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Preview: Alder's Blood

14 Nov 2019

It’s really hard to be sure just how much Bloodborne and Darkest Dungeon influenced the collective zeitgeist of gaming. The two games weren’t quite contemporaries, but they both seem to have wound up occupying a similar space and either created or tapped into an undercurrent, a longing that no one had yet articulated for pseudo-Victorian trappings around a brutal, cruel world replete with darkness. It’s like steampunk, but instead of steam it’s relying on blood magic.

Alder’s Blood is most definitely not a contemporary of these games, of course, since it hasn’t even yet released and is planned for launch in the first quarter of 2020. But it definitely fits into the same style and tone quite evenly. Your group of monster hunters will be tasked with slaying beasts of hideous vintage, but rather than feeling derivative, it feels like a very solid and appealing take on the thematic notes, in part because this is a very different sort of game. It’s a stealth tactical game, and it manages to live up to that goal quite handily.

Alder’s Blood is coming from Shockwork Games and No Gravity Games on PC via Steam. An early build of the Steam version was played for this review.

Everything Hurts and Nothing is All Right

The first moments of Alder’s Blood‘s story set up a pretty good picture of what the game is going to be like – you’re controlling a lone character who is berating himself for what he’s doing, heading into dangerous territory for possibly no good reason, beset by horrid monsters, with only the vaguest idea of why he’s even trying. And then things get worse.

Yes, it’s that kind of world. Human beings are squatting in the remnants of a world that isn’t so much post-apocalyptic as pre-apocalyptic, with only the thinnest veneer of civilization remaining as monsters assault people and half-assembled villages. The only actual defense against these monsters are the not-quite-human Hunters, who are at once capable of standing against the Darkness thanks to their ability to sense the monsters…but they are still mostly reliant upon human tools and stealth, rather than gaining awesome abilities to fight these opponents. Everything starts out bleak, and when characters chat about how God is dead, it’s not an allusion to Nietzschean thought but a literal description of prior events.

This would be a quick skip into tedious darkness if not for the fact that the story generally seems to have eschewed what comes up a lot in these settings with one simple change: every character isn’t a selfish dickbag.

There’s definitely a strong sense of distrust among strangers, for example. But your group of hunters that kicks things off by looking for the man from the opening is looking for him out of concern. When they find him injured, the dialogue reinforces the idea that everyone wants him to be alive and all right. Tension and distrust comes naturally, since Hunters are seen as only half a step removed from the monsters they fight, but it’s a distrust that feels authentic rather than people just being jerks to up the tension.

What’s currently on display is not the whole story; this build is still early, and there are plans for more voice acting, dialogue changes, and so forth. The events that actually take place, however, certainly don’t feel inspirational or uplifting. Despite that, the game never manages to feel bleak or unpleasant simply because the characters involved are written with a genuine compassion and warmth that comes across.

It should be noted that at least in this build, the one slightly uncomfortable aspect of the narrative is a couple of lines seeming to state that all of the Hunters are perforce male and that women don’t use weapons or hunt monsters. It stands out by its inclusion; however, this could easily be early dialogue sounding worse out of context or incomplete information. The story is otherwise compassionate and sympathetic to its characters, and it very early gives a strong personality to women that you meet who are portrayed neither as victims nor objects. I didn’t happen to get any ladies as units, but whether that’s an actual narrative element, a limitation of time, or just random luck is wholly unclear.

We are the Ghosts Who Kill

The bulk of Adler’s Blood is made up of its missions. That’s hardly all there is to it, of course, but this is at its core a game of stealth tactics. And it’s here that the game really steps into its own with a keenly balanced system that may not yet be perfect, but provides tons of space for fun and challenge.

Missions take place on a hex-based map, although the spaces are helpfully illustrated by clean dots along a grid rather than direct shapes on a field. The engagements are turn-based and pass between your forces and the enemy, with your goals clearly marked over the course of each mission, frequently changing along the way. You might be going to a specific location, or retrieving items, or killing a couple of specific monsters. In theory, you could even be tasked with killing everything on a map, although that was definitely the exception rather than the rule.

See, this is why I keep using terms like “missions” or “engagements,” because battles in this game are very intentionally one-sided. You aren’t just outmatched, you are functionally the platonic ideal of outmatched. Enemies almost always have more health than you do and deal a ton of damage. Many of them will call for reinforcements as soon as they see you, and all of them will run to investigate if they see you, or hear you, or even smell you. Yes, smell; you can see the scent trails wafting off each unit, with the wind carrying it in certain direction, forcing you to plan ahead and ensure you’re well downwind of detection.

That doesn’t mean you’re helpless, however. For one thing, the game’s Stamina system works wonderfully to give you options. Every action you can take costs a bit of stamina aside from moving your base movement value; however, if your base movement value isn’t enough, you can spend more stamina to move even further, allowing you to make sprints behind multiple enemies to end the turn in cover. So long as your stamina doesn’t drop to nothing, you can recover it all on the next turn, but if you spend everything you spend a turn winded and inactive.

If you’re not using stamina to move, though, you can use it to throw stones. Yes, this is the classic “throw a stone to distract something” technique, but again, since you’re avoiding fights more often than not, it makes movement and stamina use a tactical consideration as you duck out of sight range.

Attacks also cost stamina, and it’s here that tactics and weapon use becomes really involved. Each hunter carries both a large weapon and a small one, with the large weapon tending to be your “main” option, each one having a variety of properties. Guns deal lots of damage but make a huge amount of noise, and the scent makes you easier to track; harpoon guns are nearly silent, but they lack ammunition. A well-placed hack with a blade is quiet and efficient, yet enemies tend to resist slashing damage.

Successfully knocking an enemy down also gives you the option to banish that enemy, killing them instantly…but banishing also strengthens the Darkness, meaning that monsters get more powerful and the map gets more dangerous. Killing monsters at all can strengthen it, thus incentivizing players to minimize their attacks and make each one count.

Clearing a map’s objectives earns experience and, in a nod to games like Darkest Dungeon, your hunters earn traits via leveling rather than straightforward abilities. You pick between a list of traits, and gradually build up your character accordingly. Does this hunter have a stack of Odorless traits and a Stamina bonus? He might be best with a gun, since he won’t suffer the penalties as severely. Lots of health bonuses? Someone to push up to the front lines with a melee weapon. Fragile but a long sight range? A forward scout to see what’s watching you from ahead.

You also need to manage your food, which leads to the game’s camping moments between missions. Most new equipment is crafted rather than bought, and you need to scavenge to get both food and supplies…but scavenging can cause mishaps, leading you to need a guard or two, and injuries take time to heal. More hunters in your party mean that you can do more at once, of course, but it also means that you consume more food just by traveling and camping. It produces an interesting split in which you’re trying to decide who needs rest, how much scavenging you need, and whether you have any space left to get something assembled.

As a result, even though it wasn’t a game I found terribly difficult, it also had that air of a game fully willing to kill me not by chance but because I didn’t think. There was at least one mission that went horribly cross-eyed and turned into an all-out battle for survival, and the fault was entirely mine due to not planning my movements well. I appreciate when a game gives you all the tools you need to succeed and then lets you die because you didn’t use those tools effectively.

Sketch and Line

Visually, Alder’s Blood is gorgeous. It’d be very easy for it to copy the art style of better-known entries in the thematic genre, but it at once feels like a natural fit and has its own distinctive look to it. This extends beyond the character designs, which are evocative as hell to begin with, a world of lanky gaits and thin strokes; the world itself is at once cleanly drawn, devoid of clutter, but replete with the atmosphere of a place where meaning and structure has been bled away.

Everything about the UI is given a perfectly minimalist look that is at once visually clear without being obtrusive. The snaking lines of wind across a map combined with your scent trail make it immediately clear at a glance where you are safe and where you will be detected. If it’s not clear enough just from the map design where you’ll be safe and where you won’t, your cursor glows when you’re obscured from view by a wall, when you’re moving into grass tall enough for hiding, or the like. Sound is shown as concentric circles, displaying the echo for gunshots and shouts. It feels clean and simple, letting you just take in the info and then get on with the business of your mission.

More to the point, while the game is always dark, it makes good use of color. Vistas will frequently have just one or two colors with shades of value and combinations, giving the scene a very bleak feel even as it keeps being visually interesting. The muted tones of units still stand out compared to one another, and the animations for walking and attacking are clear and cute. Monsters even get an extra animation when they look for you and find nothing, a nice touch.

All of the atmosphere is helped by the music, which is similarly minimal but picks up as actual combat comes around, in stark contrast to the quiet ambiance most maps feature. You know when a fight is happening, and its sharp brutality is underscored by a soundtrack reminding you that this is dangerous rather than cool.

A Bright Bleakness

The more I played of Alder’s Blood, the more impressed I was with the overall package. It’s not a perfect game, of course, but some of that is just down to the fact that it clearly is still not yet ready for release. Even so, if it were released in its current state with no improvements, I’d feel comfortable calling it a damn good title. I can only assume the improvements will make it even better.

While the game may not be for everyone, it feels like a comfortable entry into its vague thematic wheelhouse, at once bleak and flavorful, a meditation on the old west as a breeding ground for monsters of the worst sort. It’s creepy, it’s atmospheric, it’s beautiful, and it’s shot through with a genuine energy that should delight almost everyone who likes even its component parts.

If you like tactics games, it’s worth checking out. Pseudo-Victorian pseudo-horror? Same thing. Just fond of stealth games? Yes, you’ll find stuff to like here. It’s an odd creature, but it’s the sort of thing you should definitely keep your eyes on.

Preview build provided by the publisher for review purposes. Screenshots were taken by the author and provided compliments of the publisher.