When it comes to Blizzard, my first experience with them was with the excellent The Lost Vikings. I cannot deny the impact the Craft and Diablo entries had on gaming as a whole, but I always found it a shame that the studio’s other titles did not get nearly as much recognition. Thankfully, the Arcade Collection gave many of these projects a chance in the spotlight, with one of my favourites being the subject for today’s review. Although, not only would I be greeted with the SNES and Sega 32X adaptations, but also a definitive edition! Of course, I ended up playing through all three versions back to back, since what else do you do with such a gift? Besides writing an article to talk more about them, that is.
The prince with a shotgun
On the planet Tuul, the latest shaman and ruler Thoros had his two children join him in the desert where he committed suicide. With his body turning into two stones, one light and one dark, the sons took one each as a symbol of which part of the kingdom they would lead with their father gone. The people of the Lightstone created the realm of Androthi, while those who aligned with the Darkstone formed Ka’dra’suul.
Androthi enjoyed peace and respected their majesty, but the inhabitants of Ka’dra’suul rejected both due to their evil nature and thus turned into monsters themselves. One of the rebels named Sarlac took control over the land of the Darkstone, with their neighbouring country being his next target. Fearing for his son’s life, the King of Androthi sends him to earth with the aid of the magician Galadril. Twenty years later, the eir known as Kyle has become a buff mercenary who even worked as a military captain once, though unfortunately ended up in prison. After escaping it, he begins having strange dreams and is eventually met by the sovereign’s sorcerer again who tells the young warrior that it is time to return to Tuul and save his people.
This is quite an impressive plot for a title that does not focus on a story. In fact, all of this is in the manual with the game presenting an abridged version where we see the prince being sent to earth for safety and then teleported back to his land when he is muscular enough to annihilate his enemies. Honestly, both are nice setups and offer two choices in narration; either a meaty introduction to what is going on or a simple excuse to kill vicious creatures with a shotgun.
However, Blackthorne is all about its gameplay and it is an interesting take on its genre. Being a slow-paced and cinematic platformer where you have tile-based movement, every step counts and you will notice this as soon as you see one of your foes. Playing as Kyle, you can at any time lean into the background to dodge any ranged weapons, whether they are bombs or different projectiles. When you are out in the open, you can shoot with your shotgun that has unlimited ammo. It can only be aimed in a horizontal manner and used while standing still or crouching. Since the opponents can do the same, including stepping away from the line of sight, it becomes tense whenever combat is initiated as you have to read their motions carefully for getting out unharmed and with their lives vaporised.
Every action is responsive, so it all relies on you being quick and keeping a calm mind. It will be far from easy though, as the fiends have various approaches. For example; some do not need to reload their firearms and others will do melee attacks that you cannot hide from, making you consider how to take on each adversary. If that was not enough, you yourself have to prepare. Taking out your weapon gives you a fighting stance in comparison to the original one for platforming and you are only able to do so in the opening! In other words; you cannot be too hasty. Luckily, due to that there will be times when you have to take on multiple enemies, you can also fire behind your back for dealing less damage, which is a neat touch.
Just as important as the battles are the puzzles. Within each stage, you will need to find your way out by destroying constructions, discovering secret paths, and generally figuring out the area’s structure. It never becomes mundane, as you might have to bomb machinery that is out of your reach initially or talk to prisoners to get clues on what to do next. Since these are well made, all the small brain teasers turn into lovely breathers between the tense shootouts.
Further keeping you on your toes are traps and crumbling tiles, with none coming off as unfair due to their clear visual indications. Since the levels are also short enough to not be overbearing, I never needed a map, even if it would have been helpful. Thankfully, the definitive edition added in one that is automatically made as you explore, and I applaud the developers for this. Also included, is the ability to save the game instead of getting a password after each checkpoint, though both are sufficient for getting you back to where you left off.
You can also pick up supportive items like healing potions, reusable cards for activating bridges, keys to unlock doors, levitations that conjures a pillar to reach higher ledges with, and three different kinds of bombs to toss. There is one type that hovers alongside the ground, another that creates a range of fire, and the final wasp version which can fly and is manually controlled. Especially the former and latter explosive units are used for progression, which could have been an issue if you wasted them on foes. Luckily, it is always made obvious if you should save them and you can restart any stage from the pause menu.
These tools can be found in the open, taken from defeated villains or acquired from friendly survivors. Although, these poor souls can effortlessly die from being shot at by anyone, including you, so you cannot be too trigger-happy. One nice detail is that should they meet their demise, they will still leave behind the knickknacks they held, but will not give any hints on what to do or indications of how miserable their lives are. After each level, your HP will be restored and your trinkets will be gone, making it so you can never hoard and have to be careful with every step.
However, you do get some wonderful upgrades throughout your journey. Besides increased max health, you get three enhancements to your shotgun; neglection to reloading, automatic fire, and explosive ammunitions. This is a great way to make you feel stronger while still keeping the challenge high, as the villains will still not pull any punches and demand you to use your devices with quick reactions and keep your head cool.
Regrettably, the platforming can make the decently long stages annoying. Despite that jumping both upwards and forward from a standstill is easy to execute for some good exploration, the gaps that require you to run before a leap are unresponsive due to the tile-based structure. There are efforts to make you get used to this mechanic, such as the practice mode and Kyle being capable of clinging onto ledges, but it is a huge reason for frustrations in the early parts of the adventure and glaring contrast to the overall slow pace. It never takes too long to get back to where you were if you fall, but it is still a problematic inclusion.
Also, there is only one boss in the entire campaign, which is the final encounter. He is insanely fast and can seem impossible at first, yet is not hard at all to take down because of his blatant patterns. It was actually here I even cared to use my ability to roll on the ground in order to dodge his melee attacks, though it is a shame I never needed it until this point. Thankfully, these are the only minor issues in an otherwise fantastic sidescroller. With generally excellent level design and engaging puzzles breaking up the exhilarating combat, this is a superb product that will keep you hooked for the three to four hours it takes to get through it.
Gameplay Score: 8/10
90’s darkness was fun
It might be odd to say, but I love how silly and cool the style of Blackthorne is. We have orcs with cartoony looks, prisoners with hair so long you know they got taken away from their metal concerts, and the main character is the best. He has black sunglasses on even inside dimly lit caverns, wears a white shirt to show off his muscles, and can use one arm to shoot with his shotgun. None of these makes practical sense, but is all taken into account to make this title have a grim yet entertaining tone.
Everyone’s animations are beautifully rendered to make every action smooth, which is due to this being a cinematic platformer with plenty of frames to boot. Seeing any fiend drop to the ground never gets old to me because of this, and the rest is just as mesmerising. There is a solid selection of foes to kill too, such as plant monsters, rock creatures, and even other humans that have turned against you. Although, they all are guilty of colour swapping for distinguishing the stronger types, which is difficult to ignore.
Keeping up the exciting journey are four gorgeous locations; a mining cave, a forest with purple trees, a wasteland holding strange structures, and a foreboding castle. However, there are not many set pieces to speak of. These places never become dull because of their impressive work and unique opponents, but the sections within each zone do little to stand out from one another. What is remarkable otherwise, are the cutscenes with magnificent pictures and minor movements that make them immersive. Lastly, I wish to highlight the neat borders in the definitive version which displays specific ones depending on where you are!
The ominous music is admirable too. Whether it is the quick beats within the woods or the marching rhythm with unnerving chimes inside the chateau, all are great at setting a similar horror atmosphere while enhancing the different environments. Since there are only four areas, these can be repetitive but have enough variety to be enjoyable in their own right. The rest of the audio is unfortunately not as good. I will say that the grunts, explosions, and weapons firing are serviceable, though a more powerful punch would have certainly been welcomed.
All of this mainly refers to the SNES port, which the definitive edition also bases itself on. The one for the PC features blood and slightly better sounds for your shotgun, but the tracks are odd mixtures of notes that are fast and forgettable. Probably the most fascinating version, is the 32X one, as it has exclusive snow levels for more diversity, some interesting visual alterations, and gorgeous weather effects. Sadly, the pseudo-3D models are downright ugly and the audio is completely butchered, which is why I focused on my personal favourite adaptations, despite this one having more stages.
Presentation Score: 8/10
Blackthorne provides an outstanding experience. It focuses on tense combat with careful movement, which is broken up by engaging puzzles and exploration, all with a gorgeous 90’s dark style that is hard to not smile at. It does falter with a couple of leaps that are unnecessarily tough to make and some minor improvements to the presentation would not have hurt, but these gripes do not hinder this from being still one of the best games Blizzard has ever made.