Review: Alder’s Blood Grimly Reimagines the Realm of Turn-Based Tactics

The game often feels like a survival-horror experience with its sharp emphasis on the senses.

Alder's Blood
Photo: No Gravity Games

Turn-based tactics games always revolve around direct confrontations with enemies on the battlefield, even in more defense-oriented titles like Into the Breach and XCOM: Enemy Unknown. The old rulebook has been rewritten in Alder’s Blood, which takes place in a miserable world where God has literally been killed by humankind. Here, the absence of a higher power has led to the proliferation of demons that can cripple their prey in a blink of an eye, and so Alder’s Blood demands a sneakier style of play where concealment is paramount and running away is, at times, the best way to complete a mission.

Alder’s Blood, the brainchild of Polish developer Shockwork Games, presents its godless setting in unflattering and even critical terms. The player takes control of a party of Hunters, who look human but wield supernatural powers, the most significant of which is the ability to banish stunned demons. Banishment drains a Hunter’s stamina, a consequence that leads Duke, a blind man who was once a Hunter, to remark, “Such rituals invoke the Darkness too intimately for my liking.” Duke’s sentiment paints a picture of humankind spiraling closer to evil as it struggles to reverse the chaos that it helped bring about. Later, a guide named Myron Wright laments the loss of a better existence, commenting on the pride and greed that led to God’s murder: “We wanted more. We always do … And so mankind turned on its creator.”

It’s that much more disturbing, then, that certain demonic forces in Alder’s Blood are said to originate from God’s very corpse. And this sacrilegious concept, for irreverently suggesting that God’s essence can be corrupted, effectively gives the game an even more fatalistic vibe. An utter sense of hopelessness—also reflected in the highly demanding gameplay, where one mistake probably means you need to restart a mission—becomes the whole point of the tale.

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Alder’s Blood takes an ingeniously suspenseful approach to turn-based encounters on a grid-based map that suggests a chessboard. As in many a stealth game, playable characters can avoid combat by ducking in tall grass, distract foes by throwing items from the shadows, and devastate opponents with vicious back-stabbings. One might reason that such mechanics would lead to easier victories in a system of turn-taking, as a significant challenge in stealth titles is properly reacting to events in real time. But developers at Shockwork Games introduce enough new factors to the genre framework so that Alder’s Blood winds up being one of the most challenging turn-based releases in recent memory.

One nerve-wracking element is that members of your party emit a scent that can attract demons and spoil the sanctuary of a hiding place. These scents can travel with the wind, which can change dramatically from turn to turn, across various distances, meaning that the player must constantly judge the probability of being found by a demon. Enemies also react to sound. Even in a best-case scenario where one’s entire party surrounds a single target, the wrong type of attack, like a shotgun blast, can wind up attracting the attention of off-screen threats. Alder’s Blood often feels like a survival-horror experience with its sharp emphasis on the senses—an exceedingly rare and thrilling characteristic for a tactical game of this sort.

Often the smartest strategy in Alder’s Blood is to eschew conflict altogether. One early mission, where your party must escape the unfairly lethal attacks of shadows that materialize right beside the Hunters, seems impossible to complete without the use of traps that can temporarily immobilize demons. In other situations, even if you have the potential to kill a couple of enemies, it’s usually better to refrain from violence. Almost every action in combat depletes a stamina bar, and if characters lose all their stamina, they can’t perform any action during the next turn, which can mean death if the wrong threat appears on-screen.

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The game’s intimidating and intense sense of atmosphere, the need for precise decision-making, and even the term “Hunter” register as a strong nod to Bloodborne. But whereas Bloodborne was just another incarnation of the hack-and-slash, lock-on-and-dodge formula that was popularized by Dark Souls, Alder’s Blood shakes up the foundation of a long-standing genre, stretching the familiar into a realm of nightmarish wonder. Not even leveling up from consecutive victories dampens the bleakness of the game. Each Hunter creeps toward insanity, which forces the player to commit bloody human sacrifices in order to transfer experience points to new heroes. In Alder’s Blood, success is more ephemeral than it ever has been in a turn-based tactics title, implying that a godless world should not be coveted.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by No Gravity Games.

Score: 
 Developer: Shockwork Games  Publisher: No Gravity Games  Platform: Switch  Release Date: March 13, 2020  Buy: Game

Jed Pressgrove

Jed Pressgrove's writing has appeared in Game Bias, Film Quarantine, and Unwinnable.

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