Outsmart studio’s BloodGate found some success on mobile devices last year, and the Kiwi developer is now bringing PC gamers into the fold with a revamped version of the game. However, there’s hardly a shortage of PC games in the action/puzzle genre, so Outsmart may have a hard job of getting the typically more hardcore PC audience to not only open the gate, but also to spend time on the other side.
The game is touted as a “one-of-a-kind action puzzle RPG adventure”, but that is not really the case. Although it diverges slightly from the tried-and-true gem-matching RPG sub-genre, BloodGate doesn't go far enough to make it feel unique or all that interesting. At the same time, it goes too far with its core gem matching mechanics, resulting in a game less fun and less rewarding than many other titles in the puzzle questing subgenre.
At its core, BloodGate is a variation on the overused 'match 3' system that’s been around for decades. Unlike most of its contemporaries, however, it eschews gem swapping and matching mechanics in favour of one where you clear matching gems by drawing a line between them. Link three or more gems to attack, draw a closed link to buff your shields, or link five or more gems to create special gems, and use these to clear entire colours and cause massive damage. All the while, every group of gems cleared fills up your elemental skills or spells for that colour.
These skills can in turn be deployed in combat to cause additional elemental damage or inflict status effects on your opponents. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Regardless of the tweaks present here, BloodGate is essentially just another Puzzle Quest clone. For some that might be enough, but the real issue here is that it’s not a particularly fun one due to a number of poor design choices, and the fact the team has not really done enough to move the game away from its mobile heritage.
The primary issue here is the combat, and as it is the core mechanic in the game, nailing it is vital. Outsmart obviously wanted to push an action-oriented experience, but that decision has hurt BloodGate. Planning massive gem matches for maximum damage and board clearing is not possible, as the constant need to attack in real time forces the player to react rather than plan. As such, tactics and strategy are limited in the drive to hit your enemy as often as possible to avoid being beaten to death.
The move to PC and its larger widescreen displays has not been properly accounted for, either. Combat scenes play out in real time at the top of the screen, but the player focus is needed on the bottom half where the gem board is located – alongside health bars and skill indicators. As a result, for the most part your focus is on the gem board rather than the action up top, where your heroes are fighting the hideous forces of evil. This might not be an entirely bad thing, as the aforementioned hideousness is not purely by design.
Every piece of 3D art here looks and feels like it was made for a mobile game – the bare minimum of work has been done to bring things up to PC standards. While there are some wonderfully designed monstrosities to battle, every scene is populated by low polygon models, horrendously low resolution textures, and janky animations. The grim-dark aesthetic loses a lot of its punch when these graphics are displayed on a screen exponentially larger than the one they were obviously designed for, making BloodGate a strong example of art design let down by technical limitations. Unfortunately, the shortcomings of the game’s mobile heritage are not limited to its presentation.
An action RPG in many ways live and dies by it loot and levelling systems, and while you can upgrade your party and gear here, the game’s reliance on random chest drops and incremental stat improvements do little to give you any desire to seek out new stuff. Rarer items look cooler, but apart from that they provide nothing unique to the player – you get better basic stats and nothing else. The mobile version's in-game purchases may have been excised, but a tedious grind remains. The basic flow: earn currency or keys, unlock a chest, and pray to the RNG gods for a bit of gear with a slightly bigger number on it.
This system is just not rewarding, and should have been the first thing removed or redesigned, because devaluing the in-game currencies has removed any sense of achievement that comes with unlocking better gear. You also collect most of your gear back at town rather than in drops from monsters – another hold-over from the game’s mobile release. Without any of the "wow" factor that games like Diablo provide with their epic gear and item sets, the grind here feels infinitely grindier.
BloodGate also boasts a PvP Arena Mode which faces you against players at similar power levels. Unfortunately, this competitive mode only exacerbates all the issues of the combat system. The Arena is still being balanced, but as it stands its just a faster, more difficult, but no less tedious than the combat in the campaign. It does have potential, but nothing less than an complete overhaul is likely to unlock it.
Finally, the story itself is a generic retread of good guys versus the forces of evil – the latter of which are controlled by a big nasty. The writing itself is solid, but like every other aspect of the game, it’s been seen before. So while there are some unique touches here and there, these don’t counter all the other issues BloodGate has. It’s a shame, but this is one gate that should remain closed.
◆ Note: We wouldn't usually assign a score to an Early Access title, but a key was provided for review, and it's unlikely the issues outlined above will be able to be rectified in an Early Access stay that Outsmart itself told us was primarily for balancing the game's PvP.