Review: Blackwind

19 Jan 2022

It can be a wonderful thing to stumble on a game that just lets you turn your brain off and have some fun. There’s a unique catharsis to it, even; sometimes you simply don’t want to worry about concerning yourself with the finer details of a brainteasing plot or mastering complex inputs with precise timing. Sometimes you just want to rough up some bad guys, save the day, and go home.

Blackwind is an action game developed by Drakkar Dev and published by Blowfish Studios for the PlayStation 4/5, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, Switch, and PC. The initial takeaway I received from its trailers led me to believe that it would very much be this type of game. After all, it puts you in the pilot seat of a mech suit stocked to the nines with missiles, laser beams, and wrist-mounted energy blades before setting you loose to quell an alien invasion. How can you say no to that?

Unfortunately, the more time I spent with this title on PS5, the more I realized just how much it seems to drag itself down at every possible turn.

Classic Alien Retribution

Blackwind begins with our protagonist, Jimmy Hawkins, and his father on a starship en route to a planet designated Medusa-42. Jimmy’s father is a scientist delivering specialized military tech called Battle Frames to the seemingly peaceful mining colony when alarms start blaring the warning of an alien attack. Jimmy just so happens to be inside the Battle Frame for fun—as you do—and with the ship now on a crash course with the planet, his father sees no recourse but to send both Jimmy and the mech hurtling down to the planet’s surface.

After surviving the crash unscathed thanks to the Battle Frame, Jimmy meets the AI installed within, who instructs him to examine his surroundings. The situation on Medusa-42 is more dire than it seemed from space, as the alien threat has fully invaded and is swarming the colony. With massive firepower readily at his disposal, Jimmy sets out to find the crash site of his father’s ship and eviscerate as many aliens as possible along the way.

As you can tell from this synopsis, there isn’t a whole lot to chew on in Blackwind’s narrative. The premise borders on parody, but that isn’t at all a mark against the game in itself. It’s about killing aliens, so why not jump right into the killing of said aliens without any bluster? The story is even kept rolling by the occasional story beat or the temporary addition of other characters with fully voiced dialogue, though nigh on all of them are equal parts predictable and unengaging.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with a game giving its storyline and writing a backseat to better focus on the action and gameplay, but problems arise when a lack of effort in one area of a game doesn’t seem to yield any positive benefits in another.

Lacking In Execution

When it comes to doing what mech suits do best, Blackwind affords the player both ranged and melee options. The former adopts elements of a twin-stick shooter, with camera control being completely removed from the player in order to free up the right analogue stick for aiming. Conversely, melee attacks are carried out by two blades of energy attached to the mech’s wrists, and you’re able to chain together speedy light attacks with slower heavy ones to your heart’s content.

The combat works insofar that it’s functional at depleting enemy health, but the execution of attacks feels clunky and imprecise. Like many action games, there are a handful of special moves carried out by chaining certain combinations of light and heavy attacks, but whether they actually go through is inconsistent at best and reduced to redundancy by the fact that enemies offer exceptionally little resistance. Some of them require specific attacks or block timing in order to allow you to deal damage, but none of them sport interesting moves or patterns once you’ve done it—they merely exist to be button-mashed away.

When you lower an enemy’s HP down to a certain threshold, they pulse red to let you know that you can perform a finishing move that removes them from the encounter with stylish flair. It’s a mechanic very similar to those found in the original Darksiders and the more recent Doom games, but sadly they serve no purpose other than to grind the pace of combat to a screeching halt. The camera zooms in to such a degree that you can’t see a majority of the enemies waiting to attack you, and though every animation is unique for each type of enemy, they all drag on for twice as long as they should. The issue is further exacerbated by a small, repetitive pool of voice lines from Jimmy when you do them, and executing one that caused me to fall through the floor infinitely was enough for me to want to swear off them entirely.

And that was far from the only major bug I encountered in my time with Blackwind. Doors would open, but sometimes the collision wouldn’t go away until I let them close and open again. The simple act of platforming would cause me to become stuck on ledges, forcing me to restart the game to proceed. I had access to an attack I hadn’t unlocked or been informed of as long as I executed a specific series of inputs. The first time I used a powerup that slowed nearby enemies, it ended up slowing my own animations down indefinitely once the duration was expired. Frequent glitches, while irksome, can be tolerated as long as the game is fun when it’s working properly, but this isn’t the case with Blackwind.

From the moment you gain control, you’ll be trekking through a wide, open area with sparse platforming until you come to a mazelike interior location with snaking hallways and locked doors requiring keys. This pattern is repeated ad nauseum. You fight through a field, you fight through a maze, and then you rinse and repeat all while taking care of the same enemies in the exact same way. Each location is almost as boring to go through as it is to look at thanks to the constant reuse of assets with differently colored textures, and every obstacle is overcome by something as simple as a picked up keycard or a single switch. There’s hardly any originality in Blackwind’s progression, which makes things very tiring very quickly.

There was an attempt to keep the gameplay fresh by regularly giving you new abilities to use, but the changes they make to the gameplay are so superficial they end up accomplishing the opposite, instead serving as frequent reminders of just how lacking and monotonous the moment-to-moment gameplay is. The skill tree, which allows you to spend orbs earned through combat to get more out of specific weapons, is a choice example of this. They’re largely static upgrades in power for the abilities you start the game out with, making each trip to the level-up stations unexciting and predictable. The same goes for the ventilation sections, which see you piloting a small drone through linear paths to reach even more keycards and switches.

The Visual Constitution

On the other hand, Blackwind’s presentation makes a great first impression. The introductory cutscene is told through a series of still images that look like they came straight out of a high quality comic book, with a striking style that immediately draws you into its finer details. I found myself craving more of them as I made my way deeper into the game, despite the so-so voiceovers.

This first impression also lingers when you switch over to the in-engine gameplay and you notice the more subtle touches, like the foliage swaying with the wind or the puffs of dirt that burst upwards from underfoot as you move. It’s just a shame that this attention to detail didn’t make its way to the individual levels themselves.

I also appreciated the way certain objects would crumple and break when you moved the Battle Frame into them, although this effect is hugely inconsistent (it’s weighty enough to cause an entire partition wall to crumble to dust, but is rendered completely immobile by a rack of dumbbells).

The audio work is another matter entirely. The sound effects are nothing short of tepid, which removes what little potential oomph the combat might have had. It often feels as though there’s a single sound effect for every action which, when combined with the fact that you’re doing the same things over and over again in Blackwind, makes for a decidedly negative auditory experience. The music is the most egregious offender on this front, with the same triplets and swelling chords repeating infinitely with little to no variation.

An Unfortunate Resolution

Blackwind is, lamentably, a solid game in concept only. There are the clear, visible bones of a good title here, but the paint-by-numbers execution of its ideas and the lack of polish on nearly all fronts is an Achilles’ Heel it doesn’t come close to overcoming.

It’s difficult to recommend on a story basis thanks to its generic narrative, and even harder to recommend on a gameplay basis thanks to the slew of glitches, loose controls, and boring progression. With more time and refinement, Blackwind could very well have been an enjoyable experience, but alas, it didn’t seem to be written in the stars.

~ Final Score: 4/10 ~

Review copy provided by Blowfish Studios for PS5. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Blowfish Studios.