Let’s get this out of the way: Bladestorm: Nightmare is not a Dynasty Warriors game. Yes, it was developed by Omega Force and published by Koei Temco. Yes, the game centers on chaotic battles among hundreds of on-screen soldiers. And yes, many of the familiar trappings are there: Bladestorm: Nightmare boasts a lengthy campaign, with a long and complex story loosely based on real-life history, and a kill-counter in the lower right corner quickly ticks upwards as enemies fall under your bloodthirsty sword.
But despite its familiar appearance, Bladestorm: Nightmare is something entirely different. In Bladestorm, players don’t control a lone hero; they take command of an entire army. Combat is automatic: just hold the right bumper, and troops will attack targets all on their own. There’s no button-mashing in Bladestorm; in this game, it’s not how you fight that’s important, it’s who and when and where.
In the release notes, Koei Temco calls Bladestorm: Nightmare a strategy game, but that doesn’t feel quite right. Not that there aren’t similarities, of course. In Bladestorm, almost every mission consists of capturing one or more hostile bases, while making sure the player’s own strongholds don’t fall into enemy hands. The conquering process is remarkably simple: march the forces across the battlefield to their target, which will be defended by multiple platoons of enemy soldiers. Kill enough defenders, and the base leader appears. Take him out, and the base is won.
As such, choosing which bases to attack makes up the bulk of Bladestorm’s strategy. Sometimes, it makes more sense to go straight for the target, achieving a quick victory. Other times, players will want to take out surrounding bases first, making sure that the battlefield doesn’t swell with enemy reinforcements. There’s no quick travel option, so it’s important to secure an area before moving on; after all, the other side can capture bases too. Less cautious players might find themselves on the opposite side of the map as enemy forces sweep through important territories, undoing all of the player’s hard work.
The type of troops players lead into battle make a huge difference, too. Players can switch between squad types on the fly by walking up to a friendly army and taking it over, and they’ll be doing that a lot. While there are a number of different types of soldiers, they all fall into one of three main categories: on-foot infantry, mounted cavalry, and ranged troops. Different troop types have different strengths and weaknesses: for example, infantry is strong against archers but will get slaughtered by soldiers on horseback, while ranged weapons are the only reliable way to take down approaching cavalry.
That being said, Bladestorm: Nightmare isn’t really a strategy title. Switching between different squad types makes combat a little trickier, but ultimately it’s just a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors with swords and crossbows. Taking down a base is always the same – just kill things before they kill you – and when deciding which territories to capture, there’s only one real answer: as many as possible.
But Bladestorm isn’t a combat game, either. As mentioned before, basic attacks are executed by simply holding down a button. Each squad type has three special attacks, which are triggered using the face buttons; different specials have different effects, as well as their own cool-down timers. Players can also unleash “Penneons,” which are spells that influence the behavior of various troops, and can summon extra mercenaries to help out during sticky situations (for a price, of course). These options make fighting a little more interesting, but they’re largely unnecessary. Most battles follow the exact same pattern: hold down the attack button, destroy everything, and repeat.
If that sounds boring, well, it kind of is. The main campaign, which loosely chronicles the story of the Hundred Years War between England and France, feels like it takes a hundred years to get through. While the big plot missions themselves are fun and the story is incredibly well-told (including the terrible dialogue, which is over-the-top and absolutely hilarious), in between players are forced to grind through generic, shorter levels. It gets repetitive very, very quickly. In these filler missions, players can choose to side with either England or France, but the decision doesn’t really matter; the main gameplay loop is the same for either side, and the maps reset between missions anyway.
The graphics don’t do much to make Bladestorm more interesting, either. Bladestorm: Nightmare is actually a remake of a 2007 title called Bladestorm: The Hundred Years War, and while the game certainly looks better than it did on older consoles, this is still obviously a last-generation title. Soldiers all look the same, animations are stiff, and the French landscape isn’t particularly distinct. Maps are huge and filled with dozens of bases, but everything blends together. The visuals are functional, but don’t have much character; the only thing that really stands out are the main character designs, and even those draw heavily on popular anime archetypes.
Even worse, characters level up automatically during battle, while finishing missions gives players skill points that they can use to upgrade their characters. Even without trying, players will end up over-levelled almost immediately. As a result, Bladestorm doesn’t create much tension, and the limited strategy elements quickly fall by the wayside. Sure, it might be better to find a squad of archers to take out that mounted officer, but it’s not worth the effort. If the characters are powerful enough, swords will work just fine. Ultimately, despite strong storytelling, Bladestorm’s base campaign is repetitive, easy, and dull. That’s where the dragons come in.
As part of the remastered package, Omega Force added a new campaign to Bladestorm called “Nightmare.” It is fantastic. It’s not as long as The Hundred Years War campaign – it only takes four or five hours to power through – but what it lacks in longevity it makes up by being absolutely, unapologetically insane.
Nightmare abandons any pretense of historical accuracy and embraces Bladestorm’s inherent campiness. Apparently, Joan of Arc has transformed into a sexy witch and is lleading demons across France. The English and French forces team up to stop her, with players’ mercenaries caught right in the middle. Players can switch between the Nightmare and Hundred Years War campaigns at will, taking any character progress with them. What doesn’t cross over, however, are the new unit types, which include griffons, giants, and dragons.
With the introduction of fantasy elements, Bladestorm suddenly comes alive. The new units don’t actually behave differently – a griffon might look cooler than a horse, but mechanically it’s the same – but the otherworldly chaos makes everything a lot more fun. As players invade Paris with an army made up of goblins and giants, they’ll feel like they’re commanding one of the massive armies from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films. Yes, it’s just as satisfying as you imagine.
Bladestorm: Nightmare also introduces a mechanic that’s even more game-breaking than the game’s unbalanced leveling system; thankfully, it also makes the game more fun. In the original title, players could control multiple mercenaries, but each character had to be commanded separately. Not any more. In both Nightmare and Hundred Years War, players can link their mercenaries together, building armies up to four times larger than before.
Not only does this make players even more powerful, but with minor planning, it also means that players can control all three troop types at once. That removes essentially all of the strategy behind battles, but it doesn’t matter. Swooping over a hill with literally hundreds of soldiers at your beck and call is Bladestorm’s biggest thrill. It simply doesn’t get old.
It’s hard to call Bladestorm: Nightmare a good game, but it is an oddly satisfying one. The main campaign is riddled with pacing issues, and the combat isn’t nearly as deep or tactical as Omega Force would like players to think it is. Still, leading a flock of powerful, sometimes supernatural soldiers is undeniably exhilarating. Ultimately, Bladestorm: Nightmare isn’t a strategy game or an action title: it’s a straight-up power fantasy, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Bladestorm: Nightmare is out now for PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. It comes to PC in May. Game Rant was provided a PS4 download code for this review.