UK-based developer Climax Group’s epic story of the rise and fall of Crom the human, before he became simply “Crom” to Robert E. Howard’s famous barbarian, is an ambitious, dark and gritty endeavor, filled with enough guts ‘n’ gristle to turn the stomachs of those with lesser constitutions. Instantly familiar to fans of the action hack ‘n’ slash genre and fantastical games like God of War and Devil May Cry, Bloodforge does succeed in offering up a worthwhile, grim and challenging experience; however, some well-placed words of caution should be given as the game falls just short of hitting it out of the park in a few key areas.
Crom has been known to millions of readers of Conan the Barbarian’s fantasy tales as a grim and unforgiving deity who values valor and tenacity in the face of danger and even certain defeat. But behind every legend, there’s a humble beginning. In the world of Bloodforge, so named for the magical relics that let the player trade in blood collected from slain enemies in return for specially-imbued combat abilities, players will see what drove Crom to get involved with the gods, and what ultimately drove him toward a homicidal killing spree with no return. Tricked by dark forces into committing his own wife’s murder, Crom, seasoned veteran of many blood-soaked battlefields, sets out to confront the gods to take revenge and fulfill his visions of taking his place among them.
While the plot seems largely borrowed from other games of this type, I found that it was usually only a paper-thin catalyst to keep the game moving along through its action set-pieces. The tense, bloody battles is what the game really concentrates on. Crom’s arsenal of melee abilities is restricted to two buttons (one for fast, weaker attacks, and one for slower, more powerful swings), plus a useful dodging roll. However, a good number of combos that combine the attacks with the jump button are implemented in the game to keep the combat a bit fresher. Crom will also gain the ability to infuse his attacks with magic, making them stronger and more powerful, as well as call upon his own deities for magical assistance during battle. Rounding out his arsenal is an ever-ready crossbow, waiting to shoot well-aimed bolts into distant foes.
Oh, the Carnage!
True to its namesake gameplay mechanic, combat in Bloodforge is suitably brutal, with severed torsos being sent flying on a regular basis and enemies being carved apart with diagonal slashes from shoulder to opposing armpit, effectively severing head along with arm from the body. Crom gets stronger by trading in blood collected from enemies at special Bloodforges, and the more varied and visceral your attacks are, the more blood is spilled for you to collect.
With as much versatility as has been attempted for the game’s battle system, I often found it sufficient to either blindly wail on my two attack buttons, dodging generously all the while (this isn’t necessarily meant as a negative). For some of the game’s more robust foes, memorizing a basic combo or two was usually enough to emerge victorious. Despite the fact that the game certainly sports more than its share of blood-red gore and various brutal finishing moves for each weapon, I would have liked the combat to pack a heavier wallop than it did, and provide a more satisfying audible experience of steel clanging on steel and ripping through exposed flesh and bone. Boss fights also left me a bit underwhelmed, being more about memorizing a routine and repeating it ad nauseam. Bosses having patterns doesn’t bother me per se, but the high amounts of hit points that had to be whittled away from each boss prolonged the fights unnecessarily.
Crom values valor and courage in the face of overwhelming odds; perhaps this explains why the game presented such a challenging experience. Once past the tutorial and introduced into the game proper, I was continuously assaulted by groups of foes, who would work together to efficiently sap my health. While usually not enough to completely kill me, keeping me just on this side of unconscious, they nearly always ensured I was heading into my next battle at an extreme disadvantage, only a few hits away from certain death. Health pick-ups quickly became exceedingly rare, and restored a much too small amount of health; easy come, easy go, I guess.
The game’s auto-save feature further complicates things: Should a group of enemies prove too much to handle, you’ll restart a short ways back, with the exact same amount of health you had when you first passed that checkpoint as opposed to a full health meter like in some other games. This ensures that there are no easy ways out or cheating your way back to a full health bar. Either you improve your reaction time, or you concede defeat.
Of course, holding your own when outmatched, dodging effectively and dealing precision blows is made that much harder by the game’s main fault: a slightly drunken camera that makes placing yourself in an advantageous position to deal the next combo chain overly complicated. Accurately judging depth in the 3D space, especially crucial during boss fights, becomes more difficult than it ought to be sometimes, and on a few occasions, the camera got caught up and actually stuttered across an object in the terrain as I was moving. Crom himself runs at a lumbering gait, striding forward with huge steps, but seeming to canter slightly into one direction or the other as if feeling woozy and unsure of his footing. The whole thing comes off like a drunken missile, tethered and dragging behind the back of a tank with one ill-fitting tread. It just lends a rough edge to the otherwise nicely realized graphical presentation; although the game world – characters, environment, and all – seems like it’s been dipped in paint thinner, the washed-out browns and grays of the barren landscape actually work for the overall feel, and add an air of grime to a game that feels like it should have it.
The Final Verdict
Perhaps I’m coming off as being a bit overly critical of the game here. As I mentioned before, each of the parts – from the presentation to the camera and the combat system – seems like it could have used an additional once-over from the developers. In the end though, all the pieces unite to form a cohesive experience in which every piece fits and meshes well with its counterparts. While not likely to win any trend-setting awards anytime soon, Bloodforge does present a game that Crom may have been proud of, and gives gamers a chance to delve into the backstory of a perennial favorite in the fantasy universe.