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Bloodforge review: God of sore ... thumbs

Matt Cabral

Even before diving into Bloodforge's gore-soaked, beast-slaying combat or encountering one of its screen-enveloping enemies, the XBLA brawler announces itself as a God of War wannabe. From its pissed-off protagonist to its female narrator, the hack-and-slasher channels Kratos' exploits before the first entrails stain your sword. There are certainly worse series to crib from, and Bloodforge, while significantly flawed, generally feels more like a fan-made tribute than a cash-grabbing copycat.

The first thing Bloodforge hits you with isn't some ugly monster's sharp steel, but a striking visual presentation. Contrasting a desaturated color palette with buckets of bright blood, Bloodforge looks like it may have jumped off the paneled page of a mature graphic novel. The dark vibe is further complemented by sopping rain storms, snowy landscapes stained with viscera, and marshes blanketed with mist. If all that doesn't set the tone, silhouetted corpses impaled on spikes and hanging from nooses should do the trick.

Gallery: Bloodforge (XBLA) | 4 Photos

Of course, more than any oozing environmental touch, it's the near constant bloodletting that lends the most to the mood. As Crom – a warrior whose unbridled fury occasionally makes the Ghost of Sparta's anger look like a toddler's temper tantrum – players lop limbs, free foes of their heads, and open baddies from navel to nose, all while spilling more blood than a slaughterhouse.

Painting the dreary world in pulpy innards is done with a variety of melee- and magic-based weapons. Crom begins carving up hordes with a sword, but soon gains access to a war hammer and a pair of clawed gauntlets. Light and heavy attacks and combinations are unleashed with this trio of death-dealers, all of which have better versions to unlock. When not rearranging ribcages with standard attacks, players can summon upgradeable, rune-imbued powers, such as swimming serpents that do your bidding. While these screen-clearing attacks consume a large chunk of runes, the precious stones can also be spent individually on a single, devastating melee blow. Crom's arsenal is further padded by a meter-based Berserker attack, an unlimited-ammo crossbow, and a number of items granting temporary perks.

The problem with Crom having a veritable armory tucked beneath his loincloth, however, is the gameplay's inability to properly support it all. The varied attacks and abilities promise – or at least strongly hint at – a nuanced combat experience similar to God of War. Unfortunately, it never materializes. Aside from a jump and evasive dodge maneuver, Crom has no strategic skills. Players can't block, counter, or even target enemies. On top of that, his overflowing arsenal of combos yields little more than moves that feel too similar to each other, are often unresponsive, and are generally less effective than simply hammering on the attack buttons. Worst of all, an unhinged camera confounds the simple controls; it feels jumpy when not in combat, but becomes downright schizophrenic on a full battlefield.

While the bouncy perspective will make you feel like a drunken monkey and the combat lacks depth, Bloodforge can still be a thumb-blistering blast for those willing to overlook its initially jarring flaws. Accept it as a mindless button-masher, and you'll find plenty of satisfaction in carving a bloody swath through its 4-5 hour campaign. Sure, the combo system is a wash and the busy battles will occasionally consume you in chaos, but rewards await the patient player. Learning enemy attack patterns, for example, is an addictive if uncomplicated affair, especially when it leads to taking down a towering beast without sustaining any damage yourself. It's similarly satisfying to attack a bruiser up-close, evade his earth-shattering melee moves, pepper it from afar with crossbow bolts, then rinse and repeat until its halved torso erupts like a bloody volcano.

It doesn't hurt that Bloodforge's line-up of meatbags is a disturbing bunch you'll be begging to disembowel. Forgoing the generic horned, clawed, and fanged baddies of similar games, it favors an inspired army of grotesque evil-doers; from the sinister mechanical contraptions making up their armor to their ugly mugs, most of the foes would look right at home shuffling along the streets of Silent Hill. Complemented by their dark fantasy surroundings, these freaks and creeps will keep your eyes as engaged as your nimble fingers.

If Bloodforge were a full-priced retail entry, its flaws would be more difficult to ignore. Additionally, its over-the-top, Gamerscore-poaching action would likely grow tiresome if it lasted any longer than its roughly five-hour campaign. Attempt to play this style-over-substance offering as thoughtfully as its creators intended, and you'll wind up disappointed. Accept it as a button-masher, rather than the deep brawler it wants to be, however, and working out Crom's anger issues might become your next go-to guilty pleasure.

This review is based on the final release of Bloodforge, provided by Microsoft.

A full-time freelance journalist, Matt Cabral has been covering film, television and videogames for seven-plus years for a variety of online outlets and print publications, such as Entertainment Weekly and He's also spent so much time surviving the zombie apocalypse in the virtual world he believes he's prepared for the real thing. You can follow him on Twitter @gamegoat, find him on Facebook, or look for him in the basement of an abandoned building-he'll be the one hoarding the canned goods, med-kits and shotgun shells.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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