Reviewed: April 2, 2009
Released: February 10, 2009
Over the past handful of years, the action gaming genre has transformed from mindless hack-and-slash button mashing romps, to first-rate cinematic adventures featuring fluid gameplay, excellent storylines, and incredible bosses. Games like Ninja Gaiden, Devil May Cry, and Onimusha have veritably redefined the action genre, and have left staid franchises like the dozens of Dynasty Warriors releases in their wake.
With the bar firmly set in place, there are always a few newcomers aiming to get a piece of the action. The newest of which is X-Blades, which tells the story of a young fortune hunter named Ayumi – think a buxom Lara Croft with even less clothing – who upon perusing a trinket shop happens upon the complementary half of an artifact she holds in her satchel. When the two halves join, they release an evil dark force over the land, and Ayumi takes on the awesome responsibility of eliminating the demons and restoring peace.
Admittedly, the whole dark magic shtick is a fairly overused device in gaming – but the promise of an new action platformer franchise with a heroine at the helms conjures up the image of a hybrid Ninja Gaiden and Kameo: Elements of Power. Hackneyed or not, X-Blades fable seemed like a step in the right direction.
Well, it only takes a few minutes to realize that X-Blades is not the next coming of Kameo, nor is a suitable replacement for Devil May Cry, Onimusha, or Fable. X-Blades combines the endless hacking and whacking of Dynasty Warriors, the convoluted spellcasting of Phantom Dust, and the gunplay of Gunvalkyrie. The result is a title that is definitely better that its individual components, but is nowhere near blockbuster quality.
While the game’s storyline might suggest platform-based gameplay, in actuality the gameplay is heavily focused on arena-based combat. Ayumi plays the part of a veritable gladiator; fighting wave after wave of respawning enemies as she moves from area to area along the path to find the source of the dark power.
Upon entry to a combat area, the exits are sealed off, to be reopened once the hoards of attacking demons have been dispatched accordingly. And by hoards, I mean that at times there might be a series of twenty to fifty enemies that need to be dealt with over a fifteen to twenty minute period. In fact, for any fans of the Ninja Gaidan series – X-Blades levels seem very much like the random infinite-respawn rooms that Ryu encounters scattered about. Only without the achievements or scarabs to collect.
Further exploration plays little importance in the linear storyline, as the landscape between combat zones is only a vehicle for moving from one area to another. Worse yet, the fact that the second half of the game simply retraces the steps of the first half (only in reverse and with slightly less light) makes one wonder if production might not have been cut a tad too short.
Thankfully, the combat itself is satisfying enough – with each swing or shot of Ayumi’s gun blades (yes, pistol-swords – cool, eh!) adding to her rage meter, eventually unleashing her mystical abilities to dish out group damage and elemental attacks on unruly bosses. But while the controls for the action sequences are fluid and intuitive, the spellcasting is overly clumsy, requiring constant reassignment of D-pad quick keys and distracting from the continuity of the combat.
X-Blades employs a dynamic auto-targeting system that automatically selects enemies based on Ayumi’s stance and positioning, but the locking mechanism is sketchy and often fails to target the most significant or opportune enemies. This results in a lot of cheap deaths which all to often fall at the end of a long wave of enemies – forcing the gamer to restart arena combat from the beginning and further making every combat scenario seem like a tedious venture.
On the technical end, X-Blades looks absolutely fantastic. Melding cel-shaded artwork, excellent lighting, and heavily filtered backgrounds – everything about X-Blades looks soft, radiant, and glowing. For all of Ayumi’s nakedness, she does look utterly fantastic in motion – with great combat animations and fluid transitions. And yes, she does look a bit young to be in such a state of undress – at least for American shores, that is – especially since Ayumi’s curves make Lara Croft look like conservative.
On the other hand, the audio quality is not all that impressive – the voice acting (when there is any) is lackluster to say the least, and the sound effects are often lost amidst the background noise.
X-Blades is a respectable debut into the action market. But it comes nowhere the levels of quality and presentation of gaming’s “big three” action titles – Ninja Gaiden, Devil May Cry and Onimusha. If the developers were to distribute the combat over a series of smaller (but more frequent) combat arenas, rather than the overly tedious levels found in X-Blades – it would make a world of difference.
As it stands, X-Blades sports an underdeveloped story, uninspired arena-based level design, and little or no incentive to progress on through the hackneyed storyline. The combat is commendable, and the visuals are above average – but these are hardly worth overlooking the game’s downfalls.