Puzzle games are a dime a dozen these days, though few seem to make their way into the hands of PC players. The glory days of Puzzle Quest mostly gone, and the games releasing today are cash grab mimics parading about mobile platforms like shadows of a once unique and exciting genre. In walks BloodGate, a breath of fresh yet vaguely familiar air promising great things. So far, however, it may only deliver on some of those promises.
BloodGate starts off strongly enough. Players are greeted by a short opening story, a fun presentation of hand-drawn comic slides and a prelude battle that introduces them to the game's most basic, match 3 style mechanics. Skills are introduced, erupting in vibrant and colorful flashes of elemental light as a warrior's sword is imbued with collected power, then unleashed with the next match combo. Said skills eventually grow and diversify among three possible classes, a Mage, a Warrior and a Thief, into even more vibrant fair like snow storms and spiked armor, with suitable clangs and explosive bangs that add impact to every action. Graphically, battles are a joy to watch, with fully animated characters and animations that join and tween fluidly while the player is performing their matches, sword strikes, and parries uninterrupted as if scripted.
There is a downside, one of many that seem to counter every potentially great element the game has to offer. Battles are so intense that the graphical interpretation of your matching prowess is difficult to watch, eyes glued instead to the match-board rather than the action it simulates. Unlike many other puzzle games, BloodGate plays in real-time, and enemies attack quickly. Players will constantly need to focus on building matches to both attack enemies and build their defenses, 'armor' when matches are performed in a circular pattern. There's little opportunity to enjoy all the eye candy of your geared warriors and their animated spells. Oddly, it seems as if the beauty of combat is meant more for potential spectators. For the player, these graphics may as well not exist at all.
Combat considers both the player's ability to match up colored orbs and their equipment setup, including gear and spell selection. While this adds an extra element to battle and instills a sense of progression and investment in one's characters, the application of these systems often seems to work against the player and, therefore, the game. Enemies grow in strength at a phenomenal rate, far outpacing player growth. Their strength, health, and defensive values will quickly become exponentially higher than the players without some intense grinding. Unfortunately, even intense grinding can be proven moot by the sheer amount of times enemies block, dodge, and parry player attacks, negating all the effort spent in gearing and planning.
Unlike players, enemies either have no dodge stat, or it just cannot be seen. To further add insult to injury, there is no way to increase accuracy through gear, so it's not even as if players can fine-tune stats to help their attacks land. Whether attacks and spells land is a complete dice roll, making even weaker enemies into an often aggravating challenge for all the wrong reasons. Nothing is a more defeating experience than to build a matching combo that clears the entire stage of all orbs for what should be an incredible attack, only to see the enemy leap out of the way simply because they can. This could be chalked up to bad luck were it a rare occurrence, but players will find some enemies dodging the majority of their attacks, all while spamming unavoidable spells. A recent patch claims to have reduced the dodge abilities of enemies, but there's still a significant amount of enemy dodges contributing both to combat frustration and overall length of each fight.
Once again both amazing and simultaneously infuriating is the game's equipment system. Deeply enmeshed in the RPG genre, BloodGate's gear updates characters' looks as well as their stats, and is upgradeable through a star rating that eventually upgrades the gear's tier (Rare, Epic, Legendary, etc.) for huge bonuses in rating. Earning and leveling gear is a genuinely significant part of the fun of the game, both in its aesthetic impact on your characters and the added layers of progression.
It is therefore doubly upsetting that earning and maintaining gear is such an incredible chore. All gear collected is done through RNG-style features; either you gain the gear randomly, and rarely, from enemies, or you earn enough money to buy an equipment box. Opening the box grants a random chance at random gear, of random quality, for a random class. There is very little control over gear, and players are left to contend with whatever they're given. The whole system makes for an unbalanced experience, especially as players are first starting the game, where some may be especially favored by luck and do especially well, while others are left spending all their earnings on upgrading common gear just to survive the first Chapter.
Gold is earned largely through battles and is the primary means of upgrading your gear; the amount obtained remaining consistent save for some small randomization above or below a standard number. This doesn't change as you level up, and this doesn't change as you get further into the game's stages. As players receive between 800-2000 gold per battle (favoring the lowest end) on average, upgrading gear becomes a massive grind, with even the lowest tier gear costing 4000g or more per added star. Spells can also be leveled manually, but they cost tens of thousands of gold per rank, per spell, money that is sorely needed for gear. The need for gold is insane and degrades an engaging puzzle game to a repetitive F2P-style grind. The standardized rewards combine with an extremely steep incline of difficulty to create a progression quagmire that traps players in the earliest stages of the game for an excessive amount of time.
As great as its concept, BloodGate's potential is drained by abysmal pacing that would feel more familiar in F2P mobile games, which may not be the best company to be in. There is no real benefit to progressing in the game because of its standardized gold, randomized distribution of gear, and exponential enemy growth. Players will find themselves grinding the first few stages of an otherwise very long game practically to the point of eye bleed, the same stage with the same enemy dozens if not hundreds of times to upgrade gear and level up, just to repeat the process dozens if not hundreds of times more. Assuming, of course, they don't simply move on to another game before then.
It's worth noting that developer Outlast has been active in the game's forums in responding to player feedback, the recent enemy tuning patch in seeming response to criticism of the game's difficulty. There's a fantastic foundation to build from, obvious even in Early Access, and through all the game's flaws. How many of those flaws make it the final version remains to be seen.
BloodGate was previewed on PC via Steam Early Access with a code provided by the developer.