Many people disregard or ignore console strategy games. They are an uncommon sight since there are often only a dozen released in any console generation, and those few are seen as failed, fleeting fancies compared to their more beloved and extensive PC brethren. These titles are often compared based on the hand-friendly controller to the traditional mouse and keyboard. This is all useless though, as ultimately it’s like comparing apples to oranges. Developers know, as we should, that the different controls and platform audiences means creating different games and appealing accordingly. Those expecting “Total War, but on consoles” will invariably disappoint themselves because they’re coming in with an impossible expectation. Neither is necessarily better than the other because it will be where your preference and opportunity lies. So, without any more rambling, let’s dive in.
Bladestorm: Nightmare is the offspring of many other console strategy games, taking inspiration from the Kingdom Under Fire and Kessen series. Like Bladestorm, all of these titles highlighted your role as a warrior general instead of being the grand strategist. You play a mercenary during the Hundred Year War, picking jobs posted up by the opposing English and French forces. Completing these missions nets you fame, fortune and experience as you progress through your chosen scenario, the original campaign or the additional “Dungeons-and-Dragons-Hundred-Years’-War-scenario” Nightmare campaign.
The system of warfare is straightforward and accessible. Your hub is a tavern where you can hire troops, buy/sell stuff and accept battles to partake in. Each battle takes place in its own separate county of France, and has about 20+ bases in each of them. The battles themselves are fairly free-form, allowing you to march over the whole map if you like, taking out enemy generals or completing side quests. You end battles by completing the main mission, which is always capturing/defending specific bases. The lack of variety is one of the game’s biggest pitfalls, as there’s no real tension or challenge to what you’re doing. Fetch quests or following allied generals are the height of boredom. You’re more likely to come up with your own missions and tasks to complete than what the game has to offer.
Thankfully, combat is much more varied, and based around controlling various units. You’re not directly controlling them exactly but directing them. The basic playstyle consists of a sustained group attack mixed in with special abilities, it’s quite unique in its execution. In practice, it’s like being on a table top war game, like Warhammer, but you’re only handling a set of soldiers whilst the others are AI controlled. At any time you can wrestle away free units and take command of them, allowing you to change on the fly. Units are comprised of traditional and exotic types. You’ve got standard ground combat units like Longbows and Spearmen to Mounted Knights and Assassins, all with offshoots that have their own specialisations and abilities. You’ll also gain more exotic units over time, such as camel riders and riflemen.
A new edition to combat is the ability to team up your units with each other and use them in unison, as one army. Together, they work like any other unit of types, but they allow you to overwhelm higher level enemies and give you access to special Mass Attacks. It’s incredibly fulfilling having four cavalry units all charging at once into the enemy lines. It’s also exceedingly enjoyable to have a really beefed up unit, wade into hundreds of enemies and watch them fall in seconds, the damage numbers floating out of their bodies. I’m fairly macabre about all this killing, but combat always gives immediate feedback that makes it quite moreish. Though the basic combat isn’t deep nor progressive, the variety of units and their sub-units always give you options in a fight and rarely bore as you unlock them.
Each battle can take many in-game days and is contained in day-to-night cycle. This means battling in small ten minute chunks before both armies turn in for the night. It allows the combat to not out stay its welcome and allow a ‘reset’ of both forces to collect their strength and even up the odds. It can help either you or your enemy. They might be able to send their best generals out the next day or you and your troops can regroup to better prepare a plan. Sometimes, when your troops are dead and your health is low, it’s best to safely retreat, wait for the next day, so you can basically try again. It’s a sign of a good strategy game when retreating from a fight is a completely viable option.
The new Nightmare scenario works a little differently, though. Its setup is exactly like Red Dead Redemption’s Undead Nightmare DLC and the Warriors Orochi series. The warring factions team up in a hopeless situation to fight against invading supernatural forces. Story battles are carried out like chapters across France, in the hunt for the source of the monsters whilst growing your forces from the scattered English and French troops. The scenario also adds new demonic units to control and fight against, all inspired by European mythos and folklore. There are inevitably ‘cloned troops’ among them, like supernatural archers that work like normal ones. The real variety comes in the more unique units, allowing old fans to a familiar yet fresher experience. Though the expanded content is a nice distraction, the play time is considerably shorter than the main campaign can be and the difficulty spikes quickly and, as a result, make the mode feel like the tacked on content it is.
The writing is guff and takes itself way too seriously, even though it can be quite touching and poignant at times, the tonal conflict is quite jarring. Meanwhile the graphics are massively underwhelming, with bland textures, pixelated lighting effects and constant pop in of environments, characters or grass. Ultimately, though, neither distracted me from my general enjoyment, they left my attention to wane more often than they should.
Bladestorm: Nightmares adds something vastly different to an already large game, which is great for fans and alike. It’s great when it focuses on the action of battles instead of the micromanagement, allowing for more direct involvement. The game is at its best when fast and frantic, getting right into a fight and decimating troops. There’s already too much time spent traveling across the battlefield and in menus. By minimising the nitty gritty details of warfare, it feels great to play in short bursts. Though fun and deep, its lack of real variety and bad pacing can lose your enthusiasm. Still, this is the best strategy game you can find right now on the new gen (since it’s the only real one).