a review of Bladestorm :The Hundred Years' War
a videogame developed by omega force
and published by koei
for the microsoft xbox 360 and the sony playstation 3 computer entertainment system
(see also our review of Musou Orochi (Orochi Warriors))
text by tim rogers
Bladestorm is a new game — emphasis on the “game” — by Koei, who earned its earliest fans way back in the early 1980s by making computer software simulations of Chinese wars which were specific when it came to names and shimmeringly incomprehensible when it came to figuring if you were winning or losing, or why you were winning or losing. Koei decided much later that their cult fan base wasn’t enough, so they objectified ancient Chinese wars the way only an American man could objectify, say, a Korean woman: they rolled the bones, and out of the fireplace stepped one with the largest breasts, the smoothest skin, and the most vapid hack-and-slash action, one that constantly told you you were bigger and stronger than any other man on the battlefield. The game was Dynasty Warriors 2, sequel to a boring one-on-one fighting game. Dynasty Warriors was something like a big brother to many dozens of thousands of fully grown men who never got chances to ace their college entrance exams. Koei (and developer Omega Force) rode Dynasty Warriors like a wild young pony for six years that felt like a decade. The series has never, quite specifically, evolved past its PlayStation 2 iterations, which makes a whole lot of sense, because they haven’t made a “canonical” entry for the PlayStation 3 yet. Bladestorm is the first original PlayStation 3 game by Omega Force, and, quite frankly, it is to Dynasty Warriors what Super Mario Bros. was to the score display in Pac-Man. It takes the concept of running around a battlefield, and it turns it into a man.
The time setting for Bladestorm just so happens to be the Hundred Years War. Unlike the obsessively well-documented second-century Chinese civil wars on which Dynasty Warriors games are based, the Hundred Years War, despite having lasted a hundred years, is not quite the source of any literature outside the story of Joan of Arc, who, really, wasn’t a very big deal and couldn’t have possibly mattered much in the war if she got burned at the stake while she was still a teenager.
In other words, whereas button-bashing history buffs would march to Koei’s home office and crucify the receptionist if one pertinent person’s name failed to be present in a Dynasty Warriors title, with Bladestorm, they arrive at the proverbial table with plenty of room to heck around. The biggest, most amazing change, which on paper is enough to qualify Bladestorm as a hit of Dynasty Warriors proportions, is the fact that you can make your own character, and level him (or her) up. Choose from a variety of faces far less hideous than anything you could make in Oblivion, choose the color of your little tunic, and get out there and fight. (I named my Laurence-Fishburne-looking warrior “Jackamost”, by the way. It’s something of a one-up of “Lancelot”.) Not a second done being born, here your character is in a bar — hell of a place to be born — talking to an eyepatched bartender, who runs you through some easy-enough-to-understand training missions. When it’s time to do some actual missions, you realize that your character is just a mercenary. In some missions you fight the French as a member of the English army. In some missions, it’s the other way around. A cut-scene early in the game, in addition to featuring a slow scroll over a CG-rendered map while an announcer reads from a textbook, depicts two shoulders clashing swords in a great confusing battle charge. One soldier looks the other in the eye and says, “What are you doing fighting with the French? I thought you were with us?” “Times change!” says his old friend. So amusing was this that I was prompted to think of the language barrier an uneducated English grunt would have to overcome to fight on the side of the French. Then it dawned on me that everyone in the cut-scenes was speaking Japanese, anyway, which made perfect sense, seeing as all the Chinese people in Dynasty Warriors speak Japanese, as well. If it seems odd to you that the caucasians in Bladestorm all speak Japanese, that might make you something of a closet racist. In conclusion: you know why Final Fantasy VII‘s Wikipedia article is longer than Gandhi’s? No, it’s not because all internet users are game geeks — it’s because a high percentage of game geeks use the internet, while Gandhi geeks tend to sit around at home practicing peaceful contemplation.
The Hundred Years War setting is conceptually integral to Bladestorm, though when you realize, as many of us have, that Dynasty Warriors games manage to sell hundreds of thousands of copies despite the “history” portion being contained entirely in pre-battle talking-head screens with dialogue boxes beneath abstract maps marking enemy locations, it becomes clear: the history is more of an excuse than anything else. It’s not even the excuse to play the game — it’s excuse for the developers to make it, with all its clashing swords and whinnying horses. There are elements of the war-going experience that Omega Force has never bothered to touch upon — I’d appreciate trumpet-bearers and drummer-boys on the battlefield, or something similar — and it’s as easy to say that they’re saving these ideas for later as it is to say that it doesn’t matter: the die is cast, the game is made, and there’s more than enough bloom lighting reflecting off shiny armor textures to convince anyone with a pulse rate over 90 beats per minute that yes, this is a videogame.
And what a game it is! It’s actually not that bad at all. The lengthy tutorial is full of exclamation marks, imploring the player not to play this game like Dynasty Warriors, though not in those exact words. Though it’s obviously running the latest build of the Dynasty Warriors engine, they saw fit to actually make a game with that engine, which is just so nice of them. You’re a lone soldier, and you will die if you dash alone into a group of men with blades. So you find a small group of soldiers and take charge of them with a button-press — much easier than in real life. Where you go, they follow — if by “follow” you mean “lead the way”. (I’m suddenly reminded of how the CIA and other intelligence agencies teach field agents how to follow someone from the front.) Different button presses will change formations. When your group of guys runs into another group of guys, they start fighting, in dynamic 3D. It feels like Dragon Force, though without any screen transitions. And you can stand there watching, or issue commands to your own dude to start slashing some other dudes. You can control your dudes while they’re fighting, though only vaguely. Sometimes they won’t hear your commands to fight harder, or to retreat. Sometimes only one or two of them will. It’s seemingly random — random, like war itself. When the target group of bad guys dies, what’s left of your squad will regroup. Using your handy map screen, you can plot out a course. It’s remarkable and incredulous in Dynasty Warriors that the boss characters’ dots on the map will be larger than all the other dots — like the ancient Chinese possessed radar technology. In Bladestorm, the blinking dots of enemy-occupied castles makes a whole lot more sense, and you’ll be grateful to know where enemy generals are, so you can prepare yourself ahead of time. In other words, with a few elegant strokes, Bladestorm reveals that the dumbest design flaws of Dynasty Warriors only stand out because the game has no hecking challenge whatsoever outside of the fights with characters who actually have names. You will never be killed by a random soldier in Dynasty Warriors because that would be a disgusting distortion of history: no nameless soldier ever killed Lu Bu, because if he did, then people would know his name. Further analysis of this reveals deeper conceptual flaws in Dynasty Warriors: Liu Bei didn’t kill Lu Bu either, though in the game, he can. In Bladestorm, you yourself are a nameless soldier, meaning that death at the hands of a nameless soldier isn’t purely impossible.
Koei’s promotional push for the game involves near-limitless, unbelievably tacky use of the word “Soukaikan” (“Refreshing feeling”), which is then repeated ad nauseum in user reviews on Amazon.co.jp, by people who either have no minds of their own or think that if they constantly write like they’re PR representatives then maybe someday they’ll wake up and they’ll be a PR representative, which has to pay a lot more than their current profession of the Japanese equivalent of basement-dwelling aerosol-huffer. Dynasty Warriors games are “refreshing” because not everyone can be an astronaut: unfortunately for some people with big or even medium-sized dreams, there exists no “square button” in life which, when pounded repeatedly, causes your boss to stuff his pants, call you a genius, and then give you the keys to his Jaguar. For better — and not for worse — there is no such square button in Bladestorm, either. You actually need to possess some functional understanding of strategy to ensure you have enough troops left alive to take on the next challenge.
Prior to each battle, you choose your character’s deployment point on a massive battle map — at any given location on the map, blue squad icons are facing off against red squad icons. It doesn’t matter where you start — you’re in the middle of the fight. The epic charges of the cut-scenes are not to be found in the actual game, and it doesn’t matter. The battles play out with more of a fine quality than the general-hunting battlefield traipses in Dynasty Warriors; in Bladestorm it’s more about the minutiae, and, as you realize eventually — it’s more about playing your part in the battle. You’re not some super-warrior who, before sunset, is going to have killed every senior officer and sacked every fort in a six-mile radius — you’re just one good soldier of many. This lends the battles a more engrossing scale — they’re bigger, though at the same time exceptionally more focused. They’re easier to understand, though simultaneously more mysteriously convoluted. There’s a lot going on, though as you’ll ideally understand, you don’t need to involve yourself in all of it: by the end of the battle, you’ll have earned a lot of experience points (the in-game explanation of “witnesses to your great deeds”), and you’ll level up, earn money with which to buy bigger, shinier armor, and earn the ability to command more troops. After a couple hours, your little squad of twenty guys might soon number more than a hundred. It’s kind of a thrill, and “refreshing” in a totally different way than mowing a hundred guys with your own spear. In a way, it revokes repressed memories of Koei’s Famicom classics Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Bandit Kings of Ancient China, with their black backgrounds, randomized numerical calamities, and confounded, fascinated players. Or maybe it’s just reminding me of Kessen 3, the most action-oriented entry in the series — which began with Kessen on the PlayStation 2, a sheerly mopey map-wandering “strategy” game with automated 3D fights in which many men moved quickly and fiercely. The third game was meaty and crunchy, allowing you to take control of your general and pilot his horse around the battlefield, leading your eager acre of troops toward the field of battle, and other angry groups of men to battle. Kessen 3 was weirdly disconnected, like a real-time strategy game where you control just one unit. Bladestorm is Kessen 3 as seen from the ground. It’s reined in and, when it’s not being silly, it’s fascinating, though only if you’re in the mood.
Of course, spacious cut-scenes typical of the Dynasty Warriors games are present in huge numbers, though they always involve characters like Joan of Arc, commanding groups of seven or eight hundred thousand ant-like soldiers beneath a vomit-colored foggy sky, inter-cut with images of perfect tears falling from the eye of a pink-hair princess, images of the battlefield reflected in the globular liquid. The cut-scenes are so bland compared to the vibrant colors of the in-game graphics, though I suppose, at least, I can understand the poison: developers made CG way back when, and the computers have gotten better and better over the years, so there will always exist CG that looks better than in-game graphics, so the developers will always be bound by the corporate profile to use CG. It’s just that the disparity is more alive and hideous than ever in Bladestorm.
And then there’s the videogameliness, these little gopher heads popping up out of the ground at every opportunity and telling us “Yes, you’re playing a videogame, not watching the History Channel.” Here I will reference something I’ve referenced before: the president of Acclaim, months before the collapse of the company, showing a reporter for “60 Minutes” a beta build of some Major League Baseball game, explaining that “Our goal is to make games that people mistake for television broadcasts.” The semantics were amazing, no matter how you interpret that sentence. Koei must have had it written down in a file somewhere, stored away in the cabinet where they keep the food for the carp in the lobby pond, because there are a literally disgusting amount of big glossy numbers popping up all over the screen. There’s a chance that the “refreshing feeling” being touted by Koei’s genius marketers is supposed to have something to do with the numbers: watch your combo counter and hit counter climb — your soldiers’ hits and kills count toward your hits and kills, meaning the more guys you have, the bigger the numbers. Why not allow me to just take the battle in stride, and show me the stats at the end?
There are also little things like how you can be riding a horse one second, and then, when you get off the horse, it just vanishes into thin air, though that’s actually kind of hilarious, given the shine of the graphics. Previous hilarious Koei-isms involve soldiers in Dynasty Warriors running right up to your commander and then standing still, resulting in your commanders calling for your help to defeat said soldiers — oh Koei, you lovable scamps! Bladestorm, with its shiny graphics, is beyond such philosophical black holes with regards to strategy, though it’s by no means above a good disappearing horse trick.
Bladestorm isn’t perfect — a pseudo-menu-based-strategy-game interface overlapped with the hack-and-slash maybe isn’t the best way to make an action game (I prefer the rock-solid and rewarding parry systems of Drag-on Dragoon 2 or Sengoku Basara). Though hey, for what it’s worth, the game represents an effort to try harder, and it even has customizable characters, so what the hell — let’s give it three stars.