God is dead. Humans have killed God, of course, leaving them for dead in the desert. But rather than open up like a pinata of riches and power, the innards of God have spilled out as Corruption. The world has gone dark and terrible, eldritch beasts have grown from that Corruption and humanity is all but doomed. But Hunters have also been born from that ichor too, and they’re Van Helsing-like assassins who banish demons with a snap of their fingers.
As long as you’re not a religious type, reeling from the sheer blasphemy of it all, it’s one hell of a setup. Shockwork Games know how to pull on their biblical epics and Lovecraftian storytelling, creating a world that is bleaker than we thought possible. This is a harrowing, hazardous and horrible place, many times worse than Swindon.
It looks fantastic too, and Polish developers Shockwork clearly know their craft. The beautifully wrought 2D characters, looking as if they were ripped from a high-end graphic novel, are tucked into grim environments and the two work wonderfully together. We got some Banner Saga vibes, even if the subject matter is wildly different. Interfaces, too, are slick and crisp.
You play the role of Chief, leader of a group of Hunters. You’re on the search for Duke, an eccentric chap on the hunt for the body of God, which is quite the macguffin. The world is at a pivot point, as it turns out, and unless certain events are averted, the remaining humans of the world will be sniffed out.
There are quite a few moving parts to Alder’s Blood: Definitive Edition – too many, in fact – so it’s worth stepping through the majority of them. The core of the game is a turn-based strategy game, but rather than following down well-trodden X-Com paths, Alder’s Blood: Definitive Edition goes in a very different direction. It opts to use the turn-based template to create a stealth game, with a few hints of survival horror.
You and your team of up to three hunters arrive on a map. Your objective will commonly require you to wipe out specific enemies or reach a certain area. But rather than strap on the gatling gun and ‘come get some’, your best approach is to lay low. The enemies are absolute bastards, able to carve you up in one or two turns. But they’re also hyper-aware, with multiple tools for spotting you. There’s a cone-of-sight, which most people will be aware of from Metal Gear, but there’s also a scent system in play. Enemies can smell you downwind, so you’re choosing a path that accounts for your scent and any potential shifts in wind, and boy does that wind like changing. Some enemy types seem to break the rules of scent and vision, so you’ll have to find ways of dealing with them too.
Luckily, you’re well outfitted. You have firearms, but it’s best to leave them as a last-resort, as they’ll trigger any enemies in the area. Melee weapons are your best bet, so you will commonly chuck a pebble off to the side, wait for the lycanthrope or tentacled beast to look the other way, and then knock them over the head. There’s a stagger system, too, so you can gang-tackle these beasties until they get confused, and then ‘Banish’ them as a special Hunter finishing move.
Traps and lures are also in your arsenal, and it’s important to treat them as core to the experience. If you decide to sideline them, which is all too easy to do in the opening levels, you will be absolutely scuppered in the levels that virtually demand that you use them. ‘Avatars’ turn up and effectively mandate the use of traps. We had none at the time, and had to return to an earlier save. Which was about as fun as it sounds.
As with most turn-based strategy games, Alder’s Blood: Definitive Edition is about the management of action points, in this case ‘Stamina’, which gets used up by actions, movements and more. Unlike most other turn-based strategy games, evasion is often your best weapon. You don’t need to kill everyone, and it’s probably best that you don’t.
If your Hunters sustain too many injuries, then they become Corrupted, and – in true Darkest Dungeon stylee – these are permanent taints that can’t just be removed with a first-aid spray or a trip to an inn. Your hunters are permanently affected, and it’s often your best bet to simply Sacrifice them, a mechanic where you can ditch the Hunter to apply level-ups to a different one.
The core gameplay of Alder’s Blood: Definitive Edition is brutal. You can often feel the difficulty curve approaching you like a crashing wave and, we will be honest, we had to restart a couple of times to ensure we kept ahead of it. It was all too easy to reach a point where our Hunters were debilitated, but we couldn’t afford to Sacrifice them or pay for other Hunters, leaving us with a decrepit team that weren’t good for anything. Supplies were just too scarce to turn that situation around.
There will be people who thrive on this challenge and lack of safety net. But when coupled with the bleak, unrelenting atmosphere and art, we found it a touch on the masochistic side. We rarely stopped and thought that we were enjoying Alder’s Blood: Definitive Edition: we were just about surviving it, and the campaign is too long to easily make the decision to restart. It sat in a strange spot between a storied campaign and a replayable one like Slay the Spire.
As mentioned, the turn-based strategy is just one of Alder’s Blood: Definitive Edition’s many systems, and this is the second nail in its coffin. While outside of combat, you are in a kind of resource management state, where you are maintaining your group of Hunters and encountering others on your trails.
Let’s list out the many things you can do: you can manage the Hunters’ statuses, scavenge for resources, craft, manage your relationship with factions and fiddle with the camp’s stocks. And that’s without the various missions and management that come from arriving in a city.
Each has its use, and we don’t doubt that there will be people who relish the many levers and dials that are on offer between-mission. But it’s all so high-maintenance: if you want to survive in this harsh world, then you have to be on top of them, all of the time, and that’s more than we were willing to offer. It’s just not satisfying enough. There are so many bells and whistles added to the strategy side of Alder’s Blood that it develops into a cacophony, and we longed for a bit of quiet.
Alder’s Blood: Definitive Edition is less than the sum of its parts, mainly because there are such a ridiculous number of parts. It felt overly burdened with supporting systems. More than this, there’s a lack of payoff: you can fiddle with things till the eldritch cows come home, but you may well be completely sidewinded in a mission by a new enemy type that bypasses your strategies, a change in the wind that alerts everyone to you, or a simple mistake that grows and grows, snowball-like, to wipe out the majority of your team. The combination of unfairness and painstaking preparation for a level is a bad mix, and we ended up in a state of tension rather than enjoying Alder’s Blood: Definitive Edition.
We’re in a curious state of being with Alder’s Blood: Definitive Edition. The craft on display in this stealthy turn-based strategy game is superb, and we can’t help but admire the nihilistic Banner Saga-style art and world. But it’s a beautifully designed chair that we find painful sitting in, thanks to its randomness, its punishing failure, and its unwieldy management layers. Perhaps it wasn’t made for our butts, and other people’s butts might enjoy it more. But we felt a mighty wave of relief when we didn’t have to sit in it anymore.
Shockwork Games, we can’t wait to see what you make next. Alder’s Blood: Definitive Edition, we’re glad we’re done with you.
You can buy Alder’s Blood: Definitive Edition from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S