#BLUD Review

#BLUD is a top-down action-and-adventure videogame about Becky Brewster, a highschool freshmen who discovers that she is the youngest in a line of vampire hunters. Her awakening happens to coincide with the local vampire brood returning to power, attacking innocent victims in the night and working to resurrect their master, the vampire lord Dragur. Arming herself with a field hockey stick and recruiting a few wacky classmates to her cause, Becky hones her vampire hunting skills while waging a bloody and increasingly public war with the vampires in an effort to save the citizens of Carpentersville from destruction.

Becky Brewster is menaced by a roaring vampire.

What drew me to #BLUD was the phenomenal quality of the animation depicted in its trailers. Characters have colorful skin tones, toothy mouths, and huge, expressive eyes, evoking the styles of popular recent animated television shows like Gravity Falls, Steven Universe, and The Owl House. These animations are not a few big budget moments created to look good in trailers while the actual videogame is plain and static. They live up to the high standard set by the marketing throughout the twelve hours I spend playing #BLUD to its end credits.

Designs and animations stand out in particular when characters are speaking. It’s familiar for videogame dialog to be accompanied by a large and detailed portrait of the speaking character. If the developer is especially ambitious, their portrait will have multiple expressions to match the feeling behind what they’re saying. The character portraits in #BLUD go beyond ambition into showing off. 

Becky introduces herself to a classmate with a nervous smile and eager eyes.

Each character’s portrait is fully animated with exaggerated expression and manic energy. Some gesture and cavort so widely within the frame they briefly cover some of the text depicting their dialog. All impress, but Becky is the star. Her pupils roll mischievously around her eyes and her teeth overflow her babbling mouth when she has a happy conversation with a friend. When she is frightened or overwhelmed, she huddles beside the text box, her eyes darting furtively and her mouth movements small and understated. Other characters express themselves with more subtle emotion but have no less effort put into their animations. Though each character’s voice is audible only as grunts and squeaks, the way they move gives volume to their feelings.

Vampire enemies stalk a careful thematic balance, suggesting gruesome inhuman body horror without abandoning the playful feel of a family cartoon. Only a few embody the archetypical vampire, possessing glistening fangs, pale faces, and pointed widow’s peaks. Most have the hideous and hairless goblin appearance of Max Schreck’s Count Orlok—until they feed, when their face splits open to reveal an orifice filled with grasping tentacles and sucking tubular mouths. The best boss fights exploit these features to repulsive effect, pitting Becky against gigantic vampires who use their writhing appendages and regurgitated fluids to create screen-filling obstacle courses she must endure between strikes at their weak points.

Becky crushes a gigantic monster bug with a ferocious finishing blow.

Becky again has the most numerous and detailed animations, particularly in her combat abilities. She wields her field hockey stick with the skill of a swordswoman, twirling it between swings, her eyes glaring, her mouth open in ferocious roars. A few of the rewards Becky earns on her adventure are one way I can tell much of #BLUD’s emphasis lies in its animation. Instead of rewarding Becky with power, they confer new flourishing finishers she may add to the end of her attacks.

In contrast to the vibrant colors and bold outlines that make up the characters, Carpentersville consists of static backgrounds, faded colors, and no outlines at all. This has the probably intentional effect of making the characters pop against the drab backdrop. Another effect is the world is uninteresting to look at and subsequently even less interesting to explore.

The Carpentersville Mall is typical of #BLUD’s environments: Large, drab, and empty.

The world also suffers from its sense of scale. Interior and exterior areas are cavernous and filled with empty space. Even modest rooms, like Becky’s bedroom, are so sprawling the camera frame has to pan as the player character walks across them to depict the entire space. Attempts are made to fill these spaces with tables, chairs, and other functional and mundane objects. Appropriately scaled to fit the characters, these tiny objects instead make large spaces feel even larger. The empty space feels purposeful when it gives Becky plenty of room to move around while fighting vampires. In areas where there is no combat, it becomes a chore just to walk across a room. 

Large swathes of #BLUD feel overwhelmed by walking through its massive and empty spaces. This sensation lessens as the story approaches its climax and the vampire horde invades Carpentersville, ensuring Becky always has a fight to draw her across an environment. The opening hours when there are few threats at all are tedious.

Becky strikes at a Feral Vampire with her field hockey stick.

As a top-down action-and-adventure videogame, #BLUD’s combat is typical. I can move Becky freely around the environments, moving away from enemy attacks and moving in to exploit their openings. Pressing the attack button multiple times sends Becky through a combo with her field hockey stick, ending in a powerful crushing blow when the monster runs out of hit points. This final blow can even finish off nearby monsters regardless of their health, encouraging me to herd enemies into groups where all can be eliminated with a simple combo.

Becky’s other most important combat move is her roll. It is primarily defensive, able to send Becky out of the way of lunging attacks. Echoing the Legend of Zelda videogames that #BLUD borrows many structural ideas from, it is also a convenient and annoying way to move quickly across Carpentersville.

Becky is struck by a vampire’s piercing pointed tongue.

The trouble with #BLUD’s combat is its controls aren’t precise enough to reliably combat Becky’s vampire enemies. Suffering from accidental collision damage because I struggle to get Becky to walk away from quick monsters is a common occurrence. 

In a more specific offensive case, mashing the attack button is an effective tactic against early monsters. It loses its effectiveness when Becky begins to encounter Feral Vampires, large and muscular monsters who block regular attacks. If they block too many attacks in a row, they respond with a powerful counterattack. A tutorial nudges me towards using Becky’s rolling uppercut attack to penetrate their defenses. The roll must begin a precise distance from an enemy and transition into the uppercut with exact timing. With the imprecise movement and the aggressive enemies, getting this distance and timing right is often a struggle. I am relieved when events of the story present Becky with new options and I am able to forget the rolling uppercut exists.

Becky uses her field hockey stick’s umbrella attachment to block a vampire’s attack.

These new options mostly come from Corey, Becky’s next door neighbor who specializes in creating useful gadgets from discarded junk. Over the course of the story, he modifies Becky’s field hockey stick with a shield umbrella, a collapsible shovel head, and a retractable chain attached to a hook. These tools have applications in combat but also expand the numbers of areas Becky may travel to in Carpentersville.

Though #BLUD has an open world, it utilizes a clashing combination of episodic storytelling and familiar quest systems to tell its story. Each beat of the story is prefaced by an episode title card and a short expository sequence that sets up what Becky will do that day. The more episodes I complete, the more spaces in the sandbox Becky may visit. 

Title cards introduce each “episode” that breaks up the open world exploration.

Becky’s actual goals in each episode are tracked as quests in a smartphone app. A brilliant parody of the former Twitter, the Perch app is #BLUD at its most successful next to animation. Any quests Becky is currently on are tracked as trending hashtags. Her progress on these quests may be perused under a Star menu, as though she is reviewing updates to liked tweets. At every step along the quest, Becky and other characters will comment on her progress. It all adds up to a ridiculous amount of text whose volume would put many narrative adventure videogames to shame.

Main quests are thrust upon Becky and difficult to miss. Optional sidequests are another matter. They are available almost everywhere in Carpentersville and there is no visual indicator that a non-player character will offer one. The only way to ensure I don’t miss any is to have Becky speak with every character she comes across. #BLUD has a large cast of NPCs so this is a discouraging task by itself. It becomes worse when I start to notice the artificiality of life in Carpentersville. 

Quests are tracked in the Perch app, a parody of the former Twitter.

Downtown Carpentersville is a space filled with multiple shops and restaurants across several blocks. Only a few contain sidequest goals and fewer serve an actual narrative function in Becky’s adventure. While visiting each in turn, I notice that a woman named Heather is somehow patronizing every business simultaneously. She is not the only one. Seemingly every person in Carpentersville is magically occupying multiple rooms at once to make Carpenterville’s many vast rooms feel more full. Talking to every NPC is daunting. Talking to the same NPC in every room to see if they offer a sidequest—they almost never do—is dispiriting.

Most sidequests require Becky to collect an arbitrary item or items and deliver them to a character. Jeff, a purple-skinned hoodlum with a mohawk, asks Becky to steal Shark Salsa and Chips from the convenience store, from which he is banned. Becky, too timid to steal, buys them instead. Later, Jeff and his other delinquent friends task Becky with bringing them all the chalkboard erasers around the school so they will not have to clean them later in detention. Finding all five of them requires thoroughly exploring every room in Carpentersville High, speaking to every NPC, and often completing other arbitrary tasks before they will hand over the erasers. Because sidequests do not receive map markers like main quests, they are often more difficult and time-consuming to complete. I still haven’t found the fifth eraser.

Jeff asks Becky to bring him some Shark Salsa and Chips from the convenience store.

The reward for completing most sidequests are First Aid Kits, one-time use items that completely restore Becky’s health. I rarely use them. A generous checkpointing system ensures I never lose much progress even when Becky does fall to the vampiric horde. I plan to use some of the dozen-plus First Aid Kits Becky has stockpiled for the final boss, only to discover that, arbitrarily and inexplicably, this is the one point in #BLUD I am not allowed to access Becky’s inventory screen. The final boss must be beaten with pure agility and skill. First Aid Kits feel like they have dubious value which makes the effort to seek out and complete sidequests likewise feel of uncertain worth.

While exploring Carpentersville, Becky comes across many collectables. The least of these are forty-two collectable tokens scattered across town. Inscribed with random critters, monsters, and characters from other videogames published by Humble Games, they evoke the pogs craze of the mid 1990s. They also don’t seem to have any purpose other than to be collected for an achievement. They are found stashed away in obscure corners, in hidden areas, purchased from a sketchy hustler named Mitch, or earned for completing sidequests. 

Becky poses for a selfie with an enemy gargoyle.

Another collectable that may occupy a large part of the journey is taking selfies. Pressing the dedicated selfie button at any time prompts Becky to pull out her phone. All action helpfully freezes while Becky sets up the photo, giving me plenty of time to scroll through the dozen or so different poses and expressions Becky may assume before taking the picture.

Selfies are easy to take when performed in front of stationary NPCs but Becky is also encouraged to take selfies with every monster in Carpentersville as well. They don’t stop attacking while Becky fumbles with her phone for several seconds before entering the selfie screen, so finding the right timing and positioning to capture a monster in the frame becomes a kind of puzzle. Monster selfies are added to Becky’s grimoire of vampire lore. Like the tokens, there isn’t much incentive to get them all except for an achievement.

Becky manipulates colored stones to reveal a hit point upgrade fragment.

The final and most important collectable are hidden behind #BLUD’s most difficult puzzles. In many areas, Becky will find a circle of six standing stones. When activated, these stones toggle between blue and pink coloring. Setting the stones to a pattern of pink and blue causes a chest to appear at their center that contains a fragment of a heart. Collecting three heart fragments rewards Becky with a new hit point.

The challenge in solving these standing stone puzzles is finding their combinations which are usually hidden away in a nearby environment. Some are more obvious than others. A diagram on a chalkboard or a circle of fireflies glowing in pink or blue are obvious. A circle of stalagmites, some shattered and some whole, take a little extra effort to recognize their significance. I confess that I am never able to find the clues to some standing stone configurations and I solve them through brute force. This is faster for me than looking for environmental solutions that only seem obvious in hindsight.

Becky battles a colossal mutated vampire goat.

#BLUD is first and foremost a visual treat. Much of its weight is put into its character animations, making it a fantastic videogame to look at. It’s also a well-written and funny videogame with a surprising and impressive amount of text woven through its dialog and the Perch app. As an action videogame, it’s passable. The combat isn’t challenging while still dealing out damage that can feel unfair and unavoidable. As an adventure videogame, it’s much worse. Carpentersville is a huge space with not much in it. NPCs repeat themselves across every building and room, as though they can teleport or are all secretly clones. Sidequests are difficult to find, irritating to complete, and often don’t feel rewarding for my effort. #BLUD is pretty to look at and tedious to play.

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