Wulverblade is a side-scrolling beat ’em up that takes inspiration from historical cultures, locations, and events to tell a story about the native resistance to the Roman invasion of Britain in the middle of the first century AD. Following Queen Boadicea’s fierce but ultimately failed attempt to drive the Romans from Britain, the Roman Ninth Legion has solidified its foothold in the south and marches north to pacify any more Briton tribes that might resist them. That resistance arrives in the form of Caradoc, a man who lives in the highland forests with his family but emerges to lead the northern tribes when they are threatened. I choose to play as Caradoc, his brother Brennus, or his sister Guinevere, and brawl our way through the Ninth Legion and the conscripted southern tribes to drive them out of the parts of Britain that remain free from Roman rule.
What sets Wulverblade apart from many other videogames is its purported goal of representing real history. While the characters are fictional, the path they cut south into occupied Britain travels through many real places which may be visited today. By picking up journals hidden in secret rooms and smashable containers, I can read notes written by Wulverblade’s creative director Michael Heald. Some of these notes recount historical facts we know today about Rome’s occupation of Britain, while others are photographic and videographic records of Heald’s visits to locations around the present day United Kingdom.
Beat ’em ups are usually a blunt and thoughtless genre, so learning about the surviving stone circles and Roman fortifications upon which levels are built adds an interesting layer to the experience. I only wish Wulverblade went into more detail. The History Notes are the most informative, filling in how the Britons and the Roman Legion lived, though distressingly none are sourced except to Michael Heald himself. The other historical documents are less impressive. The photographic records, while containing many high-resolution images of what Wulverblade’s settings look like today, are accompanied by Heald’s rambling and sloppy journal entries. The videographic records, shot in high-definition using a drone, are accompanied by brief narration that often ends before anything of interest has been said, as though limited by the length of available footage.
It’s important to emphasize that Wulverblade is ultimately a work of fiction. That one or two of Caradoc’s heroic family can cut their way through an entire Roman Legion should be clue enough, but if there’s any lingering doubt come the final level, the plot indulges in a deus ex machina fantasy device that sunders any chance the story has at plausibility. Wulverblade is inspired by history and contains many historical facts in its unlockable documents, but whenever I’m in control of Caradoc or one of his siblings, it is a power fantasy videogame. At best, it is folklore, an authentically British story, but not one where I have to spend much time worrying about historical facts even as they are instructed to me. Whether this is a good or a bad thing will come down to each player’s interior nitpicker.
Wulverblade’s graphics make it stand out from other throwbacks to the beat ’em up genre. Instead of pixel art, large character models are created with thick black lines and dirty, ugly colors, as though they are pulled from the pages of a graphic novel. The world is similarly dark and messy, capturing the dreary, rainy battlefields of first century Britain which are soon soaked with blood from fallen Roman soldiers and their allies.
In terms of how it plays, Wulverblade feels familiar. My single player character—or a pair, if I am playing local multiplayer with a friend—trudge from a level’s far left side to its right, on the way killing an army of enemy soldiers that appear from both sides of the screen to waylay us. Controls are simple. There is an attack button which swings the player character’s weapon and a defend button that blocks incoming attacks. There are also jump and heavy attack buttons, but these prove so situational that I almost never use them.
As with any beat ’em up, the most important thing in Wulverblade is keeping the enemy crowd under control. If the player character is ever pinned between attacking enemies, they’re in a bad place. I struggle with this concern until I master the rolling ability. By holding down the block button and double-tapping left or right, the player character will roll in that direction. This may be repeated multiple times with no punishment. Rolling is a good way to put all enemies on one side of the player character. This forces enemy groups to clump together in their zealous desire to attack, creating opportunities for every hostile target on-screen to be pummeled by one combo from the player character.
Other than crowd control, success in Wulverblade’s combat is about concentration and timing. Attacking first is often the best solution—an enemy or enemies under assault cannot swing their weapons. Especially dangerous enemy attacks are heralded by an exclamation point above their heads. If I can press the block button in time, the attack will be thwarted and the player character may react with a vicious counterattack rendered in glorious slow motion. For attacks that cannot be blocked, simply sidestepping up or down away from the blow is the best solution. These are all familiar concepts to beat ’em up veterans and Wulverblade does not fuss with the formula.
Finishing each level is ultimately a kind of resource management game. The better I am at controlling crowds and blocking attacks, the less damage my player character’s health bar will suffer. To remedy my inevitable mistakes, there are chicken dinners strategically placed across the levels which will top off a player character’s health.
A less reliable, but often more readily available health source is the Rage mechanic. The more the player character hits enemies, the more their Rage meter is filled. When it is full, they may enter a brief period of invincibility where their attacks become super-fast, and more importantly, they rapidly regenerate a large portion of their health bar. Balancing skillful play with careful application of Rage health recovery and pre-placed chicken dinners is the key to success against the overwhelming odds each level presents.
Where I struggle most in Wulverblade is with the absurd number of projectiles which are dropped in the course of combat. Defeated enemies drop their swords, which may be picked up and hurled across the screen at another enemy. When they don’t drop their swords, then their decapitated body parts will drop instead. These may also be picked up and thrown at enemies.
The trouble with this grisly mechanic is the button which picks up and throws projectiles is the same button which attacks. Often the only thing stopping a blade to the player character’s face is attacking first, so a problem is created when the ground is littered with swords and decapitated body parts. When I press the attack button, the player character stoops to pick up something from the ground instead of getting in that vital pre-emptive swing from their own weapon.
This struggle for basic interaction even extends beyond simple attacking. On multiple occasions I desperately try to pick up a life-saving chicken dinner, only for the player character to pick up a nearby weapon instead. This makes them take their final hit, costing a precious and limited life stock. This problem is entirely a result of assigning too many commands to one button—a major videogame pet peeve of mine—and could easily be remedied by assigning “pick up item” to one of the many unused buttons on a modern controller. Instead, Wulverblade becomes mildly annoying when fallen enemies have dropped too much garbage on the floor.
The three player characters are all statistically unique, creating a distinct feeling to an identical set of levels depending on which I choose. Caradoc is the obvious hero; the story is narrated from his perspective, and he has the greatest emotional stakes in the ultimate conflict. He is also the most balanced statistically, sitting in the middle between strength and speed. To make him extra enticing, he has the highest defense of the three. When I play as Caradoc, Wulverblade is most forgiving of my mistakes in combat.
Brennus and Guinevere contrast their brother in different ways. Brennus is larger and trades a shield for a second blade in his offhand; he trades all his speed and defense for raw power. This lets him kill his enemies with relative ease compared to his siblings, but he has less mobility and suffers more damage for his mistakes. Guinevere is statistically the quintessential beat ’em up token girl. She is the fastest of the trio, but also the weakest. Confusingly, she also has defensive power almost as low as Brennus despite carrying a shield like Caradoc.
From my time playing as all three player characters, Guinevere feels like she gets the shortest end of the stick. Her speed lets her hit enemies more often, even to the point of juggling airborne enemies. But her low strength doesn’t let her take advantage of this ability, resulting in her getting overwhelmed by enemies her brothers can kill much more quickly. With her lower defense stats, being forced against larger enemy groups often puts her in a bad position. Playing as Guinevere feels like playing Wulverblade on hard mode.
As has become the norm for indies inspired by genres that were popular as quarter-munching arcade cabinets, there are two main ways to play through Wulverblade’s eight main levels. In Standard mode, each level is tackled individually. The player character’s stock of extra lives are replenished between each level, and I may continue from in-level checkpoints as many times as I need to finish the level. The Arcade mode is the same set of levels, but must be completed within three continues. This is made slightly easier by awarding an extra life for every 100,000 points earned, which is surprisingly easy to do in every level once I settle into a groove.
There isn’t much to keep me busy once I’ve finished Standard and Arcade modes. Primarily, I can play and replay individual levels to find every historical note and finish with a top performance rating. There is an unlockable third way to play through the story, but it is essentially a joke mode that makes most encounters trivially easy. I derive little satisfaction from the brief time I spend with it. There is also an Arena mode where I must endure neverending waves of super-difficult enemies. All modes support leaderboards, though they don’t seem to be connected to any online service. The only person who will ever see my posted high scores is me.
Wulverblade is a worthy entry to the indie beat ’em up scene. It does just enough to stand on its own visually and mechanically without changing the fundamentals that have bedrocked the genre for over thirty years. The extra wrinkle of being based on researched history, even if the story it ultimately tells is fiction and folklore, gives that tiny extra bit of incentive to give it some time. I actually learned some history from this videogame, even if I find myself wanting more details and context from what it provides. If nothing else, it has sparked my curiosity. This is a solid experience and recommended for any established beat ’em up fan.