April 15, 2024
Suit up your power armour and prepare for combat. Is Blackwind a twin-stick action title worth it's salt or a poor imitation of the genre? The Finger Guns Review.

Suit up your power armour and prepare for combat. Is Blackwind a twin-stick action title worth it’s salt or a poor imitation of the genre? The Finger Guns Review:

Top-down twin-stick shooters are a surprisingly deep genre which can offer some truly challenging yet rewarding experiences… when done right. Think Helldivers’ overwhelming numbers and achievement from overcoming the hordes with tactics and sharp shooting. Or perhaps Ruiner’s depth of enemy variety requiring multiple strategies to be used in synergy creating a whirlpool of explosive options. Even Hotline Miami’s furious and brutal blend of fast-faced lethal action. The key element with each of these games was that they took core ingredients of the genre and focused on a couple to maximise those experiences and tap into that perfect sweet spot of challenge and satisfying reward. It helped that they looked, ran and played phenomenally too.

Basically, there’s a helluva lot of potential to get creative within the genre and create a unique experience even without a huge budget.

Blackwind is one of those agonisingly upsetting games that unfortunately takes so many core pieces of the genre but fails to blend any of them into a cohesive or ultimately enjoyable whole. Akin to failing to bake a beautiful yet complex cake, it descends into a messy, bland and disappointing husk of what it absolutely could have been. All of the best ingredients are present and accounted for, but the execution just has the whole thing collapsing like any hypothetical attempt by me at making a soufflé.

So, weird analogies out of the way. Let’s get whisked away on this tame breeze of an action sci-fi game.

Medusa-42, Careful Where You Look

Supporting a grand total of 2 cutscenes that book-end the start and finish of Blackwind, the opening sets up a traditional sci-fi adventure. Travelling to the supposedly peaceful Medusa-42 planet, we’re introduced to our main teenage protagonist, James Hawkins (always reminded me of Bully’s Jimmy Hopkins) and his father. Being a spectacular scientist, as is the way in these things, your dear old dad has developed a totally-only-for-pacifist-use mech suit, complete with a new AI program. In the least surprising news of this year so far, your ship is assailed, crash lands onto the planet and daddio is now missing. Suiting up, it’s your job to get out there and save him.

I don’t mind the relatively obvious set up, but you’ll quickly discover that Blackwind doesn’t have a whole lot else to to deepen its narrative. Voice acting is uniformly disinterested and most of the actors appear to have had scripts shoved at them and ordered to read out the lines without any sense of emotional context. James will switch from apparently being raging with anger to light-hearted idiot in the space of… about one line of dialogue. The primary antagonist has one of the strangest deliveries of lines I’ve heard in good while, seemingly reading it in slow motion while also trying to be sinister yet coming off as weirdly elongated.

The story follows obvious and predictable twists, with poor writing meekly delivered with equally shoddy emphasis. You know it’s bad when a clearly signposted emotional moment is completely undercut by the fact there’s no substance to justify it. It’s hard to take a “they were a good friend” line seriously when the two characters in question have had a grand total of 4 interactions maximum and barely even said a good thing about each other.

It feels like the game was trying to tread that admittedly very thin line between serious melodrama and slapstick humour, yet it fails to be funny in any singular way and can’t even make the voice actors care enough to give the characters some desperately required depth, so there’s little to latch onto as a player. Some nods to other game series and pop culture were nice, but the entire narrative package is a shell of a package, all gusto with no oomph.

All Shooter, No Thriller

The first 1-2 hours of Blackwind may hood-wink you into thinking there’s some underlying arcadey fun that’ll hold you over for its 5-6 hour runtime. Just like a thumping smash to the face from a powered up exosuit however, it’ll leave you reeling on the floor questioning why you even chose this life.

You’re quickly introduced to the basics of a pathetically weak feeling ranged attack as lasers hit your foes with nary an inkling from them as to whether it hurts them or not. You’ll become acquainted with with your melee blades which take numerous strikes to down basically anything, with the option of light and heavy attacks – only the heavy ones are pointless as they do minimal extra damage and take an age to animate through. Lastly, there’s a special tied to L1 which can be switched out with other options later in the game. There’s a dash which you’ll occasionally need (I used it more to speed up traversal than to overcome combat) and a block function which you’re neither directly introduced to nor will you ever actually have a use for it.

The early hours had me experimenting with melee and ranged, before eventually settling on ranged being the only viable option past the halfway mark. Combat mechanics are pretty universally clunky – firing lasers has shocking tracking for targets that aren’t utterly static, melee strikes would frequently aim erroneously and you’ll find yourself relying on cheesing strategies to get through encounters than any sense of skill. Stronger enemy types and bosses for example can be eased through simply by doing a small circle strafe around them – they won’t move from their spot and none of their offensive moves will actually hit you. In fact the first big encounter of the game was the moment I realised the puddle-akin depth of the combat, as it almost instinctively directs you into mindlessly circle strafing it’s embarrassing array of attacks. I laughed at just how ridiculously effective the one tactic was.

Blackwind also promises “brutal” finishing moves which are ripped directly from the OG God of War trilogy. Dealing enough damage to an enemy brings up the heralded O above their head, to which you’ll enter an entirely too slow and poorly choreographed kill animation. If this is what “brutal” looks like then I’d hate for the developers to see what NetherRealm have been up to with Mortal Kombat.

Past the first couple of hours, there’s little nuance or added flavour to the proceedings, leading the remaining 3-4 hours to become stale, repetitive and mundane. It’s one of the few times a game’s progression has made me want to play it less. The combat isn’t broken, it’s just floaty, poorly executed and unsatisfying.

Backtracking, Backtracking Everywhere

Aside from combat, you’ll be spending most of your time in Blackwind performing one of the most despised actions in video games. You guessed it – traipsing back and forth through the same repetitive and bland environments. “Exploration” is boiled down to following a linear path through a series of locked rooms to gather keys, unlock doors, send your drone through a vent to unlock terminals, and then running back to the main route.

Sometimes, you’ll even wander all the way through to the end of a level, only to be told to return to the beginning of said area. So, you’ll drag your mechanised rear-end back through the rooms and hallways that are now even more boring by the nature of having no enemies in them, only for the person to tell you to go back again to the place you originally had to backtrack from. It’s like backtracking inception but for every level deeper you become more devoid of happiness.

Occasionally there’ll be (and I’m hesitant to call them this) “puzzles” which are so despairingly simple it makes the concept of a rubix cube seem positively complex in comparison. Stand on a platform, send your drone out to activate a console, jump from one pipe to another. None of the mechanics create interesting or brain-teasing scenarios to test your intelligence, so it’s more a process of going through the motions than actually having to think. Some are just arbitrary hindrances – like standing on a platform which deactivates a barrier 1 meter in front of you, so you deploy your drone, advance a meter, activate a console and… that’s it. That’s the puzzle.

There may some collectible skins and a handful of upgrades to gather through exploring, but 90% are on the main route and are easily found with the bare minimum of effort. Again, it’s got the right idea of including the metroidvania type exploration but fundamentally bungles the execution so badly it borders on ridiculous. There’s only 2 collectibles you have to return to later in the game to collect, kind of undermining even that element. Needless to say, the time spent outside of combat is just as uninteresting spent inside of it, which doesn’t exactly bode well.

Trade You An Upgrade For A Bullet Sponge

Naturally, being an AI-powered badass power suit of the death-dealing variety, you can upgrade your metallic chassis to gain new melee combos, damage output and healing potential. The upgrade tree itself is surprisingly comprehensive, offering 3 pages of improvements to attacks, specials, orb drops (for power and health) and other bits. Each individual upgrade usually has levels of improvements too, so you can specialise what you want to enhance within your playstyle.

Which is great, on the surface. The reality however, is that most upgrades amount to 10/20/30/40% increases to the moves which you already have, providing no new means to change up how you play or use said powers. In Ruiner for example, switching out your upgrades allowed you to tangibly change the way a power worked or performed, adding a layer of depth to each choice for the situation you were currently faced with. Blackwind simply makes each thing incrementally stronger. You’d expect that this would have you feeling like a mechanical God of destruction come the end, but sadly this just isn’t the case.

Around halfway through, new enemy types are introduced who are exceptionally bullet-spongey, even with multiple upgrades in my damage output. So as you get stronger, the enemies simply do as well, requiring the same, if not more from the player to defeat them, which completely undercuts the sense of progression. You don’t play any differently and the enemies don’t noticeably become easier to manage through upgrading – you’re plateaued throughout.

It doesn’t help that by the end of the game, I’d unlocked maybe 40-50% of all available upgrade levels due to how expensive the later ones are. There’s no New Game + or way to carry your current progression into another playthrough, so why is it balanced so stingily when you have no feasible way of unlocking the majority come the end? It felt tailor-made for a NG+ option to continue expanding your capability, coming across as a strange decision as it exists currently.

A Glitch A Day Keeps The Fun Away

My time with Blackwind certainly wasn’t helped by the multitude of visual oddities, glitches and clear design faults. Multiple times I found myself stuck in the falling animation when clipping onto an innocuous looking rock or piece of geometry. Character models would appear in areas as an ethereal ghostly outline before they were due to be there – clearly placed ready for the ensuing cutscene but not supposed to be there during the gameplay. One instance even had me glitch under the map following a boss’ melee attack, requiring me to restart the game.

Mixed in are the strange design and combat choices. Certain enemy ranged units fire projectiles which stun-lock you for each hit rather than each volley, perpetually trapping you into falling backwards unable to get out of the way without mashing the dash button and praying. If you are unfortunate enough to miss an evasive maneuver for a missile or bomb, well tough luck cause it’ll stun lock you on the floor while every other enemy around you mauls your pathetically vulnerable ass into oblivion. Certain units can even keep you trapped in stun lock animation by hitting you with missile after missile while you’re floored, so you can’t even dash away.

Which brings me to Blackwind’s difficulty curve, which is anything but a curve. Even despite all the issues I’ve mentioned, Blackwind is remarkably easy to progress through (I played on normal) until the last portion of the game and some glaring spikes due to imbalanced odds. One instance places you into a small area with a bunch of rapidly firing soldiers who can mince your health in no time and surrounds you from every direction to make evading it nigh-on impossible. In contrast though, the last boss was a joke, as the open area you engage them allows you to circle strafe to your heart’s content to completely disable their threat to you.

In truth, the difficulty from Blackwind doesn’t come from a satisfying challenge, it emerges from how well you can abuse the clunky mechanics and poor balancing of encounters. A late-game boss encounter is indicative of so many of these issues, as it sets up a supposed fight with a time-limit. The context and dialogue would suggest you need to beat said foe within the time, which would have been a nice set-up, as you slowly lose access to various combat options. Nope. You’re just supposed to survive the time-limit, so after 3-4 times of trying to fight properly (and actually thinking the game was coming alive) I realised I just needed to run around the edge of the arena till it ended. Fun.

Eye of The Storm

I’m happy to admit I’ve been pretty hard on Blackwind. It’s not terrible or unplayable by any means, but I can’t help coming away from it like a disappointed parent. I had such positive hopes coming into the game from a genre I generally always find something to appreciate. There’s a host of other problems, nitpicks and slights I haven’t even mentioned, yet for the sake of not making this review 3000+ words, I’ve decided to omit them for brevity’s sake.

Graphically Blackwind is decent, with varying colour palettes for each of the game’s levels and some decent effects with explosions or enemy design. Again however, you’ll largely see a pattern of repetition emerge as you trudge down the same industrial hallway, glide across yet another forest landscape and slog through more barely detailed labs. Animations are laboured and blocky, movement is weightless, invisible walls are apparent all over the place and you can’t even jump if you’ve happened to stumble on those edge-of-the-level rocks which are identical to the rocks you do use for traversal.

I started off hopeful with Blackwind, but by the end, I just wanted to be finished playing it. My 6 hours of playtime felt like 20, leaving me with nothing but a sense of deep sadness of how good this game could have been had the developers selected fewer core elements and focused on making them shine. Instead, you’re left with a remarkably hollow battle suit, bursting with loads of cool ideas, but fundamentally lacking any quality execution to make it a satisfying whole. If you were wearing said battle suit, you might look cool until it crumpled down and left you a desperate, hopeless and empty shell of itself.

I can’t hate Blackwind, but I absolutely can’t recommend to anyone except for the most ardent of twin-stick shooter, action sci-fi fans. Go play one of the many better options in the genre.

Failing to stack up anywhere near it’s contemporaries, Blackwind is a hollow exosuit complete with unengaging combat, mind-numbing exploration and puzzle elements, repetitious presentation, poor story and baffling design choices. There are plenty of potentially great ingredients to this package, but unlike the age-old adage, the sum is certainly no greater than the parts. A meek gust of breeze as opposed to the promise of a gale-force wind.

Blackwind is launching on the PS5 (review platform), PS4, PC via Steam, Mac, Xbox One, Xbox Series S|X and Nintendo Switch on January 20th, 2022.

Developer: Drakkar Dev
Publisher: Blowfish Studios

Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.

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