Gothic horror is fine and good, but you know what would be even better? Shooting it in the face, as is the video game way. Such is the premise of Alder’s Blood, though it takes into a somewhat anime direction.
The world of Alder’s Blood isn’t one of our own. Existing at around mid-19th century level of technological sophistication, it is a dark and brooding place. Beasts roam the wilds, preying on the weak. Only large and well armed forces of humans can hope to defeat them. It’s much easier for Hunters, ancient halfbreeds carrying a seed of darkness in them. You are Chief, a leader of one such group, and Duke, the greatest of your kind, has just gone blind in search for the solution to the Beast issue. You see, God is not only dead, but his rotting corpse is what’s spreading this malaise in the world.
Like I said, fairly anime directions. Other than that, Alder’s Blood is a fairly mechanics-lite tactical RPG. When you go into battle, you take up to three Hunters. Each of them has an amount of stamina points – they are spent for actions and movement. Movement is a lot more freeform than in, say, XCOM – once you spend that stamina point for move, you can move freely in that territory. Actions usually take one point or more – and sometimes they can cost half a point.
High on Alder’s Blood, my new craft IPA
Great, but what do you do with this all? Surprisingly little hunting. The missions in the game usually bid you to achieve certain objectives without killing that many Beasts. In fact, Alder’s Blood insists that it would be best not to kill any more beasts that it’s necessary to fulfill the objective. It raises the local Darkness levels (which is bad) and can even raise the corruption levels of your hunters (bad, but in a strategic sense).
Most of the time, you’ll be throwing pebbles to distract the monsters and using that to run from bush to bush. And while some attacks can make noise that alarms the enemies, your movement is completely silent. However, your hunters give off a smell, so you’ll want to stay downwind of any monsters. Sure, smell merely alarms the monster, but if they are close enough, they might move in to investigate and find your Hunters.
Eeek, a creepy-crawly!
Alder’s Blood stacks the battle against you. If a monster sees you while you’re moving on your turn, they may activate immediately to rush in and get the first blow. And most attacks deal stamina damage as well as health damage. Since using up all stamina leaves you exhausted (read: makes you skip the next turn), this is a bad thing.
Luckily, this applies to monsters as well. This works marvelously when paired with backstabs: just sneak behind the monster and attack it with a small weapon (this serves dual purposes of not using backstab for easy kills and making you take melee small weapons), and it will immediately collapse exhausted. That’s how you can finish a mission without killing any monsters: exhaust them and run away.
Aw man, this stuff won’t clean off my soul
Not that you get any particular benefits from killing. In Alder’s Blood, you know all the rewards of the mission – XP included – beforehand, so there’s really no need for you to farm Beasts. Just avoid kills to avoid losing HP and accruing Corruption, and you’ll walk away a richer man.
Now, corruption. Just like Wardens in Dragon’s Age, the Hunters pay dearly for their half-breed nature. Each of them will be getting more and more corruption as you play. If they reach a breaking point, they snap, dealing damage to other Hunters, and die. You prevent this by doing two things: not getting an excessive amount of corruption, and sacrificing your old, corrupt hunters to transfer their XP to freshly hired replacements.
A mechanic that demands that you consume your troops would hurt in a game like XCOM, Phoenix Point or Jagged Alliance, but not in Alder’s Blood. Not only are your Hunters randomly generated, they don’t have much to make them stand out. The stats that define them in the game don’t change much when leveling-up – their equipment matters more.
All the skills that you gain leveling up are just passive upgrades that only matter while camping. So you’re not losing your favorite Ranger when you sacrifice someone – but you may miss their equipment capacity. In the same way, having a fresh batch of rookies a mission won’t perform noticeably worse than a veteran soldier.
Gosh-dang, I’ve done shot my foot off
Speaking of equipment: each Hunter can have two armaments each. Anything can go in the big weapon slot, while the small weapon slot only accepts some. During the game, you’ll be wielding axes, swords, daggers, rifles, harpoon guns and more. Heavy weapons slow a Hunter down. Guns make him smell more (due to gunpowder) and block one item slot (due to ammo dependency). Each Hunter can also permanently equip (or replace) one or more charms – stat boosts. Notably, they cannot be unequipped. The transitive nature of charms means that you can’t just perfectly duplicate an old hunter after transferring his XP to a new guy.
The items section – Hunter can equip one more – shows a lot of variety. You have traps, a bunch of throwing knives (each deals a different type of damage), medical stuff and even hand grenades. They have limited uses per mission, but I’m not certain if they’re actually consumable.
Either way, crafting (called “tinkering”) is one of the possible camping tasks in Alder’s Blood, the others being guarding, scavenging and healing. Scavenging is the way to get food, money and crafting materials by spending a day at a location. Each location – a node on the strategic map – has its own rating for each scavenging goods, so some places are better than others. You can’t send out all of your Hunters to scavenge, as then they risk injury and actual ambushes. Some will have to stay on guard. It’s usually best to spend each night dedicated to a certain activity to maximize outcomes.
And while more Hunters consume more food, I found that running with a larger party allows you to scavenge and tinker more as well as having a good reserve of fallback troops, so why not do it?
All of the activities I described look good, as Alder’s Blood really stands out with its stylized, brooding art. The game is fully 2D and character illustrations, map node backgrounds and even mission maps really stand out. The Hunters and the monsters themselves… don’t. Your enemies look OK, but they’re not great, and you’d want both more variety and a more unifying theme.
At the same time, the audio works well, especially the music. There’s really no voice dialogue in the game, though a character may utter a thing or two to give more spice to their new text box. And of course, the last patch before release introduced unit grunts into Alder’s Blood, so your Hunters aren’t voiceless anymore.
I’m feeling somewhat blasé about Alder’s Blood. On one hand, the game looks great and the writing, while clunky, can inspire a bit of wonder. The gameplay is, however, lacking, as you don’t get too attached to your Hunters, you don’t do much of hunting, and you barely understand why your people are supposedly that much better at killing monsters than regular humans. Sure, you can turn into a shadow form to instantly kill an exhausted monster, but you wouldn’t need that if you replaced three weirdos with swords with five regular dudes with shotguns.