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November 2, 2012

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Xbox 360 – Blades of Time (2012) Review

by Master Pillow

Blades of Time, the quasi-sequel to X-Blades, is a game dripping in mediocrity with a few decent ideas that more often than not result in less than perfect execution.  There’s still fun to be had here especially now considering it should be available everywhere in bargain bins but there are so many better titles to recommend that I can’t help but think Blades of Time will quickly be forgotten by gamers everywhere.

The main character from X-Blades, the treasure hunter Ayumi, returns except she’s been almost totally redesigned morphing from a semi-anime inspired avatar to a curvy voluptuous vixen that somehow now sports a dashing English accent.  About the only element that hasn’t changed is her penchant for undress as she goes around in what can best be described as generic fantasy garb where the predominant feature is her display of bare skin.  Without sounding crass it certainly appears as if Ayumi fits snuggly into a stereotypical male vision of women who must love to battle monstrous beasts while basically wearing a bikini and 5 inch stiletto heels.

Regardless of her appearance, at the start of the game Ayumi finds herself magically transported to a faraway world, blandly named Dragon Land, where she must attempt to escape or something of the sort considering the game’s narrative is almost completely devoid of cogent exposition.  It doesn’t really matter actually as players just really need to understand that Ayumi needs to fight through numerous boards filled with different sets of enemies in order to escape.  Yes, this game isn’t going to win the Pulitzer Prize anytime soon but it is basically par for the course in relation to other hack and slash genre titles.

Indeed, Ayumi handles decently enough as the control scheme is virtually default for this genre with the left analog stick controlling movement while the right handles the camera.  There’s also a sword attack as well as a kick attack and the ability to jump around like Mario.  So far nothing exactly jumps out that sets Blades of Time apart from virtually every other game out there yet to its credit it does have a few aces up its sleeve.

First and foremost is that Ayumi can gain magical powers by visiting certain shrines scattered throughout each level and the game allows some leeway by giving players a few choices so that they can customize Ayumi to fit their play style.  For instance, visiting a shrine might give the option to raise Ayumi’s fire or ice magic power where the former lights enemies aflame during damage over time and the latter can potentially freeze targets cold for a short while.  Thus it is up to the player to chose whatever floats their boat which is rather a neat feature and helps alleviate the monotony of constant combat and essentially strengthens the bond between gamer and avatar.

However, customizable magic isn’t the only original gameplay element here as there are also different abilities that Ayumi can utilize the most prescient being a time rewind mechanic allowing her to jump backward in history thereby duplicating herself in the process.  This one feature adds much to the gameplay as there are many instances, almost always featuring bosses, where a single Ayumi cannot stand to defeat her enemy yet by rewinding time it opens up a whole range of options.

As an example, there’s one boss who has a massive contraption on its back that regenerates its health so merely having Ayumi pound away with her sword or her kicks is futile unless she can get behind the boss and destroy said mechanism.  The problem here is that this is immensely difficult as the boss just turns to face her not giving the player any time to get in more than one or two hits on its back.  Thus by prodigious use of the time rewind function players will come to realize that they can constantly keep jumping back in time to a point where the boss is fighting the “past” Ayumi giving the “future” Ayumi time to rush to its back and pummel its health regen contraption for massive damage.  This technique just doesn’t create two Ayumi avatars but as many as the player wishes as each time it is utilized it keeps track of all the previous actions enacted by past versions of herself.  Admittedly it does become both hectic and breathtaking to see five or six Ayumis tackling a boss all at once as it is visually total chaos yet one might end up feeling sorry for the poor lout since he is now so confused that he has no idea which Ayumi to focus on.

There’s still other features included such as the fact that some enemies are invisible thus Ayumi is given a spell that basically surrounds her in a magical dome which reveals targets that venture inside its radius giving players an unfettered line of sight to kill them before they can injure.

To mix up combat the game even allows Ayumi to switch to a behind the shoulder perspective as she can whip out her rifle allowing her to utilize long range attacks or target enemies out of her jumping range.  Additionally, the game incorporates a lock-on mechanic ala Zelda where Ayumi can target one enemy and make a quick dash to them without worrying about other enemies around her.

Make no mistake though, Blades of Time might be a hack and slash title but anyone thinking they can mimic Dynasty Warriors by pounding one or two attack buttons and make it to the end game will be in for a massive shock.  The game is actually quite challenging only because Ayumi cannot absorb many direct hits before expiring.  Dying isn’t so much a big deal in that the game allows infinite respawns but a few enemies do require some intelligent strategy as attacking them head on will result in a bloody end for the protagonist.

Unfortunately, the game has wildly vacillating difficulty levels that do nothing but frustrate.  For about 95% of normal gameplay Blades of Time offers a decent degree of difficulty however, the game has an awful tendency to suddenly present players with a massive difficulty spike which usually appears completely out of the blue and in these cases either through mini-bosses or through groups of enemies can decimate Ayumi in a matter of seconds.  It is inherently frustrating to be blowing through the game after getting a handle on its flow of combat and then suddenly be pounded into submission by a few errant blows.

Part of the quandary here is that Ayumi might have many attacks to fell her opponents but she has precious little in the defense department.  While her dash is essential to quickly evade enemies she can often times still get damaged while doing so and even worse, she can also take hits in the middle of her combos.  This is initially aggravating and it certainly will force players to quickly adapt or else many will wonder why she is perpetually running out of health.  Quick witted players will realize that Ayumi can gain health over time through the use of a healing spell yet what inevitably occurs during these tough segments is that Ayumi gets pulverized to the point of death in mere seconds and then spends aggravating minutes running around in a circle in order for the spell timer to regenerate.

Additionally, while the game allows Ayumi to lock on and jump to airborne targets it also fails to mention that in the air she has zero defensive capabilities and there was many a time I would find myself trying to leap from one air enemy to the next and was on the receiving end of tons of incoming damage that I just could not avoid.

It is also during these difficulty spikes that the game’s combat begins to break down as the controls are not responsive enough especially when Ayumi is attempting to link actions together as there is a noticeable lag where she needs to transition to her next player inputted action eating up precious nanoseconds where enemies can pound her with impunity.

The worse problem though has got to be the lousy lock on camera which often times goes haywire during a frantic fight making it a massive chore for players to essentially have to worry about the camera pointing in the wrong direction while being apprehensive about the enemies surrounding Ayumi.  This isn’t just a case of a camera focusing on the wrong target or losing sight of what enemy Ayumi is locked on but rather I found that the camera would frequently try to bury itself into the ground forcing a low angled shot of Ayumi’s shapely legs which might be great if one was somehow enamored with her physical assets yet totally inexcusable when it acts as an obstacle to block the view forward towards the attacking enemies.

All these design quirks are certainly manageable once players get a handle on them yet combat never truly feels as naturally organic as it should plus there are instances where clearly the developers have not fully developed their ideas.  Switching to an over the shoulder view while firing her rifle might sound like a decent gameplay mechanic yet players will find that they never want to enter this view because Ayumi’s mobility slows to a snail’s pace which is far too sluggish that she almost always gets hit by multiple enemy rounds as she just cannot manoeuvre fast enough out of their path.

The overall level design and geometry can become downright dull as players are essentially funneled through a linear corridor path which rarely branches to allow players freedom to explore.  The game’s graphic engine can best be described as ancient being more akin to a Xbox 360 launch title from almost six years ago although thankfully, each stage features a lush use of the colour wheel unlike the drab greys and browns that the Unreal engine often times is accused of favoring.  Each level features a different theme that doesn’t repeat but they rarely look inspired with designs ripped from numerous other sources.  Ayumi herself animates mostly fluidly but the monsters are more hit and miss with some clearly looking as if the developer Gaijin didn’t really care much or merely ran out of development time to add more variety.

Enemy AI is par for the course for your typical hack and slash meaning once enemies spot Ayumi they immediate charge at full speed in a massive frontal assault.  In other words, don’t expect them to indulge in even rudimentary tactics as they don’t so much as flank Ayumi but just attempt to bludgeon her through brute force or through sheer numbers.  Each boss does present a unique challenge yet they too have easily discernible tactics that reveal themselves after a death or two yet they can also be prone to some cheap tricks.

One early boss is indicative of this as the segment begins with Ayumi perched at the top of a cliff while the enemy stands below attempting to hurl fireballs up at her.  All around the boss are floating vegetation platforms thus it is obvious that the developers intend players to jump from platform to platform taking shots at the boss while avoiding incoming fire.  However, I thought I’d try something cheap and had Ayumi just hide behind a rock at the top of the cliff instead of starting to jump around like a mad hyena and lo and behold I found one spot where the fire balls could not hit Ayumi while her own bullets had a clear line of sight to the boss.  Minutes later after shooting hundreds of rounds from the safety of the outcrop the boss was dead and Ayumi didn’t even break a nail.  Clearly this particular boss wasn’t intelligent enough to walk out of the line of fire or do anything to save its skin as it just stood there taking multiple bullets to the head.

The game’s soundtrack does its job keeping up with the action but the voiceover work ranges from adequate to downright pedestrian.  Yet that’s not really a game breaker except for one overriding fact that Blades of Time features one of the chattiest protagonists in video game history as Ayumi just can’t shut up.  It’s almost as if she is giving a second by second running commentary of everything that is going on around her even the most banal event that requires no explanation.  It wouldn’t intrude as much if Ayumi had some valuable insight into her predicament or simply divulges information that fleshes out either her character or the back story of Dragon Land.  At the very least one would expect that her incessant chatting could provide hints and tips on how to solve certain puzzles  yet this is simply not true at all and her constant jabbering will make players quickly reach for the volume mute button on their remote control.

Gamers can certainly have some degree of fun playing Blades of Time if they adjust their expectations lower.  That is not to say the game is fundamentally broken like a bad Kinect game that doesn’t recognize player input at all but that there are a ton of design issues that drag the game down that in no way compensates for what it does right.  Rewinding time to solve puzzles or beat bosses is initially very invigorating yet the mechanic is never fully fleshed out.  At the same time, once players solve how to take down these tough bosses the game loses a lot of its replay value plus it becomes irritating because the game decides to throw many of the same bosses at players again in later levels making these encounters nothing more than a repetitious slog.

The higher level of difficulty is both a Godsend and a curse depending on one’s point of view yet it clearly is a problem when death occurs through bad design choices.  Blades of Time is in no way worth its full manufacturer’s retail price of $39.99 yet if one can pick it up for say half that or less there’s still some fun to be had.  Throw in a robust multiplayer mode and one gets the impression that developer Gaijin is at least attempting to create a full package that is memorable yet the end result is merely half-baked.

** out of ****

Developer: Gaijin Entertainment
Publisher: Konami
Release Date US: 3/6/12
Release Date JP: 3/8/12
Release Date EU: 3/16/12

© 2012 The Galactic Pillow

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