Bladestorm: The Hundred Years War Review
If you're a strategy buff, chances are, you're a big fan of Koei. The publisher has always worked to deliver some of the deepest strategy games ever on consoles, and they've been doing this on a consistent basis ever since the original PS2 launch title, Kessen. While it's true that Dynasty Warriors has grown stale over the years - that's what happens when you have seven trillion installments - Koei is still very capable of providing some truly intoxicating strategy or strat/action experiences. Now, they haven't done anything magnificent recently, but we always hold out hope...perhaps they'd break through into elite status with Bladestorm: The Hundred Years' War; they're tackling a new subject matter in the ongoing war between England and France (Prince Edward vs. Joan of Arc). They certainly give us the depth and the potential is there, but once again, they simply fail to make the grade due to lackluster technicals and gameplay that just doesn't live up to expectations.
If you're even remotely familiar with Koei productions, you probably won't be surprised to learn that the visuals fall well shy of the next generation standard. These graphics are dull, bland, and ultimately lifeless. The significant lack of environmental and unit detail is frustrating - this isn't a PS2 game, guys - and we had at least hoped for more diversity in the backdrops. Given the Omega Force/Koei track record, we weren't expecting an Uncharted: Drake's Fortune level of graphical presentation, but we had hoped for something better than this. The cut-scenes are nice, though, and the menu screens are both practical and even slick in some cases, so we're not about to ignore the positives. A few of the later battles do look pretty cool thanks to the sheer number of different military units, but the fortresses, castles and strongholds don't do the game justice. We're well aware that everything wasn't quite so colorful in medieval times, and therefore, the starkness of the backgrounds is actually fitting. But this is a little too stark and unforgiving. Just "meh" the whole way ‘round.
The sound is a little better thanks to a solid soundtrack that serves its purpose. The music really helps to absorb the player into the sweeping battles, and we appreciated the orchestral quality and surprising level of variety. But just like the graphics, the sound effects are...well, vanilla. There's just nothing even remotely remarkable or special about the combat effects, and it doesn't help that the English voice acting is horrendous. Why couldn't they have included the Japanese voices as an option? Why are we forced to listen to this mess? The soundtrack must make up for the effects and voice acting, and while it makes an admirable attempt, even a good music selection can't completely override the other shortcomings. We continue to wonder why Omega Force even bothers with terrible English voices for their games. The focus is squarely on the gameplay at all times, so to be perfectly honest, we don't even need the voice acting. We do, however, need some quality battle effects, and we just didn't get them. The shouts of the soldiers, slashes, clangs and metallic scrapes all kind of blend together in an unimpressive combat soup.
As always is the case with strategy games, the graphics and sound are nowhere near as crucial as the gameplay. Fans play these games for the depth and complexity, and without it, nobody wins. The good news is that Bladestorm is very intricate and involving; there's more than enough here to satisfy many of the most die-hard strategy aficionados, and it still remains fun and accessible to other gamers. Unfortunately, there is bad news. The implementation of these great systems and ideas leaves a lot to be desired, and due to poor AI, repetitive and boring goals and battlegrounds, and some mediocre control, the game stops you from fully enjoying that inherent strategy. It's almost as if we have a game that has a ton going for it, but almost none of it excels or comes to fruition. When preparing for battle and examining the options, we're all kinds of excited, and we say to ourselves, "damn, there's a lot to do!" Then we start playing, and everything begins to break down, and to some extent, we wish it could've been more like Dynasty Warriors. Well, to some extent.
You are involved in the infamous Hundred Years' War between England and France, and you take the role of a mercenary for hire. You're free to side with whomever you wish, and it's great to see how differently the game plays out depending on which side you choose. One of your primary goals on the battlefield will be to level up your character - which will also level up the group of soldiers you're fighting with at the time - and you can select from a variety of abilities, both on the field and off. When preparing for combat, you will visit the tavern and speak to the barkeep and other patrons, including gossipers and a merchant. You can purchase new troops, get some hints, and of course, accept your new contracts to advance forward in the game. Before hitting the field, you can check unit status and take a gander at a zoomed-out view of the landscape, thereby allowing you to plan a little strategy ahead of time. You don't meticulously place each unit like in other strategy games, because this title is more of a cross between action/strategy and RTS. It's an intriguing blend, to be sure, but it's difficult to pull off.
Now, Omega Force does throw a lot at you; there's a great deal of content to wrap your brain around. There are books for each type of weapon (Swords, Knives, Maces, Bows, etc.), you have special attacks (assigned to the controller face buttons) when in battle, ranging from Charge for Cavalry to Pinpoint for Archers, and you have to balance your movement between attack and defense. Selecting a unit to run around with is as easy as approaching them and pressing X, and the default attacks are executed with the R1 button. As you get better, you will increase your statistics and your ability to command the troops, which makes the entire process both robust and extraordinarily involving. In other words, you can spend a whole lot of time tricking out your character, and the option to fight with either side is definitely a big bonus. After all, a true mercenary has no loyalty; he/she is nothing more than an arm for hire, and will side with whomever is willing to shell out the most cash. In this case, you'll be looking to make a name for yourself as well, which will eventually pay off in terms of additional rewards and upgrades.
But the problems really do start to mount up very quickly. First of all, the AI, while still a touch better than typical Omega Force productions, is still mediocre. All the enemy units are almost always predictable in their actions and reactions, and not once do you ever feel as if you're going up against an intelligent force. Furthermore, far too many of the maps look similar to one another, and your goals - attack and take over portions of those maps - never really change. There just isn't anything creative or innovative about the gameplay progression. Of course, provided the developer is using a tried-and-true formula, this wouldn't be a problem, but they're trying to blend the action and strategy genres, here. You can move around the battlefield as one character, whom you control throughout. Hence, this isn't like Age of Empires or Civilization; you are never distant or removed from the combat. And yet, you can step back a bit and plan out just as you would in any RTS. It's a great idea, and based entirely on the description of this game, most would believe the final product could be fantastic. We've been hearing a lot about this one for months, so we were a proud member of that enthusiastic group.
But it only took a few hours for all that enthusiasm to dissipate completely. It was fine for a little while, but the setting loses most all its appeal due to horrid voice acting, only slightly better than average visuals, and lame map design and fighting effects. There is plenty of depth, which is great for strategy fans, but none of it ever amounts to much. You can level up all day long, learn a whole bunch of new abilities (you get magic, too) and hire a horde of new soldiers...in the end, you still approach too many of the battles in exactly the same fashion. The control is iffy with your one hero/heroine on the field, the camera is often too slow to respond when using cavalry, and if you're not careful, skirmishes can turn into absolute chaos. You often lose track of your own units, which is another downfall. With all that excellent and very substantial content sitting at the core of Bladestorm: The Hundred Years' War, one would've expected something more than this. There are far better options out there now, especially with all the top games that arrived for the holidays.
Eventually, we assume Omega Force and Koei will actually step through the door into this new generation. Despite a few pretty and nicely choreographed cut-scenes, this title could easily pass for a PS2 game, and that's just unacceptable these days.
1/2/2008 Ben Dutka