It looks like Koei has finally exhausted Asia. The publisher best known for its takes on Chinese and Japanese history heads to Europe with Bladestorm: The Hundred Years' War. The game is a look at the bloody conflict that spawned a few classic Shakespearean plays and the legend of Joan of Arc. This shift to the West doesn't come without its problems, however. Although the number of troops that cross swords on battlefields is impressive and while the multigenre gameplay that blends action, strategy, and role playing holds at least the promise of innovation, way too much repetition mires the game in mediocrity.
Squad combat is a snap in Bladestorm, but it lacks strategic depth and is so packed with troops that it seems both chaotic and vaguely pointless.
Those expecting a French-English version of the Chinese carnage depicted in Koei's Dynasty Warriors series will likely be disappointed. Instead of the all-action theme of that franchise, Bladestorm throws a changeup that mixes melee madness with commanding companies of soldiers that range from knights and archers to pikemen and cavalry. Although you take the role of a mercenary seeking fame and fortune while observing battlefields from the standard third-person perspective, you go after your goals by taking charge of troops or fighting as part of groups. There isn't a great deal of strategy involved when playing general, however. All you have to do to take over troops is run up to the nearest company of allied soldiers and click a button. With one bellow, you've got a gang of pals willing to die for you. If only it was that easy in real life. Anyhow, the only difference between this approach and the typical solo actioner is that you have to make a brief pit stop to grab a bunch of guys to attack along with you, so you don't just charge enemy positions solo.
This rudimentary control scheme leads to Bladestorm's downfall in some ways. Commanding troops is so simplistic that you can just about forget that you're not alone. Buddies in chain mail follow you automatically, attack the closest bad guys whenever you hold down the right trigger, and make shared actions en masse at the drop of a button. Every action is so precise that it can be rather comical to watch. It's like you're part of a chorus line of medieval knights, all swinging swords and firing arrows in unison. Also, because you're just abstractly going into battle, you never get the direct, visceral satisfaction of pushing a button to drive a sword into an enemy's head. Even though it can be sort of cool to hit the shared actions buttons and see everyone in your company attack with swords or lances simultaneously, it doesn't have the immediacy of solo arcade fighting. You feel a step removed from the fray, which isn't very satisfying. And because there isn't much of a strategic component in battles to compensate for this odd distance between you and the action, you sort of get the worst of both worlds in that neither element seems to have been pulled off very well.
Battles themselves are also pretty straightforward in that they always seem to play out the same way. You basically just rampage across a generic French countryside in each mission, conquering one base after another until you reach the target settlement and take it out. There is little variety in your fighting, while battles are typically so loaded with troops and so chaotic that they come off like crazed mob scenes where you fight battles of attrition with little direct control over the outcome. You send your swarm of goons in against the enemy swarm of goons and then hit the shared action attack buttons every time that they regenerate. If your health drops perilously low, you pull back to the nearest allied base to heal up and grab a fresh company of troops, then head back to the front lines. Conquering enemy bases is somewhat satisfying because of the appearance of named enemies and commanders that add a personal element to all the mass carnage. However, even then, you're not taking on these foes in direct combat, so your level of fulfillment that comes from killing them is limited.