If you’ve got a thirst for some side-scrolling hacking and slashing with a fair amount of bloodshed, Wulverblade will arrive on the Switch this Thursday!
Wulverblade is coming. Inspired by equal parts classic arcade hack-and-slashers, beat-em-ups, and a fair amount of British history, it’s looking to revitalize the genre. Sporting multiple playable characters, cooperative play, high-quality artwork, historically-inspired characters and settings, an M rating, and its fair share of secrets and unlockables, there should be ample opportunity for epic bloodshed. I was able to get some time with Michael Heald, creator of Fully Illustrated and mastermind behind Wulverblade, to discuss this upcoming brawler that’s coming to the Nintendo Switch first.
Starting with the boilerplate, you're at a big gamer conference and they're passing you the mic asking you to give the quick version of what Wulverblade is all about... go.
MH: Wulverblade is a hardcore, bloodthirsty side scrolling beat-em-up set in ancient tribal Britain during the Roman occupation. In short think Golden Axe meets Roman Britain.
In the videos I've been impressed by what looks like a fair diversity in moves you can pull off, with some of them reminding me a bit of Aliens Versus Predator. As a huge fan of classic beat-em-ups what specific genre games would you say inspired you for Wulverblade when it comes to "feel", moveset, etc?
MH: Side-scrolling beat-em-ups are without doubt my all-time favourite genre and since the dawn of 3D graphics when the PS1 and Saturn came around, that beloved genre just vanished, almost entirely. Ever since I’ve yearned to see this genre get revitalized but it never did, not in a big way at least. So instead of moaning, I got to creating.
I’m a BIG arcade and retro collector and have just about every old side scroller there is. When my arcade cabs are on there is always at least one side scroller running. Games like Golden Axe, Knights of the Round, Sengoku and AVP were the biggest inspirations for this as they’re all mainly weapon based. But hand-to-hand beat-em-ups like Final Fight and Streets of Rage have been massive influences too. I actually spent months stripping the classic games down to analyze the frame timing of each character's moves so that I could better understand what made them work so well. I also did the same with games that did it badly too, to see where they went wrong. With all that in hand I then basically started to cherry pick the elements that worked from all the big hitters and made a list of what Wulverblade needed for its core foundations. As the game developed we expanded on that massively and created a moveset that feels classic at its core, but also has a tonne of modern flourishes.
What would you say has been your goal in terms of trying to take close classic elements to the next level?
MH: From the very start we didn't want to ‘just’ remake the past, that has, obviously, already been done many times over. We wanted to take what worked and give it a modern veneer in both the visual and gameplay departments. This is my favourite genre so for me it was a chance to take all the elements I loved, mash them together and then add in all the things I always dreamt of. The way our team works has been a godsend too. Partnering with my friends at Darkwind Media really helped to sculpt Wulverblade as they introduced so many amazing features to the gameplay that I would likely never have thought of. We’ve not detracted from the retro core but I believe we’ve added to it in a big yet sympathetic way.
Visually speaking, my goal from day 1 was to create a new beat-em-up that looked (how I imaged) games could do if 2D was still king and 3D hadn't ruined it all. With the dawn of HD 2D games like Shank, Mark of the Ninja and Rayman it showed that there is still a love for 2D and those games showed just how wonderfully it could be done.
One thing I'll say excites me a bit is the visible combo meter. Aside from just making you feel like you're kicking some serious ass is there a greater role that it plays in things?
MH: From the very start I said to the guys that if we can’t get the game ‘feeling’ right we don’t continue. So the first year was dedicated solely to mastering the core combat engine. I mentioned earlier about the frame timing research I did and that fed into this in a big way. Once we had the core attacks and moves locked in, we started to experiment further. Something else we did that hugely benefitted the game was taking it to smaller games expo’s around the UK throughout the game’s development. Getting hundreds, possibly thousands, of people to playtest your game in front of you is priceless. You can stand to one side and watch their reactions. A good number of features that are in the game came from player feedback at shows.
Regarding the combos specifically, they were a bone of contention in the early days of the game. I was a stickler from the outset about keeping it retro, but the rest of the team really wanted combos. What we decided on after months and months of experimentation was a balance. Combos that the user can create via experimentation but not set in a way that makes the game just about building combos. I love what we have in this balance as each person discovers their own favourite combo and it's going to be very exciting to see what players around the world do with them.
With room for up to 4 total players how does the game compensate for additional people?
MH: The game is 2 player only and that was purely a creative choice. When I was a kid I’d look at the arcade games with their massive sprites and then be wholeheartedly let down by the tiny sprites in the home console conversions. So from day 1 I said ‘I want massive sprites’. I just love the look of big meaty characters with loads of details. The drawback of this is that the screen is just too full with 4 players once you populate it with enough enemies for them all to fight. So wanting to see my creative vision through, I stuck to my guns. I’m really glad I did as I love the end outcome.
Are there any bragging rights opportunities among friends as you progress through the game?
MH: We have a lot of unlockable content in the game and some of this is found in secret locations. We have an armoury where you can see all the weapons you’ve found around the game and one of those weapons is very special indeed. So I’m looking forward to seeing folks showing off that they’ve completed their weapon set.
There is also one pretty amazing feature in the game which I cannot wait for people to find. That’s all I’m saying on that.
Even in just some of your promo materials the game absolutely doesn't shy away from some pretty grisly carnage in the cut-scenes. So I take it you know your audience and are just gearing to make the best game you can without holding anything back?
MH: As the game is so heavily based on history, I was keen to keep things as accurate as possible. So the landscape, the clothing, the weapons, the people, you name it. It's all tied into real history. I’ve spent as much time researching and visiting the game's locations as I have making the game, it's crazy how far I went with all this. So when the combat started to roll out, I knew it had to be bloody as let's be honest, you can’t take thousands of men with swords, set them on each other and expect it to stay blood free.
The ancient Britons used to remove the heads of their greatest fallen foes after battle, take them home, embalm them and show them off as trophies, so it was a pretty gruesome time. So the game is no holds barred. We’ve been given an M rating (18 in Europe) and that may hold us back in some regards, but I don’t mind, it was all part of the original direction.
I love the language you all use to note your efforts to capture real spaces in the landscape where these sorts of battles happened, it's all very lush and descriptive. What made this effort so important to the team, to not just have some wooded areas and the like in the background, but to shoot for capturing the real spaces?
MH: Well, the historical detail with the game as a whole, and also the environments, is really just down to my over-the-top geeky obsession with ancient Britain. Making the game and going into such historical detail gave me the perfect excuse to spend almost every weekend over the past 5 years visiting locations, walking, exploring and getting my head deep into the world of that period. I adore this period of history and literally can’t get enough of it. I just hope that this passion, love and obsession comes through in the feel of the finished product.
To go with capturing those spaces the artwork in the game, even in the backdrops, is plain incredible. Just the level of love put into every detail is right there in front of you and while many games are hard to appreciate without seeing them in motion Wulverblade looks gorgeous in every shot I've seen. To get to that level of quality I'd assume the art direction for the game has been very clear since the beginning?
MH: Thanks! Yeah the vision for the world was pretty clear from the start. I wanted a gritty, cloudy British landscape that fellow Brits could connect with. Very few games feel British (or European for that matter), they’re usually either totally fantastical or set in far off lands. I’m hoping folks can see and feel this visual difference as they play. If nothing else, they’ll get a good idea for how often it rains here.
Over the course of your promo video I can see multiple playable characters. How many are available to start and are there any additional you unlock? Do specific characters have special abilities to differentiate themselves?
MH: There are 3 main protagonists in the game, Caradoc, Guinevere and Brennus. They’re all siblings and come from a family known as the Wulvers. They take form as the classic archetypes of this genre. Caradoc is the good solid all-rounder, the one most folks will pick. He has average speed, average power, average grappling and average abilities in the air. Guinevere is faster, more aggressive and better in the air with a stronger focus on air combos. She’s great at dashing around the battlefield and dodging up the Z plane. To balance her speed and agility she’s the weaker of the trio. Then we have Brennus, the powerhouse. He’s a born grappler. He’s much stronger than the other two and has specific ground abilities that the others don't. His weakness is his lumbering speed. He’s slow and thus more likely to get hit.
As far as unlockable characters… I couldn't possibly say.
Perhaps more exciting is the fact that I can see characters wielding a variety of weapons. Are these pick-ups over the course of a game, options you start out with or gain with experience, or are they unlocked?
MH: As we wanted to keep the retro focus you start out with your main arsenal and you carry that throughout the game. We didn't want to add in huge levels of upgrading, crafting etc and just wanted you to be badass from the get go. A break from your normal moveset is your rage. As you kill enemies your rage increases. Once your meter is full you can unleash your rage. You are invincible for a short period and during this time you change to your rage weapons, go into a berserker-like frenzy and your energy partially re-charges.
Whilst you can’t change your core weapons, what you can do though is utilize extra weapons.
Heavy weapons are one of the key additions we’ve made to the overall combat. Along your journey you’ll find these heavy weapons which you can carry with you until they wear out. They create an entire set of new moves which are operated via a different button. They inflict more damage and can be strung into your normal combos to extend your combo count. They can also do handy things like strike downed enemies whilst they lie on the floor.
There are also standard weapon pick-ups too like spears and hammers. These have a very short lifespan but have varied abilities like longer reach and inflicting heavier damage.
Lastly are the projectile weapons and we’ve put a fair focus on these. The action is frantic and you’ll always find enemies creeping up behind you. To deal with this threat the ground is littered with projectiles. Almost every enemy drops their weapon upon their death and most of these can be thrown. Swords, knives, you name it. But the best bit is when you lop off a limb or a head, once they hit the floor they can also be used as weapons too. You’re never short of projectiles.
So yes, there are a lot of varied weapons in there but your core loadout always stays the same, the key is to master that and learn how to best add to it as you go along.
How did the process of becoming a featured game in the latest Nindie Showcase and launching first on the Switch work out? You were in with some pretty impressive company, it must be gratifying to be recognized and to get that sort of added exposure.
MH: It was amazing. We felt very honoured indeed. Nintendo have made us feel like part of the Nintendo family in a big way. All the platform holders have been great to date but Nintendo are on a different level. They’ve really made us feel like they care about Wulverblade and that means the world to us.
Initially we’d tried every avenue to get in touch with Nintendo and to give them a really strong pitch to sell Wulverblade to them. We have a lean towards local multiplayer (as all the old side scrolling beat-em-ups play best with a buddy by your side) and Nintendo could see that and how well it fit in with the core values of the Switch. Then to our huge surprise we were showing the game at PAX East in the Megabooth this year only to discover that the two chaps we were talking to were actually from Nintendo. They were out scouting for games whilst undercover. They could see first-hand how much people loved the game and it was from there that I ‘think’ we’d proven our worth.
With as cool as the game looks and all of the effort that has obviously been put into it any chances of seeing DLC of some sort to further extend the experience?
MH: We already have a big update for the game in the works that will be free for all players. It will add something amazing to the game. You’ll have to wait and see what that is though.
Any word on what your team may be looking to cook up next?
MH: In a totally perfect world we want to carry on working on Wulverblade. The story is so rich and there are so many avenues that we can take the story down for DLC. The world of Wulverblade has been my world for 5 years now and there are lots of things I want to do with it. There is a story spin off that I want to explore and turn into a comic book but that will be super expensive so we’ll have to see how things go. So many ideas. Needless to say though Wulverblade 2 already exists in my imagination and the story is already taking shape. If the world loves Wulverblade, there will be more.
I'd like to thank Michael for taking the time to answer my questions and provide so many great insights into what will hopefully make this game special on several levels. If you're feeling bloodthirsty you don't have too long to wait, Wulverblade will be hitting the Nintendo Switch eShop this Thursday. Be sure not to miss it!