Often cited as one of the best games for the 32X, Blackthorne is a flipscreen puzzle-platformer in the tradition of games like Prince of Persia and Flashback. As Kyle Vlaros aka Blackthorne, you seek to save your people, the Androthi, from subjugation under the evil Sarlac. Armed with a shotgun, you blast foes, solve puzzles, and steadily climb through five areas and 21 levels of challenge.
Blackthorne has generally gotten positive, even glowing reviews. Our own review at Sega-16 gives it 8/10, the reader score currently averages 9/10, and other reviewers like the Video Game Critic have given it a solid A.
Sounds promising, right? Well, my own reaction is rather different: I didn’t enjoy Blackthorne at all, and I believe it to be one of the most overrated games I’ve ever played. It’s lazy, shallow, and frankly, it’s completely douchey.
I’ll admit the game put me off from the start, since the basic aesthetic is so adolescent and strained — it’s trying way too hard to be cool for 14-year-olds. Kyle, our muscular and tiny-headed protagonist, is hilariously bro-tastic, right down to the waiting animation where he polishes his sunglasses on his shirt. (Presumably when he puts them back on, he should say a one-liner and Roger Daltrey will come in with a scream.)
I was further put off when I realized Blackthorne lets you shoot prisoners and allies with no consequences. I assume that’s meant to show how bad-ass the game is, but it just seems lazy and cynical. There’s no incentive to play carefully and with precision, nor is there any reason to find a way to protect your friends (as in Abe’s Odyssey). It’s just dumb, and a wasted opportunity to boot.
But the real problem is the gameplay, which is relentlessly dull and plodding, with little variation between levels and basically nothing to change things up. Sure, an enemy gets added or taken away here or there, but it’s all just the same stuff over and over again: climb onto a platform, hide in the shadows, fire 1-2 shots, repeat. You don’t learn any new skills, and your “new” weapons are only faster, more powerful versions of the old ones.
The control is OK, but Kyle’s running jump can be quite difficult to time, especially when the screen flips. Making matters worse, he moves so slowly that you’re tempted to take unnecessary risks just to save time. And the icing on the cake is the massive slowdown you get in later areas if there are more than a few live objects in the playfield. It’s totally not justified by what’s happening onscreen, can throw off your timing completely, and suggests that the game was rushed out the door (but what 32X game wasn’t?).
The stage design is uninspired, especially by the high standards of the genre which has given us classics like Prince of Persia and Out of This World. It’s almost as if the designers were afraid to alienate their teenage buyers by making puzzles with any real challenge, so all the solutions are obvious and boil down to “find the thing to blow up” or “find the enemy you haven’t killed yet”.
Once or twice the game hints at doing something more sophisticated, but then backs off from the possibility, and instead repeats the same “Blow up the inaccessible power generator with a remote wasp” formula. People have cited the 32X version’s extra levels as an asset, but with design like this, it’s just more tedium to slog through (and the Lost Vikings cameo is a total waste, BTW). The final boss fight is a welcome change, but only serves to highlight the fact that there should’ve been a boss for every area.
The plot is aptly described by Hardcore Gaming 101 as “lowest common denominator comic book schlock,” though it mostly stays out of the way. NPCs are little more than placeholders for item drops. And not only are the cut scenes unskippable and poorly animated, but they run at a rate of about one line of text per 10-15 seconds, and you can’t hit a button to make it go faster. Impressive.
The graphics are fine, I suppose, with some nice backgrounds in a few areas. Still, it’s not clear why this needed to be on the 32X; people complain all the time about games like Cosmic Carnage and Motocross that don’t fully exploit the 32X’s potential, but it’s hard to imagine that Blackthorne couldn’t have been done on a stock Genesis or Sega CD.
Finally, the music and sound are surprisingly poor. The tunes sound like an attempt to pull off a subpar version of SNES-style music, and the compositions were never that great to begin with. Your foes’ mocking laughter sounds like Mr. Sandman from NES Punch-Out! – a succession of obviously pitch-shifted samples that sound thoroughly unnatural and out-of-place. There are also bugs in the sound code, especially in the last area where the music goes totally haywire if it plays for long enough.
I know that the 32X needs every good game it can get, but Blackthorne isn’t one of them. At best, it’s 5/10, simply by merit of being competent in most aspects, but I could see giving it 4/10 or even 3/10. I love games in this genre, but when I compare it to the games I’ve mentioned like Abe’s Odyssey, it just falls down on every level.
Bottom line, Blackthorne absolutely doesn’t deserve the “best game on the 32X” label it sometimes gets — it’s not even close.