Thursday, February 4, 2021

Blue Fire (PC, NSW) Review

Our first review for the month of February is for a game that was featured in a Nintendo Indie World presentation last year. It also just so happens to launch today on both the Nintendo Switch and Steam. It's Blue Fire, a game with lots of ideas crammed into one 3D action-platforming package. Does each idea play nicely with the others? Let's find out with the SPC review.

A blazing success rather than a weak ember of an effort

From Graffiti Games and Robi Studios enters Blue Fire, an amalgamation of different ideas inspired by various well-known games. You have the same penalty for death, a challenging difficulty, and a brooding yet whimsical world similar to Hollow Knight, you have the dungeon-like design of the 3D Legend of Zelda games, and finally, you have the platforming and bonus-like levels like you'd see in a 3D Mario. Under less skilled, less capable hands, this assortment of styles and ideas could easily have become an uncontrollable, messy Frankenstein-like monster, but instead, Blue Fire ends up being a stellar 3D action-platformer with considerably excellent execution.

Blue Fire takes place in a sprawling floating castle world called Penumbra. Formerly protected by the gods, the castle has since been corrupted by shadows, turning the once peaceful place to a nightmarish hellscape where only the brave dare wander. As the pint-sized protagonist (but definitely not one to underestimate), you travel through the mysterious dungeon-like world, exploring every nook and cranny, uncovering treasure, parkour-ing your way past dangers, hacking and slashing your way through enemies, and helping survivors out with their problems.

Our silent hero can find and equip numerous attack-increasing swords, as well as discover
 fashionable new tunics to wear. After all, all the cool Penumbrans are wearing them!
Familiar ideas abound in Blue Fire, but they're all combined in a way that winds up as fresh and ultimately innovative. In a sense, Blue Fire is a 3D Hollow Knight that uses Zelda's dungeon-like design in how the developers crafted its world, while using Mario's methods of platforming traversal--albeit nowhere near as polished or fully faceted feature-wise--to make its adventure. 

Starting with the clear Hollow Knight influences, there's of course the dark and dismal world of Penumbra itself. Colorful vistas you are not going to see in Blue Fire's world. In their stead are areas like the gray, stone, dilapidated corridors of the Fire Keep, the grungy green sewers of the Arcane Tunnels, and the icy, cold, blue chill of the wintry Abandoned Path. Now, this isn't to say that the game isn't a looker, as that couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, between the uniquely shaded characters and the absolutely massive areas teeming with wonderful details, Blue Fire is a graphically impressive game. It ran nearly flawlessly during my time with the Steam version. I say "nearly flawlessly" as I did suffer from three game crashes, each happening when attempting to move between areas, whether through warping/fast travel or simply passing through an entrance. Fortunately, no major progress was lost. 

The Hollow Knight influences don't stop with just Blue Fire's looks. There are gameplay ideas borrowed as well, such as losing all of your ore--the currency of the game--upon death and needing to return to the place of your demise to regain it all back. Die before you reach your "ghost" and that precious ore is gone for good. Thankfully, the ore comes relatively easily in Blue Fire, and that's positively a good thing, as you'll be needing it for all sorts of things. I'm referring to things like creating new save and warp points via unlocking Fire Shrines, paying various NPCs for goods like new swords, new tunics and special items, and even making progress in the game at times. Then, there's the Blue Fire itself, which basically amount to potions that can be stored in our hero's supply. When his health approaches dangerous levels, you can risk healing yourself by becoming temporarily vulnerable (and by having your feet firmly planted on the ground). It's easy enough when there are plenty of quiet moments during exploration to hide and heal, but in battles, not so much. Through a special shop and from completing specific side quests, you can earn the ability to hold more Blue Fire at once, up to ten.

Finally, much like the Charms of Hollow Knight, there are the Spirits in Blue Fire that can be found or purchased throughout Penumbra. These give our hero various bonuses and abilities, like increased height to his jump, faster movement speed, higher amounts of ore received, and even some bonuses too cool to spoil. There was less of a worry about having to choose between Spirits because you earn them so slowly, and because you can purchase multiple new slots. I ended up with eight slots or so by the end of the game, giving me more than I actually needed.

Our hero starts off relatively weak and lacking in traversal options at the beginning of the game. As you explore Penumbra and enter into the game's clearly Zelda-inspired temples, you discover new abilities, such as a super helpful dash that can be performed on the ground or in midair, the always popular double jump, and even the ability to sprint along walls and perform leap from wall to wall. As these abilities unlock, I found myself returning to past areas, exploring new spots and uncovering not just new treasures that I originally couldn't reach, but also uncovering new methods of parkouring around Penumbra itself. What was once slow-going to get through an area, now I could bypass significant sections thanks to my new wall-riding, wall jumping, dashing and double jumping abilities. Chaining platforming maneuvers together while moving about Penumbra is engaging and just plain fun to do. 

One of many Voids seen in Blue Fire. Beware: tough platforming challenges await!
Your platforming abilities will get put to the ultimate test in Blue Fire's Voids, of which there are 16 total, hidden around Penumbra. Upon completion, each one gives our hero an added heart to his health count. Voids are essentially obstacle-laden courses focused on a given theme that require patience, persistence, and maybe a little self-loathing to finally beat. Some are as simple as leaping from platform to platform over the abyss, while later Voids get downright devilish in their designs. One needed me to carefully run along walls, requiring jumps from wall to wall or else my little guy would run into a patch of spikes. As the wall continued, the patches of spikes increased and the safe spots to leap off the walls narrowed. By the end of my masochistic journey of completing every Void (this is not my attempt at a stealth brag, by the way), I weaved my way through spinning blades, ran along walls through saw-filled corridors with nary a solid piece of footing to catch my breath, and sweated buckets as I finally overcame the most dastardly of challenges. These Voids are where the most difficult content in Blue Fire rests, at least platforming-wise. 

Our hero's parkour skills are leaps and bounds above the rest.
At the same time, occasionally I felt that some of the actions that the developers asked too much of me in these Voids. From lengthy platforming levels that generally have just one really tough spot at the end, where if you die at it (and you probably will until you learn how to take it just right), you have to restart the entire Void just to get back to that part (and then probably die again). These Voids can be multiple minute-long affairs, so that adds up. Additionally, one particular five-star difficulty Void required both precise platforming and simultaneous mastery of the camera to finagle it to the right angle on the fly. 'Else I'd meet a spike-filled fate, which happened more often than not due to needing to turn the camera 180 degrees in midair with little time to spare.

When your evasion skills aren't up to snuff, just go ahead and shield yourself instead.
(Just be sure to watch that Mana gauge of yours!)
Combat-wise, Blue Fire is also enjoyable. Our hero has a small but worthwhile repertoire of moves to take from their bag of tricks. When enemies lunge at you, you can use a protective shield barrier with the right time to properly parry with perfect precision. This temporarily (and very temporarily, might I add) stuns them, giving you a chance to smack some sense into them with your swords. Enemies can be targeted, Zelda-style, enabling you to keep them centered as your main focus, and even allowing you to dash into them. The latter is great for the many midair enemies in the game, where you can perform a three slash combo before darting back to the ground below. Here, the platforming in Blue Fire isn't just a means to get around, but it's a means to both evade and defeat foes. It makes for an interesting intersection of mechanics and some truly stylish combat at that.

Whoa! Talk about "cutting" it close!
Meanwhile, the bosses in Blue Fire don't really give a great first impression. The starting two bosses, both in the game's temples (more on those in the next paragraph), do less than excite with basic attacks and rather boring patterns. But, as the game goes on and you face more challenging foes, things get more complex, more interesting, and require all your knowhow of the game's mechanics to survive. The final boss, which of course I won't spoil, was a nail-biter, pulse-pounder and sweat-inducer, requiring mastery of both my platforming and combat abilities to overcome.

I mentioned Zelda-like dungeons earlier, but really, Penumbra as a whole is designed like a series of interconnected dungeons with the occasional temples (the "dungeon dungeons", if you will), where there's less of a focus on brain teasers and logic puzzles and more of a focus on pure platforming puzzles. It's about HOW you use your platforming abilities to reach specific areas and treasures and WHAT skills you use to get there. I was a bit disappointed that by after the second and final temple that there were no more to complete. I enjoy the whole "exploring rooms, gathering keys to open doors, battling bosses" formula of the Zelda series, so it was a touch unfortunate that by the second half of the game, this formula was all but thrown out. I wouldn't say I felt cheated or caught a swerve, but it was disappointing nonetheless. 

That said, what follows instead in Blue Fire is mostly still great and enjoyable to play, which is the most important thing. Well, that is save for a late-game Twilight Princess "Tears of Light"-esque fetch quest that merely pads the length of the adventure, which left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. Returning to past areas to comb through them for collectables wasn't much fun in Wind Waker, it wasn't that much fun in Metroid Prime, and being forced to stop the journey to do this in Blue Fire wasn't too entertaining here either. 

The survivors in Penumbra sure are a spirited bunch.
Blue Fire lasted me about 11 hours to reach 95% completion. I imagine everything else I need to do regards purchasing all the remaining Spirits and items in the shops. When you beat the game initially, a new, more punishing difficulty unlocks. Starting off, though, with Blue Fire, you get two difficulties to choose from, the much more welcoming newcomer mode or the recommended "recommended" difficulty. Either way, you're bound to have a mode that caters to your skill level and be immensely challenged regardless.

I've compared Blue Fire to a lot of games in this review, and it's not meant to be a disservice to the game whatsoever. In fact, the developers managed to take bits, pieces and ideas from several games and craft their own wonderful creation out of them. Blue Fire essentially takes some of the best elements of each of its inspirations to create a cohesive and ultimately delightful-to-play whole. There are certainly some rough spots that are apparent--occasional bugs, occasional glitches here and there--but overall, Blue Fire remains a terrifically challenging and mighty exciting adventure from beginning to end. This flame certainly burns bright.

[SPC Says: B+]

A Steam code was received by SPC from the publisher for the purpose of writing this review.

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