X-Blades (PlayStation 3) review
"Ayumi has to be somebody's wet dream. The press releases talk-up the sexy art style, and emphasize how both action and anime fans will slobber over her figure and fighting moves. And no doubt, some people will be drawn to her brash attitude. But the girl can only take the game so far, and she's been outfitted in a stagnant ensemble."
The heroine of X-Blades has to be somebody's wet dream. Ayumi's confident in her hourglass figure. She fights in a bikini top, leaving her cinched waist completely bare. Her long blonde hair, curiously styled into three ponytails, trails down to her ass, but doesn't cover it any more than her floss-thin g-string. She's also sure of her abilities – unabashedly crowning herself the best treasure hunter around – and she always works alone in order to maximize profits. I'd call her arrogant, greedy and vain; her skimpy clothes can't hide her attitude any more than they can cover for this otherwise ordinary third-person action adventure. But Ayumi wouldn't care about my insults. Mama needs a new pair of shoes! (Along with everything else.)
Surprisingly, the material girl's quest for loot doesn't last long. The intro movie supplies her with a treasure map. By the end of the single-level tutorial, she's an arm's length from her target, an ancient artifact of incredible power. That's when a very large, very fierce lion guardian storms into her personal space, warning of the relic's dire effect: it's fatal to humans. You know she grabs it anyway. So now, a horrible darkness occasionally oozes from every pore of her body. New priority: remove the curse before it consumes her gluttonous soul. And maybe rescue the world from her blunder in the process. (The infrequent cutscenes gloss over that minor point.)
To save her own skin, the battling beauty will have to go hackin' and slashin' through a glut of monsters, though she'll run into the same five or six species over and over again. Her twin blades handle the neverending melees, chopping fleshy chunks from hordes of bipedal lizards. The swords also function as guns, but don't expect the aerial artistry of a Devil May Cry. These peashooters simply allow her to pick off airborne ghouls and skittering scorpions too short to slice. Instead, magic constitutes the most important part of her long-range arsenal, although new spells must be purchased with the souls of vanquished enemies. She'll fire off beams of ice, balls of fire, rays of brilliant light, and bolts of lightning. These basic pyrotechnics are deadly, but they're only stylish enough to light up the screen.
Even with multiple murderous methods at Ayumi's disposal, X-Blades predictably runs into a rut. Combat follows a standard formula: our girl walks into the next room, and the enemies that come flooding out fall into two categories. Most are disposable. They'll endlessly respawn until the boss is dead, swarming and grinding around Ayumi like she's the hottest girl on the dance floor. Their purpose is as much to immobilize her as it is to attack. That's because the primary target – be it a grotesque spider, an oversized six-winged dragonfly, or simply a limited array of otherwise regular enemies – is generally content to lob magic attacks from afar. Their form hardly matters, and you can counter with a similar strategy. Attacking the drones builds up Ayumi's rage, which gives her access to magic, which she can then use to tickle the boss' weakness. In this way, the first level doesn't really seem that much different from the last.
There's a better reason for that feeling of deja vu, because the first location you enter is also the last. For the opening half of the game, Ayumi carves a destructive path through the timeworn tower, smashing its intricate stone statues to itty bits, before reaching her salvation at the top. The second half she scambles back out, brawling through all the same areas, destroying the same archeological artifacts. Except this time it's evening. So it's... completely different? Not really. The enemies aren't that much stronger. It's just a little darker.
If the weathered, beige stone and crumbling walls were better designed to strike a balance between extermination and exploration, then the return trip actually could've been enjoyable. Ayumi can pull off somersaulting double jumps; she can lunge low into an elusive roll. These maneuvers beg for maps with leaping shortcuts, hidden passages, and other secrets an adept plunderer could discover. Instead, the ruins present mostly circular arenas and long corridors, fostering straightforward combat. For the few two-tiered levels, it's enough to stick to the stairs. One of the bosses, an anonymous icy comet that can dive in and freeze Ayumi's movement, will even wait patienty if you retreat up the steps to his domain's cramped entryway. When she's outside in the open, like in a sandy cove, a similar respite is all she'll find amongst the far flung rocks. An invisible wall even keeps her out of the water, though she's dressed perfectly for a dip.
Since you already have to trek through these empty areas twice, the game at least lays off punishing you in the event of Ayumi's unfortunate demise. It simply sends you back to the beginning of the current room, with all your collected spoils intact. Death can actually be quite profitable! For both parties in fact, as she can always bribe the reaper, too. A proportionately tiny amount of souls can purchase a refill of health whenever she needs it. Just pop open the menu and buy. Forget caution. Focus on instant gratification. Ayumi wouldn't have it any other way.
Unfortunately, you won't find true satisfaction here. Hack-and-slashes are naturally repetitive, but X-Blades takes it to a disappointing degree. Surely everyone involved in its production would love for Ayumi to become the new pin-up girl of adventuring. Their press releases talk up the sexy art style, and emphasize how both action and anime fans will slobber over her figure and fighting moves. Some people may even be drawn to her brash attitude; it certainly never changes because of her mistakes. No matter her debatable charms, though, the girl can only take the game so far, and she's been outfitted in a stagnant ensemble. The tailors of this mediocre enterprise should see the reality better than anyone; Ayumi may have style, but she's not wearing any clothes.
Freelance review by Benjamin Woodhouse (February 27, 2009)
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