You often see games dabble in melee combat, but only a few like For Honor go all in with it, and now Early Access game Elderborn has done the same. Hyperstrange has indeed made a game where all you're doing is bashing and slicing enemies from pillar to post, but it takes a few measures to ensure it's not just a button mashing spree.
Of course, you can attack and heavy attack, but it's not just a manic slashathon, as you also need to make sure you block and parry to make the most of your time in Elderborn. Blocking negates damage, as you'd expect, but the right parry will slow time and let you strike at your foes. Of course this last part is all about timing, but it's incredibly nice to get that sweet spot and then go to town on the bad guys, slo-mo style.
The game starts you off at the base of a cavern and you're tasked with climbing up and following the designated route. Simple, right? Well, with enemies placed all around you and sometimes even launching projectiles, this is much easier said than done, and it becomes a case of ducking and diving while also dealing damage. It's fast and frantic, and because of that, it reminded us a lot of Doom, especially since a heavy metal soundtrack underpins the whole thing (the same indie publisher, also gave us Butcher, another Doom-reverent title).
It's also offering the same kind of power fantasy that Doom prescribes in heavy doses, as one heavy attack will send most enemies flying, and you can even kick people off of the many ledges in the game for that ultimate Spartan feeling. Bodies going limp under your sword and ragdolling across the room ensures you're always feeling like the beast, especially when you get your hands on that one guy who's been giving you grief from afar.
The theme of the game revolves around ancient terrors, like zombies and armoured warriors, and so in that sense, it reminded us a lot of Serious Sam and Immortal Redneck, especially considering how over-the-top the action is. Ghouls with crystals attached to their skin can quickly overwhelm you, and that's without even considering the other dangers such as the glowing scorpions that you'll need to crush.
At the game's opening you'll get a basic sword to deal damage with, but as you progress you'll find a sledgehammer that's not only good for crunching enemy skulls, but also for knocking walls down to access secret areas. Then there are the daggers which are much nimbler, although it's fair to say that each weapon has advantages and disadvantages. It's easier to block with the normal sword, for example, while the sledgehammer obviously has a much larger damage output.
The level design is also extremely challenging, as the balance of huge numbers of enemies with projectile-throwing nuisances means you can never stay still for long, even if you're good at blocking. It's all about using the space to your advantage and not falling off the precarious ledges, which is easier said than done when you get to the later levels and cover is scarce.
Visually the game looks great right now, running smoothly even when the action heats up. There's also this rather nice contrast between light and dark, as the glowing caverns are illuminated by the enemies and various shades of purple and red, adding to the feeling of this being an ancient mystery filled with temples and gold (which you have to collect, although we're not sure why).
This demo looks and plays rather nicely, but it's also incredibly threadbare. We know that Hyperstrange plans on adding a lot, but for £17.99 there isn't an awful lot of content here as it stands. It's a good idea but it already needs new content, fresh levels, and greater replay value if Elderborn is going to keep fans interested. That being the case, we hope it can continue to build on these solid initial foundations as the project moves forward.