You can usually spot an Amiga game a mile off: It’ll have a bright pink gradient for a background and then everything in front of that will either look like airbrushed chrome, “I read The Lord of the Rings as a teenager”, or eighties anime as half-remembered by a British guy who saw Akira once on VHS. So it’s a pleasant surprise when a game comes along that doesn’t just want to be different for different’s sake but has a very specific dark fantasy style in mind and absolutely nails it so hard it remains a show-stopper decades later.
What’s especially interesting is that, technically speaking, Blade Warrior doesn’t do anything special. It isn’t using any special modes to shove loads of colours on the screen, or possess fantastically smooth rotoscoped animation, or scroll eleven billion layers of parallax past your eyes like Shadow of the Beast does. What the game does have is so much style and plain old good visual design you’d almost swear the stuff was oozing out of the single floppy disc that contains the game and gunking up the insides of your Amiga (or PC, or Atari ST – and just to add to the confusion there’s another PC game with the same name) as you played.
As you can see, most of the game is presented as a silhouetted action layer against a coloured background, moon high in the night sky. This is also your first glimpse of how far the game is prepared to go to remain in-character as that moon isn’t just for show, it’s actually your health bar. Every single screen and item you see does its best to remain true to the game’s character, with potion ingredients lined up in bottles on the shelves of your personal laboratory and your current power and defence levels represented by particular glows and sparkles around your character on the inventory screen. Sound doesn’t escape this fascinating attention to detail either: The game has no traditional background music; your wanderings are accompanied only by the sound of rolling thunder and cracks of lightning interspersed with distorted howls and screams of far-off monsters or small animals that flap off into the night as you disturb their hiding places in the undergrowth.
Thankfully this visual and auditory feast is never at the expense of the player’s experience. The moon as a replacement for a standard health meter may sound like a painfully “artsy” thing to do but it’s clear right from the start exactly how it works: Full is good, almost gone (looking like a “New Moon” phase) is bad. It’s as simple and obvious an any other gauge you’ve come across. Your lab ingredients are all clearly labelled on their shelves and while it never outright tells you which combinations you need for which spell in a “Two water-based and two earth-based components make a heal spell” kind of way it takes very little effort to notice that as you flip through your available spells in the book laid out in the centre of the screen different tubes animatedly bubble or flare up with their appropriate element for every spell, and that different items always fill up specific vials.
The presentation may be intricately detailed but the aim of the game is nice and straightforward: Your task is to vanquish the demon Murk, and to do so you must gather fragments of a stone tablet from a variety of wizards in a dark and dangerous forest all so a powerful sorcerer can enchant your sword with the power to banish evil forever. Of course it’s never quite as easy as that and the difficulties here come from a combination of the wizard’s demands for spell ingredients and artifacts (they seem pretty safe and detached from the rest of the world in their towers, which I assume is their excuse for not just giving you the damned fragments needed to prevent literal Hell-on-Earth without a trade first), and the locked gates within the forest that can only be opened if you’ve found the appropriate key. There’s some good news and some bad news on that aspect of the game: The bad news is there’s no indication which key is needed for which gate – it either opens when you push up on your joystick or it doesn’t. The good news is the keys behave like Resident Evil keys – specific multiple gates permanently unlock if you possess the correct key – and not like Gauntlet keys – find generic keys strewn around to open up whatever’s in front of you – and the location of these keys isn’t random.
The last hiccough in your righteous quest is knowing that the final boss and cause of all of this terror is always roaming around the map, and if you happen to cross paths with him you’re automatically dragged into Hell and have to either defeat him or die. It could’ve been a frustrating roadblock if he consciously stalked you or if he had a habit of zipping around the forest pathways at random but in a player-friendly decision he always starts in a particular spot, can always be seen on the map (which is as helpful as it is creepy if you ask me), and as far as I have experienced he deliberately avoids the area around your home tower, meaning that limping home to stock up on healing potions will never result in an impossible-to-win boss battle. The best bit though is that you can tell when you’re sailing too close to the wind because the background sky takes on an intimidating reddish hue and the storm’s intensity increases dramatically – it’s a great early warning that grants Murk a bit of extra presence and gives the impression that he really is as dangerous as the slim backstory in the manual would have you believe.
Combat is frequent and sadly doesn’t give a great first impression, looking like it’s not got anything more to offer than wildly swinging your sword at whatever’s ahead until one of you falls down dead. But if you give Blade Warrior a little time to introduce more enemies the thought process behind these clashes starts to become clear, and it isn’t quite as simplistic as it first appears: Some enemies need you to get in close. Some can only be hit with low blows. Some leap around, forcing you to quickly switch sides if you want to attack. Some are small and fast, landing multiple hits as the hop around the screen. You really do need to work out how best to deal with each one and fight back with an appropriate attack if you want to come out on top. This is especially important as Blade Warrior has no experience or levelling system but instead certain artifacts and spells you can barter with wizards for will enhance your attack or defence for as long as you keep hold of them. The boost does help but it feels more of an edge in combat than a case of succeeding or failing due to a lack of equipment, and I can say I never encountered an enemy and felt that I couldn’t defeat it if I handled myself correctly.
The other thing you need to get the hang of if you want to survive is mixing potions from the base materials you find out in the wild. As with everything else in this beautiful game these items don’t simply appear out of nowhere; webs drift in slowly on the breeze, frogs hop along the ground, bats flap in the air, and all of the other weird and wonderful magical items have their own behaviour; adding yet another interesting layer to the game without overcomplicating things or pulling you out of the experience. Unlike everything else these items are shown in full colour, making them easy to distinguish from your surroundings and any roaming enemies as you explore the forest. As you use potions instead of a more typical spell casting system it’s important to return to your home tower if you’re running low on these alchemical brews to create more from any ingredients you’ve scavenged along the way; there are plenty of them out there and they respawn often so it takes no effort to gather enough for another batch of healing potions or the eternally-useful Travele concoction that allows you to move to any point in the forest in an instant.
Getting back to your safe haven without Travele can be done in one of two ways: Either by checking the map and simply walking home (which may lead you down unexpected paths with keys or artifacts at the end of them), or by visiting a wizard’s tower and borrowing their dragon for the duration of a short side-scrolling shmup section. No navigation is required on a dragon ride but you are expected to either shoot down or avoid contact with Murk’s army of flying monsters, and if you fail you get dumped in the forest somewhere close-but-not-close-enough-for-comfort to your home tower.
This is one old computer game that wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be: You start with the ability to create two potions, and one is a healing draught. Ingredients for these brews aren’t rare and the heal restores a significant amount of health, definitely enough to save you if you get caught by an angry mob. Enemy damage isn’t ridiculous but you will be punished if you don’t deal with them properly, and “Dealing with them properly” can just as easily mean “Decide it’s too much and walk away” as it does mean “Use low blows on spiders”. The in-game map is genuinely useful and “honest” – while the in/out nature of the sidescrolling areas and their gates doesn’t quite match up with the overhead routes shown on the map it does show you everywhere you need to go and comes across more as just a bit wonky than a deliberate attempt to deceive. You can also save at any time, and you can create multiple saves too. These will return you to the exact spot you left the game in with your inventory intact – not something to be taken for granted back in 1991.
However there’s no getting around the fact that, mechanically speaking, Blade Warrior is shallow. You just walk around (there’s no jumping, climbing, running, or dodging), find keys to go through doors, find a tower, work out how to get whatever this latest wizardy weirdo wants, and repeat until done, dead, or bored. But on the other hand no jumping means no awful early nineties computer platforming sections, no instant-death pits to fret about leaping over, and no items dangling up in the sky waiting for a pedantic pixel-perfect jump before you can claim them either, and any potential complaints with the game-long trade sequence to collect the tablet fragments are largely squashed by the Travele spell’s convenience and the map showing you everything right from the start.
It’d be easy to claim the game’s nothing more than eye-catching style with little substance to back it up but the atmosphere and the tangible setting the game creates really is second to none, elevating everything else with it. You’re right there, utterly absorbed in a unique and dark and mysterious experience. It’s the sort of game you’d willingly make handwritten notes for and find yourself thinking about cryptic scroll messages at work. To treat the presentation as an entirely separate entity would be like saying Monkey Island‘s a game about clicking on things, or that Phoenix Wright’s just about reading. If Blade Warrior had been released today it’d be a digital indie darling with a hyper-expensive limited edition physical print run containing a pin badge and a decorative SNES cart shell. As it stands it’s just another obscure old computer game that was way ahead of its time.