This industry catches its share of flack for how its game heroines are portrayed, with non-gamers and even fans of the pastime criticizing the jiggly polygons and exaggerated curves that populate most female-starring titles. Not from me, though; I generally adore the buns-and-guns dynamic. From big stars such as Croft to even the lesser knowns like Heavenly Sword's Nariko, Iíll take a female protagonist over some off-the-assembly line macho space marine any day. Maybe because I'm a guy, I appreciate the opportunity to see things through the eyes of the fairer sex when adventuring through an alternate interactive world. Or maybe, I'm just a perv. Regardless, Iíll stop going on about this topic before I begin reminiscing over Bloodrayneís much-missed waist-straddling/jugular-sucking attack. This is, after all, a review of X-Blades, the latest game to cash-in on the appeal of ass-kicking hotties. And while this title has mostly remained under the radar, I made sure to give it a whirl based almost entirely on my affection for playable female protagonists.
The sexy slayer in question, Ayumi, brings the expected brimming bosom, tight, barely-there garments and, of course, a whopping case of whup-ass to South Peak's fantasy-themed hack and slasher. She's more anime than realistically styled (and not just in the obvious ways), and packs an arsenal that'd make Devil May Cry's Dante envious. Forget guns and blades; Ayumi's all about gun-blades. Yep, her dagger-like melee weapons also shoot projectiles of various stopping power. On top of slinging those bad boys, she's also got access to a variety of spells and upgradeable powers such as a fun earthquake summoning attack and a fireball casting ability.
Her many powers are purchased by collecting souls from downed enemies and trading them for new goodies. Experimenting with the vast arsenal of spells and upgrades makes for some fun character building, especially when you realize Ayumi must break out specific abilities to tackle certain threats. A monster that easily goes down with a lightning attack may laugh in the face of your fiery projectiles. Despite this bit of strategy and Ayumi's array of beast-slaying toys, the combat often devolves into chaotic shooting, slashing and spell-casting bouts where you unleash everything you've got to unclutter the screen of flying and ground-based baddies. It's lots of fun at first, but as is often the case with this type of game, it does get repetitive as the levels grind on.
What hurts the combat more, though, is the lame line-up of enemies; you'll clear room after room of familiar-feeling bad guys, lacking much detail or imagination in their design or attack patterns. There are some exceptions, such as some spooky phantom-like demons and a few stand-out bossses, but most enemies are just bad versions of creatures that have fallen right from the generic monster game bestiary. The color-soaked fantasy-themed environments pick up some of the slack, offering almost anime versions of the type of terrain Lara Croft might tread. Ayumi also looks good and animates even better; her over-the-top fighting style is easy on the eyes, but it's actually the smaller touches, like the fact she sports three separate animations for walking, running, and full-speed sprinting that show the care put into the character. The latter, speedy move is especially impressive as she holds her blades out to either side while her three lengthy pig tails whip in her wake.
Aside from the rapid-fire combat, X-Blades offers a bit of exploration and puzzling, but these elements take the way-back seat to the frenetic fighting. The title sets up Ayumi as a treasure hunter not unlike Tomb Raider spelunking heroine, but that aspect never really takes off beyond breaking some destructible statues and pots containing artifacts to upgrade her powers and weapons. The same can be said for the story as well; it starts off fairly ambitious--powerful relics, ancient light and dark magic, demonic forces at work--put never really pays off. This isn't helped by Ayumi's unlikable demeanor. She may be nice to look at it, but her adolescent punky attitude gets old real fast. Even worse, her grrrl-y personality makes her seem like a snarky teenager which, in turn, made me feel like a dirty old man for admiring her jiggly bits. If you're going to give us a playable hottie, please don't kill the experience by making her come off as potential jail bait.
Still, when Ayumi keeps her mouth shut she's a fun character to kick ass with. And the game's speed-of-light combat can be a real blast, especially if you enjoy a good hack-and-slasher. The weapon upgrades--including some cool bullet binding--and spell collecting also elevate the fighting passed just button-mashing mayhem. If the care that went into crafting the curvy star had been applied to creating inventive enemies, an engaging story, and tolerable voice acting, then X-Blades could've been much more than a one-trick pony. If you're looking for some thumb-blistering battling at the hands of a barely-dressed female protagonist, you could do a lot worse (see Bikini Samurai Squad) than X-Blades. If nothing else, it should keep that itch scratched until Bayonetta slays us with her hair dragons later this year. [Editor's note: or pick up Heavenly Sword if you've now got a PS3 and missed it the first time around.]