My childhood was essentially full of spy fiction: with James Bond and Austin Powers dominating my film preferences, and Joanna Dark and Cate Archer filling up my gaming time, it’s safe to say that spies were very much my bag. Most of it oozed cheesiness, and it was absolutely fantastic.
So when I realised that the recently released Blast Brigade was all about bringing back that 90s spy action in Metroidvania form, it was safe to say that I was absolutely sold.
With such great theming, can the game itself pull it off?
Many thanks to the publishers for the review code
THE FANTASTIC FOUR
Every fan of spy fiction knows that an evil villain needs an evil lair, and Dr Cread is absolutely no exception. His secret nefarious hideout is deep in the heart of the jungle, complete with henchman, giant robots, even bigger lasers, alongside many other tropes.
Jeff Jefferson, one of the action spies working for the titular Blast Brigade, is on his way to put a stop to Dr Cread’s evil plan to … eat a donut, or something. The attempts at humour, especially with regards to the plot setup were hardly to my taste, and the annoyingly dumb hero also made me unsure about how the story would develop, but it does pick up as you delve further in. From ancient trials, tribal settlements, and mountaintop drilling operations, things definitely get far more interesting and it eventually starts to suck you into the world.
Jefferson is not alone on his journey either, as he will eventually regroup with both his comrades as well as some other hero-types who also want to see Dr Cread dead – including a cold-as-ice soviet sniper and a cyborg Scot. These additional characters all have their own unique abilities to make them stand out from one another, as well as far more likeable personalities too; heck, even Jeff becomes slightly more endearing by the end as he starts to build new friendships with his team.
BLASTING OFF AGAIN
As a Metroidvania, you’ll be doing lots of exploring and lots of combat – with quite a heavy emphasis on the latter. Combat involves using either your primary weapon, secondary weapon, or your ‘super weapon’ in order to take out your foes. The primary weapons are all essentially reskinned machine guns with infinite ammunition, whereas the more powerful secondary weapons are limited in ammo but are far more interesting. The shotgun you pick up, for example, deals pretty hefty close range damage but if it’s not in front of your face then it isn’t going to do jack-shit. The sniper rifle has a far longer range, but with only two bullets in a clip and a slow fire speed, it’s best kept for the right situations. Weapons can only be swapped out while resting in a hammock (more on those later), so you’ll need to choose the right weapon for the job if you want to succeed. These two weapons are shared by all four of your characters, but each character has their own special weapon that has extremely limited ammo. My favourite belongs to Shura, who packs a long-range laser pistol that can be upgraded to deal burning damage – something that makes short work of tougher foes and bosses.
Combat itself is pretty satisfying, even if evasive manoeuvres aren’t always the easiest to pull off. It works fine for the most part, but there’s a certain degree of clunkiness to the movement that makes avoiding some attacks feels a little more difficult to do than I’d hope for. As a splatformer aficionado, I’m used to having quick tight jumps, which are absent here. It’s rarely a problem when platforming and dealing with your garden-variety foes, but it can make boss encounters overly stressful.
Speaking of which, the boss fights are all pretty grandiose affairs and there are some fantastic boss designs on show here. Given how common games in the genre are, it’s surprising to see a game with some boss designs that feel pretty fresh. The problem with the bosses lie in the sheer difficulty spike when facing one. Your heroes aren’t able to take much damage before they die, whereas every single boss is an absolute damage sponge. It’s disheartening seeing the small slivers of health taken off when attacking them, and it makes fights go on for an excruciatingly long time. Patterns aren’t exactly unfair, but dealing with everything whilst not getting hit can be pretty tough. To make matters worse, save points tend to be far enough away from the boss that the journey after every death seems like a slog. The bosses could easily have been the standout moments of the game, but the overwhelming difficulty is so high that it will likely turn many players off.
NO MR JEFFERSON, I EXPECT YOU TO DIE!
Exploration, on the other hand, is a far more traditional fare for the most part. Over the course of the 20 hour or so adventure, you’ll be traversing your way through a range of beautiful and diverse environments. Lush jungles greet you on your entrance, but later on you’ll be destroying giant robots concealed inside a hollowed-out volcano. All of this exploration is to help you with your key goal of infiltrating Dr Cread’s secret villainous lair. One nice touch that I particularly liked was that the game gives you a sneak peek of the lair quite early on before kicking you back out again and searching for a way to regain entry.
There’s an array of items to aid your traversal, most of which will be things you’ve seen elsewhere. Dash? check. Wall climbing? Check. Grapple? Check. Some of these abilities will be usable across the four protagonists, whereas some are character specific and require you to flick between them at the press of a button. Whilst most of the upgrades aren’t particularly innovative, it’s the platforming challenges within the environments themselves that steal the show. There are some really great and challenging platform challenges throughout that put your skills to the test, including conspicuous rooms that have no exit, which present the most difficult challenges and reward you with something special – namely a heart piece or one of the ultimate weapon parts.
There are also coins and building parts too that you can collect along your journey that you can use to purchase further upgrades or to give your main jungle base a bit of an expansion. Characters you meet along the way will also allow for more items and weapons to be obtained, so it’s recommended to go back every so often to make sure you’re kitted out with the best gear.
And you will need to stay strong because the game is punishingly difficult. As mentioned earlier, bosses are incredibly tough, as are some of the platforming challenges you’ll face. The hammocks you use to save your progress and restore health are also pretty sporadically placed; some are close to each other, whereas others are painfully far apart. When you die (and you will), expect a long slog back to where you died. You can open shortcuts to help make things a little easier, but they still don’t help too much with the backtracking you’ll frequently have to do. I honestly felt like at least half of my playtime involved doing the same thing again and again. The game is certainly on the harder end of the scale, perhaps even more so than 8doors: Arums’s Afterlife Adventure and Blasphemous, but the sparse checkpoint placement often makes it seem unfairly punishing and that will no doubt turn many players off. Having a handful more hammocks dotted around and reducing the boss health bars by a reasonable chunk would easily make the game one of the best in the genre, so I really hope the developer addresses the balancing in a future patch.
I really enjoyed Blast Brigade vs the Evil Legion of Dr. Cread, but it’s spoiled a little by sparse checkpoint placement and overly spongey boss fights. It has a lot of charm and some great level design, but if you’re not prepared for a hardcore experience then you’ll probably end up abandoning this mission.