Though not for the faint of heart or graphics whores, this old school brawler is definitely worth a look for its challenging combat and great motion controls.
Dragon Blade is not a fancy game. It doesn't have a lot of options, modes, or bonus features. The presentation is dated at the best of times and borderline ugly at the worst. This game is a straightforward, no-frills brawler in which hordes of enemies are very happy to surround you, knock you down, and hardly give you a chance to get back up and fight. Games like this aren't often made anymore, and it's probably for the best that they have become the minority. When we do get such games these days, such as EA's Lord of the Rings games, Capcom's Devil May Cry, and Sony's God of War, they are usually slathered in rich production values and RPG-style experience systems. Dragon Blade has neither of those assets, but it is nice to see a traditional action game in the style of Double Dragon and Streets of Rage once in a while, and Dragon Blade actually has the chops to carry the beat-em-up torch on the Wii.
There is a lot of generic schlock pervading the story and style of Dragon Blade, but the motion controls are anything but generic. Five gestures are recognized and translated into basic attacks: left, right, up, down, and thrust. Special powers and blocking are mapped to buttons, and you will have to use both liberally to make much progress through the game. It's all very simple, yes, but these controls work exceptionally well in the context of such a simple game, and they are almost totally reliable, which even Nintendo has struggled with in vaguely similar games. I had some trouble with the controls at first, as the sword would often swing left when I swung right, or up when I wanted down; this was especially prevalent in combos. Surprisingly, the solution was to turn the sensitivity all the way down. Not only does this setting ignore self-correcting muscle movements which are not intended as gestures, but it also forced me to make more deliberate and distinct motions so they would be strong enough to register. As it turns out, this is exactly how the game should be played, because blindly waggling the Wii Remote will get you killed in a hurry. In this sense, Dragon Blade plays like a fighting game: you need to carefully time your moves to string them together the right way and get the desired combo. Once you slow down and stop spamming the game with gestures, it actually does what you want it to do. What an unusual concept among the Wii library! After my tweaking and re-learning, the game did exactly what I wanted it to 95% of the time, and that's much better than I can say for any other gesture-based game in my experience.
The adventure is broken up into many short levels that each take ten or fifteen minutes to play through. Some are just about getting to the end, while others have mini-boss fights, and still others are devoted entirely to the game's huge boss battles. The mini-bosses are human kings who betrayed the dragon lord (now trapped in the fire sword) and have been transformed into beasts by evil power. Each king has stolen a body part from the good dragon, Valthorian, and they use these appendages against you during the fight. Once you defeat a king, you reclaim that body part and will be able to use it for a new set of special moves. The whole thing has a very cool Mega Man vibe, and all of the kings are quite challenging even after you learn their patterns. The main bosses are the dragons who conspired with the kings to destroy Valthorian and take over the world. The dragon battles are so epic that they are encased in their own separate levels, which means you can retry them without having to worry about trudging back through a level. That's a good thing, because although the dragons vary quite a bit in form and difficulty, they're all going to take multiple attempts to defeat. After pounding on a dragon boss for quite a while (preferably with one of the reclaimed dragon powers), you go into a "Core Break" sequence in which you must perform gestures in an interactive cut-scene to finish off the foul beast. These scenes are easily the most visually impressive parts of the game, and it does feel very satisfying to frantically wave the controllers and then deal that killing blow.
The normal levels are far less visually impressive, but they're still unrelentingly hard. Most levels are extremely linear with little room for exploration, though there are a number of exceptions to this rule. Armor shards and upgrades for your health and special meter are hidden in most levels – actually, "hidden" is a strong word, but these bonuses are at least guarded by the strongest enemies. In fact, most of the enemies are quite strong, and one of the game's unusual characteristics is that even the puniest lizard-men, wolves, and wizards can finish you off in a matter of seconds unless handled properly. Defense and crowd management are fundamental to Dragon Blade's combat system, and there are multiple strategies viable in any given situation. It's the kind of game that forces you to try every move at your disposal and discover which ones work best in different situations,since combat is very challenging and you will die quickly if you run around swinging wildly. Modern game design theory says most players won't have the patience or motivation to actually learn how to play this kind of game; maybe that's true, but those players who do take the time to play well and correctly will find a rewarding experience. The hardcore design is not even necessarily my cup of tea, but I recognize the depth of gameplay. I found myself getting much, much better at fighting as I went through the game, even though I was mostly using the same basic attacks available right from the beginning.
For many reasons, Dragon Blade is a surprising game. Not only is it Wii-exclusive, not only does it have some of the best motion controls on the system, but it's also an incredibly hardcore, traditional kind of action game on a platform where most of the third-party releases are aimed very clearly at the ultra-casual market. Despite the obviously low-budget development, there are some great ideas and a lot of classic gameplay here, and I would love to see a sequel with much better production values. As for the game at hand, it's at least worth renting, and seasoned beat-em-up (bmup?) fans will get their money's worth for the reduced retail price.