An Hour With... Sabre Wulf

Hey there folks and welcome to another instalment of An Hour With..., my blog feature wherein I choose a random game from my enormous backlog and spend sixty minutes with it to determine whether I should PLAY it to completion, or PASS on the experience. The overarching aim of this feature is to help me whittle down my immense Pile of Shame by giving me some formative time with each title rather than simply casting games aside at random. If you're a newcomer to the series then you can get a flavour for what I'm trying to achieve my reading this introduction to the concept, or you can peruse the list of previous entries by means of the table below:

Previously on An Hour With...
#001 - WipEout (PS1C)#002 - Resistance: Fall of Man (PS3)#003 - Resident Evil: Director's Cut (PS1C)
#004 - Metro 2033 (X360)#005 - Red Dead Revolver (PS2)

Today's game chosen at random by the Backloggery's awesome Fortune Cookie feature is a primitive action-adventure title that originated on the ZX Spectrum, but has since been ported to the Xbox One. What is it, and how will it fare through its opening hour? Read on to find out more...

The Game

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Sabre Wulf is a 2D, top-down action-adventure game developed and published by Ultimate Play the Game (the company that would later become Rare) and released on the ZX Spectrum in 1984. Putting players into the shoes of intrepid explorer Sabreman, the game tasks them with finding four fragments of an amulet which, when collected, will enable them to escape from the maze-like jungle they inhabit. While exploring players must fend off all sorts of threats including wild animals, indigenous tribesmen, and the titular Sabre Wulf itself. Sabre Wulf was very well received on its release and remains one of the ZX Spectrum's highest rated video game releases alongside its sequels Underwurlde and Knight Lore. It was subsequently ported to other systems including the Commodore 64 and BBC Micro, and lent its title to a side-scrolling spiritual successor for the Game Boy Advance in 2004. In 2015, Sabre Wulf saw a current-generation release as part of the Rare Replay collection on Xbox One - this is the version I'll be dabbling with today.

The History

Oh boy, and I thought I had nothing to write in here for the Resistance: Fall of Man edition of this feature. Sabre Wulf's presence in my video game backlog is purely down to the fact that I bought Rare Replay, and that purchase was driven by other games in the collection. As a man in his late twenties, the ZX Spectrum pre-dates me by a few years, so I don't have any inherent nostalgia for this era of video games. Prior to this feature, if you'd asked me when I intended to get around to playing Sabre Wulf, I guess my answer probably would have been "never". But that's one of the reasons why I do An Hour With... - it gives me a chance to get a taste of games like this, that I might otherwise skip over entirely.

The Hour

Here's where the blog really gets going, with a blow-by-blow account of the sixty minutes I spend with the game in question. I'll be peppering in various thoughts and opinions alongside descriptions of my in-game actions, to give you a full and balanced account of my time with the title. Ordinarily I'd give you an obligatory spoiler warning at this stage, but given that Sabre Wulf's entire story has already been described in full two paragraphs previously, I don't feel it's necessary this time. Let's power up the Xbox One and get lost in the jungle...

Five Minutes In...

One thing I can definitely say that Sabre Wulf has going for it is immediacy - after an initial title screen and the option to choose between one- and two-player game variants, I'm dropped straight into the middle of the game's 256-screen jungle map and given control of Sabreman. I'm instantly struck by the game's visual style, which I think still holds up well in spite of its simplicity. The colours are bright, and the sprites are clear and reasonably well detailed (albeit restricted to a single colour in the case of moving objects). The title screen features a short instrumental piece, but there's no soundtrack to accompany the gameplay (save for some footstep sounds and the occasional beep or boop when an enemy spawns or an item is picked up, as I'll find out soon).

The next thing I'm struck by is something slightly less pleasant - an enemy that has randomly spawned in the spot where I'm standing. It feels a bit cheap to lose a life in this way, but I pick myself up and from my next life, I actually start playing. Navigating the screen is straightforward enough, although there's a weird floatiness to the game's movement, a delay between me letting go of the analog stick and movement stopping, that makes Sabreman feel like he's in the depths of an ice cavern rather than the middle of the jungle. Attacking also feels very imprecise, with Sabreman's sword swing feeling ineffective for most of its animation. Within five minutes I've died four more times, triggering my first Game Over with an adventure completion percentage of just 2%. Back to the drawing board, I guess.

Twenty Minutes In...

After about twenty minutes of play, I start to settle into a more comfortable rhythm with the gameplay. I think a big part of that is down to my discovery that holding down the A button on the Xbox One controller puts Sabreman in a state of permanent attack, making most enemies much less of a threat than they were when I was trying to strike them with timed button presses. I'm starting to learn my way around Sabre Wulf's opening screens and making consistent (if slightly slow) progress. It feels a little like a clear precursor to (and inspiration for) other top-down adventure games like The Legend of Zelda, with its multi-screen overworld and simple real-time combat mechanics.

Even in spite of this though, I wouldn't say I'm really enjoying myself as I play it. Sure, it's rewarding to see that adventure completion percentage creep a little bit higher with every Game Over, but that's really just mitigating my frustration at going all the way back to square one. It doesn't help that much like The Binding of Isaac (another top-down game that Sabre Wulf must have either directly or indirectly inspired), so much of every playthrough seems to be down to complete chance. While the jungle map is set for every run, things like item placement and enemy spawns seem to be completely random. Some runs might start with an abundance of extra lives to pick up on the first few screens. Other times you might navigate forty screens and not see a single one. I guess the random aspect adds replayability since it ensures no two runs are the same, but for me it also fosters frustration - especially when enemies spawn right under my feet and leave me powerless to stop them.

An Hour In...

I continue to play Sabre Wulf until my allotted hour is up, but to be honest, there's really not much more I can say about the last forty minutes that would be different from the first twenty. My most successful run ends with a high score of 28,070 points and a pretty impressive 32% adventure completion, but even on this run I don't manage to find any of the four amulet pieces required to make tangible progress towards the end. I'm still none the wiser as to whether these amulet pieces are set at defined places on the map, or whether their locations are randomly determined like every other item and enemy in the game. I don't even know what the damn things look like. While holding down the A button has mitigated some of my combat frustration, the inability to attack directly above or below Sabreman makes vertically navigating the game's narrow pathways a very uninviting prospect, especially since this is how most of my deaths seem to be occurring at this stage.

When my time is up, I power down Sabre Wulf feeling that even in spite of my gradual improvements, my ever-increasing adventure completion percentage, and my earned spots on the high score leaderboard, I haven't really made any in-roads towards completing it. And that, more than anything, is why I turn off the Xbox One feeling unfulfilled at the end of the hour.

The Verdict

I think it's already pretty clear to anyone who's made it this far that I'm going to be giving a PASS verdict to Sabre Wulf today. On some levels I found it to be a very impressive product. Graphically it excels in my opinion, I love the bright colours and the detailed sprite designs of the jungle environments and enemies alike. While the gameplay is simplistic, the maze-like nature of the jungle map makes any amount of progress, however slight, feel rewarding. And on the subject of that map, its size must have been a very impressive technical feat at the time.

Unfortunately I can't say the same for the rest of the package. Sabre Wulf's core conceit and mechanics are unintuitive, and the gameplay lacks the depth that the game's intended scope seems to demand (the inability to attack up or down on the screen in particular is a real disappointment). What really harms it for me is how much of the player's success is determined by chance, with randomly spawning enemies and items that can benefit or cripple a run before it's even begun. As a history lesson on the ZX Spectrum era of games, something I was completely unfamiliar with an hour ago, it's been insightful But on the base level of asking myself, "is this a game I want to keep playing?", then the answer is sadly no.

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And so we come to the end of another edition of An Hour With.... I hope you're all enjoying this series as much as I've grown to enjoy writing it. Next time I'll be casting an eye over a cult horror classic on the Xbox 360. Until then, thanks very much for reading. Take care, and I'll see you around.

Daniel

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Currently playing - Sabre Wulf (XBO)

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