Bloodmasque review

Matthew Lee September 3, 2013 - 5:00 pm

Get your best gothic finery out of the closet and practice that cheeky smirk: Square Enix invite you to go vampire-hunting in Paris with their latest mobile franchise, Bloodmasque.

What is Bloodmasque? The temptation with Square Enix’s latest mobile franchise is to call it an Infinity Blade knock-off, and that’s not entirely wide of the mark. It’s a swipe-fighter, a game where you battle enemies one by one and drag your finger across the touchscreen to chop at them with a sharpened length of metal until they fall over. But if you think in terms of how it feels to play, Bloodmasque is more like, oh, say Dead Rising.

We’re talking a florid gothic soap opera where you can watch as a simpering vampire kills an innocent child in front of you, then take him down alongside an ally with a Me Gusta-face who’s cross-dressing in a flouncing chorus girl’s dress. It’s this balance between genuinely unnerving horror and high camp played deadly straight that makes Bloodmasque much more than yet another game riding on Epic Games’ coat-tails.

I feel like human tonight, human tonight…

The setting is an alternate 19th century Paris, in a world where fanged bloodsuckers have trounced humanity on all fronts and now keep us as slaves, snatching luckless peons in broad daylight whenever they feel like a quick snack. The only people with a chance of overthrowing this reign of terror are the half-breeds – vampire-human mongrels organising a resistance movement beneath the streets.

As a new recruit to the Paris branch you’re charged with both guerilla strikes against the vamps and following up narrative missions, where you discover how to deliver a real, lasting blow against humanity’s new overlords. In your downtime you tool up for the next fight, sorting through your spoils with bigger and better weapons that afford you buffs and one-shot magical powers to swing the odds in your favour.

Paris is divided into hub levels that open up one by one as you progress. You can explore these hubs at your own pace, taking in the scenery, uncovering stashes of hidden loot and tracking down resistance contacts. There are two types of missions: story sequences, bookended with cutscenes, and more mundane vampire hunts with a few lines of flavour text, but with both you find the contact, then proceed to the actual fighting.

Said fighting is in many respects a lot simpler than Infinity Blade, to be honest. You’re standing a few feet apart exchanging blows and looking for an opening, but you can only dodge your enemies’ attacks – no blocks or parries (though annoyingly some of them can do this to you). You get to use magic, but it’s simply a matter of causing a certain amount of damage and automatically triggering the effects.

What makes Bloodmasque different is its odd decision to turn the business of hunting vampires into an excuse to socialise. Before every bout you get to choose two allies to tag along – these are AI-controlled, but it uses other players’ avatars, who you can see standing around in the level hubs while you’re exploring. It’s not just to ensure weight of numbers, either. Allies will use any buffs they’ve already collected, and their special powers can even take effect on you, while the fight lasts.

This adds an extra layer of strategy, as it’s not simply about making yourself stronger. Prospective allies might have an elemental affinity that means defeated foes drop more gold, or rarer items. They might be able to smash through enemy blocks, or weaken or paralyse them if they’re hitting too hard. You can even make things tougher for yourself if you want some extra experience gains.

Dodge at just the right moment and after a brief burst of slow-motion you can whale on your enemy with a flurry of counter-moves. Simplicity aside, the sheer pace of the combat makes it far more immediately exciting than just about anything else in the genre, not least because you have to stop ducking and diving to let your allies get a shot in.

This isn’t even my final form!

Successful counters charge up your special meter. Fill that and you and your friends can pull off a QTE super move which, if done correctly, takes a big bite out of the enemy’s health bar. Inflict enough damage and the unlucky vampire gets mad, changing into their horrid, bestial true form: wear them down again and it’s out with the stake, with another QTE to try and drain maximum blood with which you (and your allies) level up.

All this makes for a solid and even somewhat novel touchscreen fighter, but it’s the terrific production values, worldbuilding and general sense of enjoyment that really elevate Bloodmasque to something special. The hub levels are small, but chock full of superb art direction and period detail. The soundtrack is a joy – some of the voice acting ends up a little grating, but the music is a treat, all sweeping cinematic strings and cod-Parisian flourishes.

It’s that sense of fun, the idea Square Enix are simultaneously taking this seriously and not in the slightest. You can switch your name, gender and equipment at will, and hilariously, use your iOS device’s camera to put your own face in the game. If you use someone else’s avatar, they get experience for helping you, and vice versa. For all the disturbing monster designs and general ickiness the developers are plainly aware they’re making something cheerfully daft, too.

It’s still a simple game, none too long, and the difficulty curve is somewhat awkward – later bosses ramp up into countless thousands of hit points while pounding you into the pavement with disturbing ease. And while the social aspects work, you can never quite shake the feeling there’s no reason this had to be online-only – you don’t need the in-app purchases, even with those uber-bosses (unlike soulless money-sinks such as Glu Mobile’s Blood & Glory), but you get the impression Square Enix would really like you to buy some.

Nonetheless, this is a game that’s much more than the sum of its parts. Too many people forget that rubbish like All The Bravest is very much the exception to the rule (if you’ve forgotten, you can read BeefJack talking about Final Fantasy: All the Bravest here). For all its flaws Bloodmasque is an adventure in a way few other games manage to be, thrilling and spooky and (intentionally) hilarious all at once, and further proof Square Enix are one of the most inventive developers in the mobile space right now.

You'll like this, we reckon.

Bloodmasque, by Square Enix, is available now for iOS devices.

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