minutes of sunlight per day, so getting from one fort to another with infantry is a waste of time. Combine a cavalry unit’s speed with their unstoppable charging attack, and you can not only avoid unnecessary battles and escape quickly if you’re near death, plus you will earn more experience, more fame, and more money in a shorter amount of time.
Furthermore, capturing a fort requires you to defeat its base commander, who appears after you’ve killed off most of its defending officers. That base commander is always an infantry unit that doesn’t like four-legged mammals. So even the most difficult battles boil down to traveling to the enemy’s fort quickly, avoiding other strong cavalry units such as that of The King of France, picking off any weak officers surrounding the fort, and then murdering the base commander – all things that salt-lickers excel at.
The main tragedy here is that Bladestorm has all the makings of a stellar title. Apart from a noticeable draw-in distance and unhealthy patches of fog to cover it up, the modeling of the armies and the environments are smooth and the frame-rate rarely hitches. The orchestral soundtrack is mostly run-of-the-mill fare, but it’s a huge improvement over the usual electronic riffs rampant in Dynasty Warriors. Likewise, the story still isn’t fully fleshed, but for its cohesiveness, it’s a leap forward.
But none of that matters much, especially when there are better action and strategy titles that actually have a multi-player mode. Bladestorm may last for more than a week, but only a few fans of the Dynasty Warriors series will want to endure more than a couple of days of horses, capturing unceasingly vital positions, and slow-paced gruntwork. It captures neither the balance needed to make squad-based strategy work, nor the thrill of decimating troops single-handedly. If you’re a fledgling warrior, firmly take your sword and four-hundred kill count somewhere else.