Review: Doomblade

With a name like “Dread Lords” it was clear their rule wasn’t going to be one of peace and prosperity, and the extremity of their callousness has almost completely destroyed the underground kingdoms.  The Wilderkeep turned hostile, the Grublins live off the Dread Lords’ waste and the Darksprout don’t know what to do with themselves.  The Gloomfolk, however, got the worst of it, and now there’s only the single one left.  Gloom Girl is all alone, but the whispers she hears in the night call out to her with the promise of vengeance.

By herself, Gloom Girl is just about powerless. All she’s got is an average-sized jump and no attack capabilities at all.  It’s enough to get her where she needs to go, though, which is the hidden alcove where the Doomblade has been chained away for countless years.  The Doomblade is a sentient sword made up of equal parts anger and malice, and while maybe not necessarily evil, it’s certainly hungry for vengeance on those who locked it away.  That would be the Dread Lords, so between Gloom Girl’s people being oppressed into nonexistence and the sword’s imprisonment, there’s more than enough common ground for the two to team up.  Neither can do a thing without the other, but together they’re powerful beyond all reason.

Doomblade is a metroidvania that plays very differently from the genre standard.  Rather than run around and beat on things with the sword, Gloom Girl targets enemies and flies towards them, taking most out in a single hit.  It’s a system that makes for lightning-fast combat and traversal, especially in areas with both enemies and semi-permanent plants and critters to target.  Initially there are restrictions on where the vengeful pair can attack, but a regular supply of new abilities sees one after another dispensed with as the map slowly opens up.

Initially the Doomblade can only target enemies with a clear line towards them, no walls or obstacles in the way, and the earliest sections of the map are built with this in mind.  Flowers grow from walls and indestructible porcupines wander back and forth, and while both will cause damage if you touch them outside of an attack, they make zipping through the twisty corridors easy.  A little exploration turns up the first of many boss fights, though, and this is when both the Doomblade and Gloom Girl start earning abilities to make them much better suited to the adventure ahead.

Most of the Doomblade’s upgrades are focused on traversal.  A double-tap of the jump, for example, gives a short horizontal dash, and it doesn’t take too long before the pair can target enemies through walls.  Gloom Girl, on the other hand, has a wider variety of skills, such as auto-collecting the bones that are Doomblade‘s currency or throwing an onion that sprouts a targetable plant in sections of glowing green earth.  Each new ability is an upgrade worth the boss fight that earns it, and it’s easy to get pulled into re-exploring the map to see where it takes you and what secrets it can uncover.

Of course, you’ll need to do that anyway because Doomblade doesn’t have much use for hand-holding.  While a few things like save points and shops get marked, for the most part you’ll need to figure out where to go next through a combination of exploration and looking at incomplete rooms on the map.  It’s actually generous at filling in passageways and other sections you might overlook, so referring to it often and making sure all the walls of each room are filled in is a great way to track down secrets you might have otherwise missed.  There are plenty about, so a few hints from the map can go a long way towards chasing after 100% completion.  Bone repositories, lore monuments, profane artifacts to burn in the inferno, heart pieces to increase health, and more are all tucked away in odd corners, waiting to be found.

What really makes Doomblade work is the way everything flows together.  Exploration and combat are almost the same thing thanks to the targeting system, and both are equally dangerous.  It doesn’t take long for hazards to show up everywhere, whether that be gun turrets, exploding kamikaze enemies, or ambushes from those judging the Doomblade’s new wielder as unworthy, to thorns, arcs of electricity, laser gauntlets, and much more in the way of environmental threats.  Sometimes it’s a tricky to work out if something is a hazard or a tool, seeing as there’s a good possibility it might be both, but experimentation leads to figuring it out out and almost (but not quite) everything has a logical solution.  Doomblade is an absolute joy to play right up until its final difficulty spike near the end.

It’s not much of a spoiler to say that you’ll eventually be confronting the Dread Lords, and as powerful as they’re supposed to be, the confrontation needs to be epic.  While it does manage that, it’s also a brick wall that I can easily see most players deciding isn’t worth the countless deaths needed to learn the way through. It doesn’t help that it’s the first encounter in the game where I felt that the controller support failed, with it being far too easy to target enemies protected by a damage-inflicting shield rather than the smaller ones milling about that may drop a much-needed heart when killed.  There were more than a few difficult encounters on the journey to the Dread Lords, several of which took multiple tries to get right, but none of them felt unfair at all.  That’s simply not true of the Dread Lords encounter, which feels like it’s constantly betraying the player by sending them flying towards targets they very much know better than to attack.

Closing Comments:

Up until the Dread Lords, Doomblade is easily one of the best metroidvanias I’ve played in a long time.  The speed of the combat and responsiveness of controls feels great when the action heats up, and the difficulty balance is tuned so that more than a few times I ended up nursing one final HP of health through a dangerous room to discover a save point just beyond it.  The art in the game is excellent throughout, even as it illustrates the twisted darkness of the varying biomes in the Dread Lords’ domain.  Gloom Girl is great as a silent protagonist, with her character design being an endearing blend of cute and creepy, and the Doomblade’s vicious commentary adds personality enough for the two of them.  Doomblade is an incredible action-fest through a lively but broken underground world, and while one of its final major encounters is almost painfully non-fun, the journey there is irresistibly engaging from start to almost-finish.

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