Don your failed resolutions, and screw up every important document that asks you for the date, because a new year is upon us. 2022 has arrived, or rather 2020 too, but that still hasn’t stopped the month of January from arriving, and with that, the fear that there are no new releases in the post-Christmas drought. This is something I personally disagree with, I mean, it’s just about finding titles in the right spots, surely! Let’s look at Blackwind for example.
This is the latest release from Italian studio Drakkar Dev, a team whose most recent hit comes from War Tech Fighters, which is similar to Blackwind in concept, but not in gameplay. Both games also have the distinction of being published by Blowfish Studios, a team with many unique trinkets in their catalogue. Whether it’s the likes of this, Infliction, or YesterMorrow; it’s an eclectic list of indie delights.
You play as James Hawkins, the teenage son of a gifted professor currently working on a cutting-edge “Battle Frame” whilst travelling through space. Designed to give the wielder an edge in tougher battles, James learns to get used to the exoskeletal armour pretty quickly, as the ship his family is on is sieged by an unknown force. Finding himself on an alien planet, James learns to get used to this experimental mech suit.
There’s a definite Saturday morning cartoon vibe to the progression of Blackwind, and the events that follow. A teenager going through the burden of familial separation whilst also being given the most badass item an immature 14-year-old can ever ask for, and that’s a mechanical death machine with a female voice. Still, this leads to the problem of juxtaposition, which Blackwind has in full force, both narratively and mechanically.
Despite not even being eligible to drive a car yet, the trials of James getting used to this battle mech are only briefly touched upon in the beginning. There are smart tricks in the writing showing just how immature — or rather how young — James is, but all of this is front-loaded into the beginning of the game. It blows the load far too quickly narratively, as the turmoil is quickly replaced by a simple rescue mission, and all other instances of thematic relevance are touched upon briefly with no appealing recourse.
Gameplay-wise, the game is a hearty mix of standard linear hack n’ slash and top-down dungeon crawling. It’s in the former category where you’ll find that the biggest enemy you face isn’t the hordes of robots and alien creatures, but instead the camera. Constantly rotating and switching to more cinematic angles, it is always too zoomed in to show where you need to go, leading to a lot of aimless wandering despite such an aggressively linear structure.
With that said, Blackwind's Metroidvania elements are also only encouraged in the first chunk of the game. Despite possessing a fast travel mechanic to return to previous areas, the reasons for doing so are never there. From personal experience, there were exactly two moments in the first two areas of the game that needed revisiting with new mechanics, which the game hands in spades, although none of it seems laser-focused on growth or progression.
There’s a good mix of offensive and defensive capabilities your mech has when facing off against these horrific beasts, but the strategy a lot of these enemies possess doesn’t call for them often. If the enemy has any sort of ranged attack, they will simply shoot you from outside of your vision until you break sightlines, and if they’re melee-based, they will simply walk towards you and only attack if you’re not attacking them first. It’s awful combat design, never inspiring, merely enabling.
The worst of it comes from the lack of i-frames. Save for the overlong Glory Kill-inspired animations, there’s never a time when you won’t be vulnerable to anything that decides to attack you, and there will be large hordes at points. If you manage to get hit by a devastating melee attack, or any explosive object, there is a high chance you will get stun-locked to death in the process.
Still, none of this is a problem when you can simply shoot ranged weapons with unlimited ammo from afar and turn any and all combat scenarios into a case of kiting. Most combat arenas allow for this; a lot of the time, deaths will be attributed to poor positioning inside the battlefield as opposed to pinging shots from outside of the danger zone. Devastating missiles, force fields, Area-of-Effect attacks? All of them are pointless when you can stand there and shoot endlessly.
As Blackwind goes on, problems will only become more common, as more cracks begin to show in just how poorly designed the game can be. A high watermark for this comes near the end of the story, where it introduces electrical minefields, some of which cannot be defused. You’re only allowed to run through them, and in one such instance, a button to open the door is right in the middle of an inescapable electrical minefield.
The only way to open this door is by using a small drone that detaches from your suit and navigating it through a vent that leads into the area with the button. Whilst the cutscene plays, you won’t get damaged – a small victory that is quickly offset by the mechanic of the drone and suit following each other in certain circumstances. This will then lead to your character inexplicably dying while you’re in the middle of this electrical minefield because they’ve decided to follow you after you’ve unlocked the door.
It’s a small tidbit of Blackwind’s poor design, but one that punctuates it more than anything else. Whether it’s the constant stunlocking, the lack of mapping outside of these awkward dungeons, or the complete non-option of re-exploring. A lot of artificial lengthening in the form of simply disabling the abilities of jumping when standing on certain objects, despite such fierce linearity.
The game is full of fear, unsure of whether to stray or stay designated to such benign gameplay traits, lacking any and all ferocity to even stand out in a field where mech combat is kick-ass by default. The game stops being interested in its own combat and characters, and instead relegates to by-the-numbers hack n’ slash with next-to-no variation. There is nothing the game does competently, always awkwardly strangling control and challenge from the players own hands.
One of the few saving graces the game possesses is its voice acting. If you’re going to get through Blackwind, do it for some of these laughably awful performances. James himself is voiced brilliantly, he showcases fear, individualism, and a stoic nature that’s earned over time; but it’s the side characters who take the cake. Whether it’s the female private who stumbles through sentences, or the war-torn General Vengar, clenching his entire body as he squeezes words from his mouth, it’s almost worth the price of admission… almost.
Alas, it’s not enough to excuse some of the awful decisions Blackwind makes, as it’s truly an anomaly both in design and in motion. Its gameplay is sabotaged by a lack of foresight on how combat should be handled, a story that quickly veers off due to its own hilarious acting, and next to no effort made in encouraging exploration. A baffling waste of time, despite such a strong start.
Blackwind (Reviewed on Xbox One S)
The game is unenjoyable, but it works.
After great first impressions showcasing fun gameplay and interesting characters, it quickly becomes a fascinatingly bad example of mech combat, lacking feedback, foresight, and fair play. Unbelievably boring offensive capabilities, a nonsensical story, and hilarious voice acting which tries its best to stand out. Unfortunately, it isn’t enough to stand out.