|System: Xbox One, PC|
|Dev: Ninja Theory|
|Pub: Xbox Game Studios|
|Release: March 24, 2020|
|Players: 8 Player|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Violence, Blood|
by Lucas White
Ninja Theory’s whole trajectory has been wild. The UK-based developer has a long history of blending action game conventions with Hollywood-style storytelling ambition, and just as long of a history of critical success and commercial failure. A thoroughly divisive swing at Devil May Cry cemented Ninja Theory as a mainstream presence, but it wasn’t until Hellblade that the company became a real force. Fueled by several rewards, a willingness to try new things, and independant success, Microsoft came knocking, and Ninja Theory is now part of Xbox Game Studios. Hellblade II is on the way, but the first game under the new banner is Bleeding Edge. Aiming for a slice of the character-based team multiplayer pie, Bleeding Edge combines those common tropes with a melee-based gameplay focus.
Ninja Theory has long been all about combining martial arts with punk rock, science fiction vibes, and Bleeding Edge is no stranger to that aesthetic. In a lot of ways, Bleeding Edge feels like it’s intended to come off like a heavy metal, anime take on Overwatch. A lot of its structural features are visibly comparable to Overwatch, from its menus and its unlockables down to its televised sports-like presentation during the actual gameplay. Obviously we’re several steps down the derivative work evolutionary development chain at this point, but that’s where the roots seem to lie.
The big difference that fits Ninja Theory’s brand and sets it apart from the competition is that, for the most part, Bleeding Edge is not a shooter. There are a few exceptions, but the majority of Bleeding Edge’s roster fights up close and personal. The game’s core mechanics include the basic fundamentals you’d expect from a hack-and-slash action game, including quick combos, a dodge move, and even a parry. On top of that, you have the familiar special moves, with each character having three basic moves on cooldowns and one super that takes longer to charge. What’s neat is that each character can choose between two supers, although that choice doesn’t have a huge impact on play.
Bleeding Edge is no Devil May Cry, and that’s where a lot of its problems come in. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect a full-on character action game, but what is on offer here feels deceptively shallow. Despite each character’s unique abilities, weapons, and physical properties, and even the game mode you choose, Bleeding Edge’s core play just feels stale. Even with all the different abilities and action focus, even the fast characters feel sluggish, and combos don’t extend beyond mashing or holding the X button.
It doesn’t help that, despite Bleeding Edge’s wacky, counter-culture vibe, the actual gameplay and environments are about as sterile as it gets. The whole story revolves around a band of cyborgs resisting authority via underground fighting competitions, but when you’re in an actual fight, you’re usually outside in broad daylight, jumping around machinery that looks ripped straight out of any other game in this space. The characters are all zany and grungy-looking, but they’re running around spaces that look like esports arenas and using pickups and environmental boosters that have no aesthetic ties to the premise.
And you’ll be seeing a lot of these arenas, because most of the objectives involve running from one end to the other to either touch a point or bring some objects to a point. Either way, you’re standing on points and fighting opponents on the way. This isn’t unusual, but because the characters move so slowly, there are long stretches of dead air in-between skirmishes. There’s even a hoverboard sort of system that lets you summon a mount on command. But since you can’t fight while you’re on it, it feels like a bolted-on solution to a long-term problem.
Considering Bleeding Edge is a team-based game, there are certain balance mechanics you might expect. Characters fill support, attack, or defense roles and have abilities and movement options that fit those types. But because this is an action game with dodging and whatnot, it feels like the game is more about mobbing players as a group instead of mastering the mechanics or playing strategically. If you have a healer and aren’t caught alone, it’s easy enough to just overwhelm opponents and bat them around no matter how much they try to dodge. Even parrying isn’t a solution, because not only is the timing window small, it won’t do you any good if more than one person is attacking you.
Bleeding Edge does everything in its power to enforce that, too. It’s constantly telling you to travel in groups, because otherwise you won’t stand a chance. Having players of varying skill levels feels like a moot point, because it doesn’t feel like anything you do as an individual matters as long as you’re in the right place and hitting your buttons when they’re available. Skill will always be a factor, and I found myself getting the most kills award a lot thanks to my action game experience. But despite the small handful of extra coins, I didn’t really feel like I stood out much or contributed more to the team.
Speaking of coins, there are a lot of unlockables you can get for each character through play and by spending your earned money. You can get different boards, emotes, and passive boosts for each character, along with random unlocks when you level up. Oddly enough, the game is super light on character skins, with just a couple slight palette swaps available at launch. The biggest factor are the passives, which let you assign up to three small boosts to a character’s various stats. But that system is weird, since each character already starts with three. There’s no baseline to compare to since you don’t start empty-handed, and with the stuff I’m already complaining about, getting new boosts just feels like a formality.
Overall I’m coming away from Bleeding Edge pretty disappointed. I’m not exactly a big fan of Ninja Theory’s work in general, although I’ve had fun with games like Hellblade and Enslaved. But even though Ninja Theory’s Devil May Cry attempt had me cringing, it at least showed there’s a level of ambition and understanding there of what makes for good melee combat. But for the sake of Overwatch-like appeal, it feels like Bleeding Edge compromises a lot in places that could have helped it stand out. Thanks to the simple combat, sterile environments, and weird balancing, playing Bleeding Edge feels more grindy and repetitive than any other game I’ve played in this space. The characters are all pretty cool and weird, but when everything is zoomed out and the gameplay loop repeats itself over and over, everything just, well, bleeds together and loses its edge.