Alder’s Blood Review: A Cycle of Thrilling Misery

In Alder’s Blood, God is dead. His festering corpse floods the world with monsters, whipping them into a frenzy through some dark, abstract will. With a striking, swirling art style colored like stained glass and drawn like a cross between Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings and Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, the indie strategize ‘em up from Shockwork Games certainly knows how to set a stage. Its setting is one of hopelessness and human sacrifice for a greater good that may never come, a tide of gloom barely stemmed by the protagonist’s dwindling order of exiled warriors: hunters who wield guns, blades, traps, and ritualistic totems in defense of humanity.

The thing about Alder’s Blood is that it could probably have gotten by as something like X-COM. It certainly looks the part, where you select some hunters, set their loadouts, and send them onto a turn-based mission from which some may not return. Between missions, you manage menus at the hunter encampment: craft weapons, scavenge for food, and heal wounds while visiting shops and taking on odd jobs.

But on those missions, Alder’s Blood expands the stealth element of so much turn-based strategy, further even than ambush-centric games like Mutant Year Zero and Corruption 2099. Your hunters will spend much of each mission hiding in the weeds, scrutinizing the direction of the wind because it might carry their scent right to the werewolves, the witches, or the other monsters roaming the land.

Alder's Blood

(Alder’s) Blood In, (Alder’s) Blood Out

The odds are routinely overwhelming, either due to raw numbers or the simple fact that a werewolf can tear apart fragile humans in an instant. Your foes need to be backstabbed, ganged up upon, or otherwise softened up from a safe distance. Better yet, you can try to avoid them entirely. So long as you steer clear of the monsters’ nostrils or their vision cones, rather few of the missions in Alder’s Blood require you to clear the map. More often, you’ve got to locate some item or activate some shrine and then slip away quietly. The game rewards experience based on simply completing a mission rather than killing anything.

You will get something for disposing of a monster, only it won’t be experience. The game’s most devious wrinkle is “corruption.” Rather than using the genre trope of weapons wearing out over time, Alder’s Blood opts to wear out its protagonists instead. Simply undertaking a mission imparts some level of corruption, while other actions add to it: killing a monster, attacking a monster, or being attacked by a monster. And in turn, growing levels of corruption impart flaws. After so much exposure, for example, a hunter might develop bad eyesight or a bum leg that restricts movement. Maybe they get forgetful and lose an item slot. Sometimes they just begin to smell, which means the monsters are more likely to stumble onto their scent trail while wandering the map.

Through leveling up, you unlock slots for stat boosts that can mitigate these flaws. But sometimes the problems stack up faster than you can fix them, and a high enough corruption level means a hunter will totally lose it. As a last resort, you can perform a sacrificial ritual, which kills a hunter to transfer their experience, sans any of the developed flaws, to another, newer recruit. So that’s the dilemma: fresh-faced recruits tend to be the most useful ones to send into the meat grinder, but they don’t stay fresh-faced for long.

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Alder's Blood

There Will Be (Alder’s) Blood

Alder’s Blood positively brims with storytelling potential and narrow escapes. You’re encouraged to avoid fights, to run away, to try missions while down one or two hunters all in the interest of mitigating exposure and preserving your numbers. And the weapons all have fixed damage numbers, so the only difference between a veteran and a newcomer is that a veteran has seen too much. No one explicitly gets better at this grim, thankless business; they just come up with ways to cope for a while.

I, for example, came to rely on a hunter called Renoir, who’d had enough after a couple arduous missions. He didn’t see so great anymore, and the werewolves could smell him a mile off. There’s no shortage of randomly-generated hunters waiting in the wings if you’ve got the cash and the food to support them, but they’re often priced according to their relative usefulness. So when I hire two guys at once on the cheap, they’re absolute meatheads that I fully intend to be expendable. Anything to keep Renoir going. He just needs a little bit of help these days. 

Yet against the odds, the new boys (who, with a light bit of character name fudging, I decided were brothers) hold their own. They scarcely have enough health to hold their own in a fight, but I send them on a run of missions where they mostly just have to keep to the shadows. As they level up, I equip charms to offset their stat deficiencies. I’d assumed one of these guys was going to bite it and then maybe the other one would be a vessel for good old Renoir, but they develop into their own distinctly useful units. I even feel a little bad about my initial carelessness.

Alder’s Blood is admittedly rough around the edges. The user interface doesn’t always display the most useful information, with mission briefings that don’t tell you much of anything and inventory menus that provide no at-a-glance weapon comparisons. I hit a few weird snags here and there, like one mission that refused to wrap until it transformed a tree into an ungodly avatar of darkness.

But push through them and they’re easy issues to overlook for a game so full of smart new takes on turn-based strategy. Alder’s Blood is a cycle of thrilling misery, a game where the weight of the world slowly grinds each hunter into dust, until the job is done. It sells scale and urgency with the best of them, because despite all my waffling about who to send out and how to save them from corruption, I still lose Renoir down the line, as a sacrifice for some other new recruit. Then I lose the brothers. Through its interlocking systems, Alder’s Blood works to communicate one prescient principle: when the odds are against you, sometimes the best you can do is control what you lose.

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Steven Nguyen Scaife

Steven Nguyen Scaife has written about pop culture for Slant Magazine, Polygon, Buzzfeed, Rock Paper Shotgun, and more.

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