Over the hills and far away
Originally released during the PlayStation 3's earlier years, Bladestorm remains a bit of an outlier as far as Koei games are concerned. Unlike Dynasty Warriors, the series that the publisher is perhaps best known for, Bladestorm is about conquering historical battlefields with brains rather than brawn. Taking on the guise of a real-time strategy title, it's a methodically paced game that plops you into the shoes of a mercenary during the Hundred Years' War, in which England and France, among other nations and clans, clashed in a series of battles that dragged on for over a century. If you missed out on this historically potent romp on Sony's aging console, it may be time to take up arms and join the fray on the PlayStation 4 with Bladestorm: Nightmare – an expanded re-release of the 2007 title.
In truth, actually describing what Bladestorm involves can be quite difficult – it's part strategy, part role-playing game, and part hack-and-slash. The result is a release that feels like a bit of a mash-up, and something that can come across as having a relatively steep learning curve. Indeed, it may take you a while to get used to the flow of general gameplay, but ever so slowly, things begin to unravel, and it becomes increasingly easy to spend hours upon hours charging up and down the title's massive fields of battle.
Speaking of which, if you thought that the aforementioned Dynasty Warriors series boasted big maps, you'll be blown away by the scale of Bladestorm's country-wide locations. Granted, they aren't quite as bustling as what's on offer in Koei's flagship property, but the sheer enormity of them instils an attractive sense of realism. They also look pretty, too, with impressive draw distances and some nice lighting.
Dotted around these huge maps are small villages, towns, and castles that you'll have to capture in order to fulfil your current objective. Gameplay therefore centres around keeping an eye on the minimap, taking out enemy units, and then marching on strongholds alongside your computer controlled allies. Your assigned mission may involve defending or raiding specific locations, and as such, completing each task might only take a few minutes, depending on how efficiently you tackle the situation.
The twist here, though, is that victory is largely inconsequential. You can go ahead and claim half of France for yourself, only to return to the same map with another contract in hand, and almost everything will have been reset. This means that the overall goal isn't one of military conquest; instead, you'll be fighting for your own personal fame and glory, on battlefields that are always engulfed in war.
Being a mercenary, you can pledge your support to either the English or the French, and you can even swap sides for each individual mission, which is handy when one army is prepared to dish out a bigger pay packet than the other. This is where the release's many nicely implemented RPG mechanics are introduced, as you develop your custom made mercenary into a commander of the highest order. Together with purchasing better armour, weapons, and instant-use stratagems, you'll be levelling up each type of squad that you can be placed in charge of. At first, you'll only start out with a small selection, ranging from swordsmen to archers, but as you progress, you'll loot or buy skill books which will allow you to take control of more varied and specialised units.
This gradual progression is Bladestorm: Nightmare's hook, as gameplay evolves into a satisfyingly intricate beast – especially once you're granted the ability to swap between four different commanding officers on the fly. When you're out waging war, you're put in direct control of your custom mercenary, or whoever your selected character happens to be, but you're borderline useless alone. By running up to an available unit and tapping X, that band of fighters will follow you, and then it's your responsibility to lead them into the thick of combat.
Unfortunately for all you button mashers out there, you won't be simply charging into the enemy ranks and smashing them aside with God-like combos. By holding down R1, your squad will enter an aggressive stance, and they'll engage any nearby foes. Each unit type also comes with its own set of techniques, which, when used correctly, can turn the tide of a skirmish. Mapped to circle, triangle, and square, pushing the corresponding button will activate each varied move, which is where the hack-and-slash elements of the release come into play. Sword and shield users, for example, boast a shield attack that can stun nearby opponents, bowmen can wreak havoc with a long distance volley, and two-handed warriors can summon their strength for a temporary damage boost.
However, focussing all of your attention on one particular class of solider is asking for trouble, as the game employs a strength and weakness system. By and large, for instance, ground forces will get trampled by mounted cavalry, while those on horseback are especially vulnerable to long range offensives. Fortunately, you don't have to memorise the pros and cons of each class thanks to a convenient little symbol that appears above the heads of your enemies. If it's shining bright, then your current team will likely make mincemeat out of your foes, whereas a darker, shadowy mark will hint that you're in for a rough fight.
The system certainly keeps you on your toes and forces you to jump back and forth between different squads in order to be effective, but it also means that the game's pacing can grind to a halt. We've already mentioned that battlefields are absolutely gigantic, and as such, finding the right type of unit for the job can be a real pain. You can march for what feels like miles to the nearest enemy base, only to find that your current platoon is weak to just about every foe in its vicinity. This problem can be alleviated somewhat by using your funds to recruit extra squads to your cause, but most of the time, this means that you'll be better off waiting for your computer controlled allies to march with you, using them as reinforcements that you can switch between as the situation demands. Unfortunately, the artificial intelligence can take a while to figure out where it's actually going, and so proceedings can sometimes devolve into a tedious slog.
It's a shame, too, because although Bladestorm doesn't feature bombastic combat, or even action that'll keep you coming back for more, the simple pleasure of seeing big yellow damage numbers flash up on screen every time that you slaughter a foe is a high point of the experience. The same can be said of leading your unit to the top of a hill, realising that you have an advantage over the defensive forces below, and mowing them down with a perfectly executed charge. It's times like these where the game excels, but overall, it's disappointing that they don't pop up more often.
A new mode does try to inject a little more excitement into the overall package. Moving away from the original's plot, which features heavily romanticised versions of prominent historical figures such as Edward the Black Prince and Joan of Arc, Nightmare incorporates fantasy elements into the release, and the result is a storyline that's suitably crazy. Hordes of goblins, dragons, and other fantastical beasts play a part, and all in all, it's a surprisingly enjoyable addition to the base game. What's more, you can even carry over your mercenary and all of their abilities to the new mode, allowing fans to extend their legacy in what ultimately feels like a post-game expansion.
That said, it'll take you a hefty chunk of time to see everything that's on offer. The Hundred Years' War narrative is lengthy enough, sitting around 15 to 20 hours if you manage to blitz through the main story missions alone, but for most, it'll last around double or even triple that, depending on how much optional content you decide to undertake. Couple that with the newly introduced Nightmare mode, and the thoughtful free mode where you can casually jump into any sort of battle, and you could be waging war for weeks at a time. With dozens of unit types to unlock, rare items and armaments to seek out, and entire sets of statistics, skills, and abilities to develop, this is a title that only fully reveals itself to those who have the patience to work through its somewhat humdrum opening hours.