I love history, so I tend to get a big kick when developers peer through the curtains of time and examine a long-lost set of events that haven’t been thoroughly exploited by the games biz. We've all played dozens of World War II shooters, action titles set in ancient times, and organized crime tales around the 20th century. It's rare, however, for the real-life conflicts of a thousand years ago to become the subject of a major release, yet that's exactly what's in store when you drop Bladestorm into your PS3.
Bladestorm takes place at the very confusing time of the Hundred Years War, an epic conflict between England and France that features at least one person you've definitely heard of before in Joan of Arc, plus a host of others you likely haven't. Instead of forcing you to choose to be a Brit or a Franc, however, your perspective is that of a mercenary for hire. This nifty game choice will allow you to move back and forth between the Anglo and French forces as different battles become available. After all, being a mercenary has its advantages – chasing the most cash or picking the stronger side to gain experience and wealth isn't so bad, is it?
...Bladestorm maintains an addictive quality to it that grows as you dive deeper into the story.
You'll start off, of all places, at a neighborhood tavern that happens to be inhabited by guns-for-hire of all types and a bartender who also moonlights as a broker of military contracts for both nations. Once you set up your character with a rather limited set of options, you're quickly off to some training battles to familiarize yourself with the mechanics of commanding small groups of combat units. After a handful of these, the gloves come off and the fights become real. It's immediately clear that there is a wide range of troops and tactics to master, as you'll have the ability to take the reins of archers, cavalry, sword, spear, and other units with drastically different weapons and abilities. Naturally, some are easier than others to manage on the battlefield. For example, I quickly became familiar with dealing all sorts of damage with my bow-and-arrow-wielding units, but failed miserably at dealing out the pain with mounted horse troops armed with long, pointed sticks. Each of these different groups have distinct disadvantages, so learning the tricks of the trade can be a long and painful process if you're not be a quick study.
It can be difficult at times to really get your arms around what's happening around you. Depending on the type of unit at your command (and you can only be in charge of one at a time), you'll sometimes charge headlong into a sea of angry humanity, and hold down one of the attack buttons, simply hoping for the best. The real key is attacking enemy troops that are weak against your group, as mismatches will get you killed – quickly. What's worse is that you can spend the better part of a few in-game days pillaging and conquering like a medieval madman, only to meet your untimely death at the hands of an overpowering enemy troop type. While you do keep any experience points and booty you've found of the killing fields, it's disappointing to not be able to stay within the greater war around you and give it another go.
Discerning exactly where to go and how to get there can also be a bit of a pain, but as I discovered, that may be the point. Each battle has its main objective – generally, you'll be charged with taking over a specific territory within an allotted amount of time. At first, I had a tendency to try and wheel directly where the main objectives were and take them out as fast as possible (which was made kind of tough, considering the small size of the in-game map and relatively obtuse markers). However, I realized after a few lightning-quick victories that I was literally leaving lots of experience and booty on the battlefields. I then began experimenting by taking some longer winding roads, and both my war chest and experience points began to benefit greatly from it (when I wound up victorious anyway).
Visually, Bladestorm won't blow you away, except perhaps for some of the opening cutscenes. In addition, the draw distance is surprisingly poor, considering the hardware under the hood. While it's by no means an unattractive title, the backgrounds, troops, and environments become fairly similar quickly and aren't particularly memorable.
Despite some of these complaints, though, Bladestorm maintains an addictive quality to it that grows as you dive deeper into the story. While the combat can be rough and punitive, and the graphics won't make you stand up and shout, its whole is greater than the sum of its parts. While by no means a perfect game, it offers a fun and decidedly different take that's unique to the PlayStation 3 platform. It's challenging, and occasionally maddening, but Bladestorm will give action and strategy fans a solid run for their money.