An unknowable evil is looming in the vast countryside, and it has begun to unravel the fabric of the souls of men. A heinous corruption is spreading, and little by little the light that kept us all civil is turning man into beasts. Like a dying star that is engulfing life, the end of everything draws near.
Only small crews of vagabonds sustain what little structure of life remains for us all. These soldiers of a dead god hopelessly scrounge for a means to survive, and to keep the spawn of darkness at bay. Armed with the most meager of accouterments, the hunters tirelessly inflict their hatred upon the bodies of the profane scourge that torment their brothers.
The realm of Alder’s Blood is ceaselessly bleak. The adversity extends beyond just tone, but also how you’re constantly being hammered away gradually. A fruitless attrition that earns exhaustion and weariness.
Developer: Shockwork Games
Producer: No Gravity Games
Platforms: Windows PC, Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Release Date: March 13th, 2020
It is a harsh time to be alive. There are unspeakable beasts roaming the land, and mankind is on the verge of complete mental collapse. Men are becoming monsters and there is almost nothing that can be done about it. What remains is the last vestiges of humanity that is desperately trying to scrape by. This is an era of the death of God itself.
As a chief of a band of hunters, the player’s role is to command and see to the well being of the clan. This means directing every hunter on the field, and giving orders at camp to maintain the structure. Alder’s Blood has many systems to it, and it does go a bit too far at times in simulating a Lovecraftian apocalypse at the expense of enjoyment.
There are many extra steps added to immerse the player into the mindset of taking care of a pack of hunters who are desperately clinging to their sanity. When not battling indescribable horrors, it is important to manually assign some boys to specific tasks. Things like gathering food for traveling, and resting to regain lost HP are typically things gamers take for granted. Not in Alder’s Blood, however.
Some people might be put off by all these extra mechanics. They do bog down the experience and create a grubby middle man between the exciting encounters, but they are ultimately necessary for the ambiance and psychological mind-set that the designers want to put you in. This is supposed to be set in a primitive and harsh era, so the game’s friction should represent it.
Alder’s Blood is not coy with what influences inspired it. This is a turn-based strategy game like X-Com, where units have specific roles, and when they bite the dust it is permanent.
Maps have incremental movement and every action costs a bit of stamina, so placement is always under consideration. What makes Alder’s Blood so unique from similar strategy games is how it uses stealth and resource management.
There are moments that evoke memories of Oregon Trail, when having to manage sickly or insane party members. Making sure there is enough food to go around for long trips is also something that is ripped from the playbook of the 1971 edutainment classic. Heading out unprepared means potentially getting into a skirmish with a pack of ravenous wolf-men in a weakened state, or potentially ambushed.
Every encounter in Alder’s Blood is focused on stealth and stalking monsters. Units are able to become undetected if they are placed to obscure their line of sight. This works both ways between enemy units and the player units.
When going up against all manner of deranged beasts, one thing to always keep tabs on is the direction of the wind. This means life or death, since friendlies die quickly, and the only way to prevent a loss of an important unit is to stay down-wind. A lot of these creatures have heightened sense of smell, and can sniff you out if the wind blows your scent towards their direction.
Between laying traps and setting up elaborate distractions to get a back stab, these Victorian hunters can often feel like ninjas at times. Even the sound made from weapons have their own checks to them to consider when making actions, making placement utterly crucial when formulating maneuvers on the field.
As the unrelenting atmosphere would suggest, Alder’s Blood is an extremely difficult game. Important assets and resources are always gradually draining, and units are completely disposable and slowly turn insane the longer they must endure living. It can sometimes be taxing to find the will to continue to play due to how effective the narrative and ambiance manages to craft this depressing premise.
It is impressive how the designers were so uncompromising in their vision for a world always on the brink of collapse and constant atrophy. Dialogue is especially impressive and authentic to the time period that Alder’s Blood is inspire from. The various voice actors perform admirably, and give accurate dialects to the period.
Less impressive is the lengths the limited budget has been so thinly spread. Alder’s Blood is a game funded with a modest Kickstarter campaign, and it shows in the lacking animation. What little animation is present does look decent enough, but there are many instances of very crudely assembled motion comics or recycled assets that distract.
There are so few actual unit sprites that get recolored, you will notice them immediately before an hour into the game. The craftsmanship on the art assets ranges from beautiful, to amateurish. The best looking parts are in the battles, where the areas manage to not look like cheap tile sets, and everything looks distinct.
It is only during cutscenes when the presentation of Alder’s Blood falters. The art style is unappealing, and looks rushed. Animation is laughably quaint when they try to animate, which is a far cry from the impressive animations during battle.
A less ambitious approach would have been preferable if the budget could not meet their vision. As it stands, the cutscenes fail to convey the tone that the favor text manages to capture.
In an interesting twist, Alder’s Blood captures some of its most palpable atmosphere by its restrained and almost non existent music. There is very little actual music, and what makes this so immersive is how quiet it is. It is like being on the hunt and trying to be mindful of any unusual noises that might tip off that there might be a blood thirsty demon lurking in the tall grass.
The sound of rustling grass and the cries of a shrieker, followed by the punctuation of a blood-curdling fleshy tear is the symphonic splendor to be heard while playing.
The low murmuring and mumbles of a crazed hunter is not something easily forgotten. The glowing haze of the Switch’s screen at midnight, compounded with the sounds of madness quietly dripping from its speakers, is an experience that is not easily found on Nintendo consoles.
Anyone who enjoys the gameplay of X-Com will find quite a bit to like about with Alder’s Blood. The stealthy approach to strategic engagement is deftly executed, and has easy to read UI and menus.
The visuals may take a while to get used to and may not be to everyone’s taste, but they get the point across that this is a dystopian Victorian era nightmare. The animation in combat often looks great, but that is the extent the meager budget allotted the developers.
For $19.99, this is a substantial package of content that will be challenging to overcome. It won’t surpass similar games of this ilk, but is an interesting experiment in the genre that shows the possibilities of what can be done in turn-based gameplay.
Alder’s Blood was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a review copy provided by No Gravity Games. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.