X-Blades

BY Michael Ubaldi  //  February 18, 2009

All I got was this lousy T-shirt.

L

aud the marketing savvy of Southpeak Games. Midlothian, Virginia's own independent publisher attracted a little attention and a lot of notoriety eighteen months ago with Two Worlds, the Polish-developed roleplaying game whose promotional campaign budget appeared to dwarf monies contributing to substandard performance. This month, everybody was talking about — well, all those online advertisements for X-Blades. Some retailers bundled the hack-and-slash title with a T-shirt bearing its logo. They inadvertently settled the difference between X-Blades' market price and actual value.



It should be lyrical:
Hack, slash, teleport, fireball.
Protagonist Ayumi is young, lithe and covered more by her alabaster locks than by clothing. Endowed with the soul of Cyndi Lauper and the wardrobe of Aeon Flux amid a steampunk phase, she ransacks temples, ruins and tombs for relics. Just like you-know-who! Still, to whatever degree Lara Croft's biography has been trespassed, Ayumi and her Valley Girl flippancy do entertain, while her adventure — seeking wealth and power, then acquittal from the dark magic she unchains — couldn't be any less contrived than the tomb raider's.

Kinship, however, ends there. Hack-and-slash has been executed to the letter. Each level introduces Ayumi to enclosures that are small-scale, whether indoors, underground or open-air. No excavation or discovery; if the surrounding arcana intrigues, X-Blades is only dungeon-crawling by diorama. Monsters appear and waylay Ayumi, engaging players in an invariable routine of slaying enemies, more enemies — and then even more! — for the next three to five minutes. When bosses appear, a health meter serves as a benchmark, but duels lack those dramatic, gratifying signs of declension so essential to the genre. Enemies fight Ayumi until they suddenly don't.

Pattern and repetition, mind you, need not be boring. From Galaga onward, varying formations and tactics of the bad guys can approach a spellbinding choreography. X-Blades inclines there at a few points, but only a few. And even a similar failure of gameplay, such as Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom, in its kind of Odyssean monotony, was redeemed by aesthetics.

With Two Worlds, Southpeak was culpable of gilding a title developed on a comparative shoestring — and looks to be doing so, again, with X-Blades. Can video games be less than beautiful? Yes. Homely? Maybe, depending on the strength of play. But as visual quality diminishes, so narrow the circumstances under which the game may be advertised as mainstream and worth sixty dollars — straight-faced, anyway. X-Blades, dropped out of the sky, would be thought to antedate the Xbox 360.

Do not adjust your TV set.
That does no good.
Its dynamic lighting is the most painful evidence of attempting techniques in half-measures — the complexion harsh under full light, obfuscatory under shadow. X-Blades' cutscenes are, contrariwise, attractive animated sequences — almost as nice-looking as, say, Afro Samurai's in-game engine.

X-Blades does offer thoughtful customization and fairly responsive mechanics. For each enemy defeated, Ayumi gains currency, "Soul Points," towards powers, upgrades and even life points. Powers, once purchased, can be mapped to one of four buttons and interchanged per the situation — rightly so, since as the game's difficulty increases, bosses' immunities and vulnerabilities become unequivocal. Rage, fuel for powers, must be generated and husbanded, or purchased in full loads. A player can't make Ayumi move as nimbly as Afro or Persia's prince, but should be amused by her deadly athletics. Yet — all condemned to insipid application, as a monstrous farrago charges from all sides, over and over. There must have been a better way to collect Soul Points.

Southpeak's Aubrey Norris, interviewed, declared X-Blades "really unlike anything done to date." That is a cliché taken to market, and it earns another in kind: All I got was this lousy T-shirt.

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