No Refunds: “Blue Fire”

This 3D platformer frustrates at every opportunity, and while it looks like it may eventually be at least enjoyable, albeit derivative, these first two-odd hours are a major turnoff.

One of the first things players see as they work their way through the grey hallways of Penumbra’s Abandoned Keep in Blue Fire is a discarded pit of corpses, all of which look like your masked character. It’s a bit of a prelude to what follows, because whether you misread a poorly telegraphed attack knocking you back into one of the game’s many spectral red thorns, slightly dip one’s toe into the green sludge of a poorly maintained sewer system in the Arcane Tunnels, or misjudge the length of a chasm in one of the platform-y Void challenges, you will die, a lot.

If only those deaths were the result of difficulty as opposed to obtuseness. I can’t tell you how many times in just the first two hours I stumbled across challenges that I either didn’t realize I couldn’t yet complete–ostensibly a missing glide, a missing wall jump–or obstacles that I was supposed to traverse, but skipped, thinking that there was no way I could make that jump, even with a perfectly timed dash. After passing by dozens of sealed doorways in the Abandoned Keep, with no signposts or directives on where or what to do, no landmarks to help encourage players toward some sort of immediate goal or aspiration, players have to suddenly realize two aerial switches that they can lock-on and dash toward? Things get worse, not better, as a result of the drab three-dimensional design, which forces players to chain together aerial moves while also fighting with the camera. This is a critique that goes all the way back to Mario 64, but at least that was a relatively colorful game with clearly marked (and franchise-familiar) obstacles, and it’s one that has been addressed by many three-dimensional platformers since, so even an indie title like this has little excuse for stumbling.

Folks, I cheated a bit and played slightly longer than my allotted two hours–not because I enjoyed the mindless combat, but because I was lost in the first semi-open area, Stoneheart City, for so long that I wanted to at least give Blue Fire‘s first “dungeon,” the Forest Shrine, a chance. And I’ll admit, the game improves, as expected, upon getting the claws, which allow you to both wall jump and wall run. But here, again, completing the shrine wasn’t actually difficult so much as it was confusing to navigate, with two largely superfluous levers to control water levels (only one of which seems useful). I kept missing the passage that needed to head down once I found the claw treasure, and then stumbled multiple times trying to maneuver from a switch to the timed door it opened, Blue Fire wasting no time in chaining together different types of wall runs and jumps while also throwing enemies into the mix.

The hook of Blue Fire is meant to be something like “Hollow Knight, but in three-dimensions,” but that’s far too generalized a concept to build off, especially given that the best Dark Souls and platformers revolve around specificity: atmospheric yet signpoint-y level design, tight and responsive controls. Honestly, even if I hadn’t hit my time limit for this impression, I might’ve stopped anyway, dreading having to find my way back to the various shops in Stoneheart City now that I had enough “ore” to actually upgrade my purse and buy a few ability-enhancing souls, hoping that I wouldn’t once again die and drop all that money along the way. Frustration only goes so far without a proper motivator to keep you going.

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