This 3D Platformer is Lit
It’s been said that we’re living through a true 3D platformer renaissance. Just like at the beginning of the 2010’s when people were clamoring for a return to 2D pixel art platformers, the 3D platformers have seen a true resurgence with the likes of Yooka-Laylee, A Hat in Time and of course Super Mario Odyssey. However, while these titles really did help revitalize the 3D platformer, they did not really revolutionize or improve upon its foundation. “Remember that thing you liked?” works really well as a kickstarter pitch, but as shown with Yooka-Laylee for example, it can backfire when trying to be more than it’s inspiration. Blue Fire feels like the first step towards a refinement of how 3D platformers could work in the modern age. Combining the exploration and combat of action focused titles like Hollow Knight and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker with 3D platforming from the likes of A Hat in Time and Super Mario Odyssey works out incredibly well for Blue Fire. While there are some kinks in the Switch version, Blue Fire has me fired up for more.
Blue Fire sees you traversing the Penumbra, a dark floating castle in the sky where you awaken as Umbra, a warrior that has been infused with both fire and shadow. Penumbra has been forsaken due to the war between five Gods and the Black Shadow, an entity that has corrupted most of the castle. When you awake, you are armed with nothing more than your dual blades and a mission to save the Penumbra. Purely from a design aspect, the Penumbra looks incredible. You might expect it to be just a confusing maze of corridors and chambers and while it does start out like that at first, the locations within the castle are incredibly varied. From molten rivers of lava deep beneath the castle to the serene Abandoned Path, there is a lot of visual creativity at play here. The soundtrack, while mostly being ambient, compliments the atmosphere very well. Threatening when facing the bosses, but also calming when visiting some of the small settlements scattered throughout the world. Speaking of the settlements, they have real charm to them thanks to the different NPC’s you meet along the way. These cute little fellows all have their own personalities and help you with side quests, discoveries and accepting your currency and collectibles. Upgrades, spirits and items cost you ore, which can be found nearly everywhere. I was surprised to find that there was always something to spend my ore on. Not only to buy weapons and items, but you also require ore to open up the Fire Shrines which function as respawn points where you can change spirits. Even late in the game I was still able to purchase upgrades and spend the countless ore I was collecting. These upgrades were definitely worth the price, since most give you an edge in both exploration and combat.
The best way to describe the gameplay in Blue Fire is if Hollow Knight and A Hat in Time had a baby. In the beginning the warrior, Umbra, only has access to a dash, jump and a basic attack. This makes Blue Fire incredibly difficult at first. Opponents deal quite a bit of damage and death is never far away in the opening hours. Thankfully you have access to fire essence, which can heal you if necessary. In case you do bite the dust you lose all your collected ore and return to the last visited Fire Shrine. But, like in Hollow Knight you can retrieve your ore if you can reach the place where you died to collect a soul. Combat relies on you reading your enemies movement and using their openings to strike fast and hard. Later on you also unlock a ranged blast, which helps keep enemies at bay, but it consumes your precious mana. The balance between keeping yourself alive by quickly jumping and dashing around and striking whenever possible keeps combat fast paced and engaging.
So far so good right? Well, Blue Fire has one more genius trick up its sleeve called the Voids. Voids are essentially incredibly difficult platforming challenges that truly test all your abilities. There is no combat in these zones, it’s just you trying to reach the end of a level and claim the reward, which increases your maximum health. Now even though they’ve made me nearly pull out my hair with frustration the voids have some of the most riveting gameplay in the entire game. I actively despised them at first, but later on they truly became an incredible test of my skill at the game. This is because there are no restrictions on the movement abilities you unlock in the game. There’s a great variety of movement options too, with double jumps, a spin attack that lifts you up in the air, wall run and much more. All these abilities can be improved upon by using spirits. These can be collected and equipped at fire shrines and give incredible boosts. I was quickly using a combination where my standard jumps gained altitude, my general movement speed was increased, fall damage was negated and I could perform an additional dash. At first I was pretty sure this would break the game, but in the voids these options opened up new paths that made me tackle the challenges in ways I couldn’t even conceive at first.
The sheer variety the combination of spirits and abilities brings to the table makes Blue Fire so satisfying to play. Segments of the game I struggled with at first became a joy to traverse and the developers cleverly have hidden chests, collectibles and additional challenges everywhere to make you feel rewarded for going the extra mile with exploring. The jumping, running, slashing and dashing just feels so good to perform. Especially when stringing them all together durings the void challenges or boss fights. Simply put, it’s these mechanics that actually pushed me over the edge to nearly 100% complete the game during the review period. I just didn’t want the experience to end. I felt rewarded in discovering all the secret paths, chests and purchasing everything I could get my hands on. By the end of my time with the game, a good 18 hours later, I felt like an invincible knight. Even with all the upgrades, the final boss was quite a challenge, but after the dust had settled, Blue Fire had segmented itself in my mind as one of the most fun surprises on the Switch I’ve had in quite some time.
That being said, Switch players should be warned that this experience feels compromised when taking performance into consideration. The game frequently slows down during exploration and combat. Frame rate stutters were inescapable and I even encountered quite a few crashes and game breaking glitches. Thankfully the autosave is rigorous and I never lost much progress after a crash. I really hope that the developers are able to polish up the experience on Switch, because it feels like they themselves aren’t quite ready to close the book on Blue Fire quite yet. Another thing I feel the need to mention is that Blue Fire does not have any map system in the slightest. While this really ticked me off at first, I quickly adapted to the whole situation because each location is so strikingly different and fairly easy to navigate. It may however be an annoyance if you are going for the full 100% completion, just because you might have missed a hidden chest or a specific unlock. Still, the dungeons and world are so well designed that I rarely got lost.
Blue Fire is everything I didn’t know I wanted out of a 3D platformer. Instead of consisting of just platforming challenges, the combat kept me engaged. Secrets and collectibles aren’t there to block off parts of the map, but make exploring a joy due to how well they interact with Umbra’s abilities. 3D Mario feels good to play, but at the end of the day you are most likely still rescuing a princess and collecting meaningless stars. Blue Fire gives you a narrative thread but leaves it up to you to decide how you want to explore the Penumbra. This metroidvania-like approach really clicked for me and made this 3D platformer feel special, which few others have over the past decade. While performance on Switch is definitely not fantastic, with constant suffering through crashes, I still wanted to go back every time to discover what else was hidden in this world. I certainly cannot wait to see what these developers have in store next, because Blue Fire has definitely awoken a burning passion in me to see what lies ahead.