Blaze and Blade is an inventive concept - an RPG which can be played both multiplayer and single player. It's a brave attempt that tries to bridge the gap between regular sat-around-the-tabletop RPGs and console RPGs, but does it work?
Let's start on a positive footnote; character generation in B&B is a dream. Rather than accepting whatever character the computer shuffles on to you, you get design the character you want to play, just like in a "real" RPG. Sure you can play a mighty warrior, but you can also play a rogue, a sorceror, or any one of eight characters. You choose and assign your attributes as you see fit between Luck, Intelligence, Power, Strength and several others. You also get to choose the element you are aligned with, your sex and your manner of speaking. No other Playstation RPG that I know of offers you this much opportunity. It pays off too! Having created a character you have far more sense of belonging to them than you would otherwise. Spyro the Dragon was a great game but the game was so cutesy you wished the central character had been drowned at birth.
Even though chaacter generation vastly improves the replayability of this game, the luxury of choice comes with a downside. Character development is not a case of discovering who you are and your relationship with the rest of the world, but rather amassing experience points and increasing your characteristics. B&B is heavy on the action and light on the interaction, NPCs (Non-Player Characters) exist to tell you about the next dungeon or replenish your herb supply and very little else. The storyline, what there is of it, is wander to various dungeons, fight your way down to the boss, kill it and nick its magic stone. Don't expect War and Peace - this isn't a true console RPG, such as Final Fantasy VII or Wild Arms, where speaking to others uncovers the secrets of the game or fleshes out the world to make the game seem more realistic - the NPCs in B&B serve only to further the game. Think of Diablo and you'll be thinking on the right lines - its an arcade-players RPG rather than a true console RPG.
The controls for B&B are a mixed bag. The base keys are definable (other Playstation games take note) and if you've played Zelda or Alundra you'll be cutting your way through swathes of bad guys in no time. One button controls striking, one is used for jumping and a third is used for your special power, whether that be spellcasting, using your shield or applying herbs. Dodging is a matter of keeping out of the way using the directional keys or analogue joystick.
Its just as well that the basic keys are simple to use as the complementary keys are awful. Start brings up your menu but to cycle through it you need to use left, right, up, down and the shoulder buttons. Trying to find out what items your character is currently carrying or locate the map is a time-consuming affair, although one that you do eventually get used to. More annoying is trying to use items - you can't do it from the menu, you have to do it through icons whilst fighting in real-time and as many of the icons look similar its quite easy to use the wrong potion or cast the wrong spell.
You can also zoom in, zoom out (essential in multi-player), get a birds eye view, rotate the screen and turn on camera-tracking, which automatically rotates the screen for you. These keys are a really nice touch but they should have been playtested. The first thing you'll notice is that the rotate keys are counter-intuitive, there's no way to redefine them and they rotate in real-time. Also the camera-tracking is ill-advised, you will spend a lot of time being falling off of cliffs if you try to use it. Also the Birds eye view is toggle-on, toggle-off but it only lasts about five seconds then you have to reuse it. These controls aren't always necessary and you can live with them but a little bit more work should have been spent upon them.
Some of the other controls in the game are counter-intuitive too. If you pick up an item and want to give it to another character you have to leave the game and go to the auction screen and then sell the item to the other player. An inventive option but one which disrupts the flow of the game, especially as all items must be sold for a minimum price - you can't just swap items or trade favours. Evidently the heroes in Blaze and Blade are capitalists who know nothing of charity. Furthermore some items can't be auctioned off and, as the only use for money is in auctions, its all feels very arbitrary. It would have been better to have had a shop at the inn and for characters to be give each other items whenever they needed to.
The music in this game is standard RPG fare. It's all tinkle-tonkle-lift -musak, definitely an acquired taste. Leave the sound on if you like that kind of stuff but personally I turned it off and put on the stereo instead. Later on you can change it by speaking to the bard at the inn but by that time I was past caring. The sound is much of a muchness. It suffices but it won't set the world alight. Likewise this game will not win the Turner Prize for its graphics, but quite frankly it doesn't need to. With the exception of some of the icons, you can make out everything you need to and the graphics are acceptable for the gameplay.
Speaking of gameplay, you need to divide the gameplay into two subsets when considering this game. As a single-player game this game isn't bad. The game plays like Alundra, Diablo or Gauntlet. There is a good mix of puzzles (which don't exactly tax the brain but might stump you for five minutes or so) and action. More entertaining is the clever design of many levels to prevent the game becoming to samey. Some levels are straight- out slugfests, but others take place on narrow precipices, or with the monsters hiding behind walls shooting arrows at you, or in tunnels of falling boulders, or jumping from log to log on a fast flowing river, or on a spiral staircase, or any number of a hundred and one different locations, all with their own traps, trials and tribulations.
The gameplay really comes alive when you play in a group. Remember when Gauntlet first came out - so it was OK when you played it on your own but the best fun was in a four-player game when you could steal other peoples treasure or stitch them up whilst Death drained their life-force, or even, Heavens-to-Betsy, cooperate and see how far you can get down the dungoen. The same goes Blaze and Blade, although I would advise taking a more cooperative approach to begin with.
Much has been said of the difficulties of getting four people together to play a Playstation game, but this is no more difficult than getting people together to play poker, or go down the pub, or play a standard tabletop RPG. In fact we often played a standard RPG 'til ten then played B&B until Midnight. The game does not require four people to play it and if a player misses out on a couple of hours of gameplay it's not the end of the world. Indeed the computer can even control other player characters, allowing two or three players to play, whilst setting up the missing player under computer control. Bear in mind that the AI tends to be "Follow-the-leader" they won't attempt to grab treasure, they'll only attack monsters when they come into range and they'll follow you lemming- like off the edges of cliffs and into pools of acid.
Should you buy this game or should you rent it? This is a game you need to rent first, preferably with several mates to experience the full flavour of the game. If you have the patience to stick with the controls then go out and you (and your friends) enjoyed the game then buy it, as there is no way you'll finish this game in one night. One more word of warning - if you want to save and load games make sure you have a lot of slots on your memeory card - this game takes three slots per character, so a four player game will take twelve slots, or most of your card.
Talking on saving brings me on to the final niggle I have with this game. The saving mechanism is practically amnesiac. For reasons known only to itself the game resets some of the dungeons after you have returned to the inn to save the game. It can be frustrating to have conquered three levels of dungeon, return to the inn and save the game just to find next time you load it you have to redo the dungeon from scratch. This is a serious problem and should have been rectified prior to the game coming out.If my review comes over as very negative it isn't meant to be. This game has many fine points and will keep you occupied for a long time. I can recommend it as a fun, addictive game, especially in multi-player mode. It is an inventive idea that is due recognition but has many unergonomic features which should have been smoothed out during playtesting. Nonetheless, if you can forgive the shortcomings Blaze and Blade shows excellent potential and is a worthwhile diversion for any RPG-player who likes a lot of arcade action