Indie Three-For-One Land: Ninja Abzû Blade

Morphblade

Morphblade is the latest work by Tom Francis, of Gunpoint fame. I’d been following Morphblade for a bit, even played a few of the alpha versions when those got sent out, but it dropped off my radar after 2017 happened and a billion other games flooded my consciousness. And suddenly, there it was! And since it’s not a particularly large game in the first place…

Morphblade is billed as being strongly influenced by / ‘a direct response to’ an iOS game called Imgroglio. Which would make my review a lot easier if I’d actually played that, but then it’s an iOS game and I don’t have access to those. Luckily, it’s also heavily inspired by the mobile game Hoplite, which was actually a part of my last triple feature. Whew! Need to do actual in-depth work: avoided.

Like Hoplite, Morphblade is a turn-based game of hexagonal tiles and careful combat. Like Imbroglio, what you-the-player can actually do in a turn depends on where you are.

Example:

Every new game of Morphblade starts (after the very first round, which offers literally no choices but ‘fight’ or ‘die’) in a three-hex triangle. Each hex tile has an icon, which corresponds to a particular weapon or power. You share that space with one enemy, a ‘bug’, with only hostile intentions. It’s up to you to kill the bug using the weapons and powers on your tiles. You can move between adjacent tiles by clicking, and doing so takes one turn. But then all the enemies on the field get a turn as well. Enemies take one turn to fully spawn, but after that, they’re unerringly try to get within striking range, and attack whenever they can. You can survive one hit at a time, and it’s possible to heal in-between, but consecutive hits — or getting knocked off the tile field — kill you.

You fight back using your tiles. For instance, the tile you start on is always the Hammer. If you click on an adjacent enemy when you’re the Hammer, you don’t move into that tile, but instead smash that enemy to death. Maybe one of your other tiles is the Blade, which lets you kill enemies by moving past them — not directly into them, but to a tile adjacent, opening up the possibility of killing two enemies at once. Maybe another tile yet is the Heal, which repairs any damage when you move onto it — but which in and by itself doesn’t confer any attacking powers.

Now, a play space of three tiles might not sound like a lot. But here is one of Morphblade‘s two core tricks: Every time you clear a wave, you must add one tile to your tableau. Usually that looks like this:

You’re given a small random selection of new tiles and must pick one. You pick it by moving into it, and as soon as you do, the new round starts — and one or more enemies spawn in at random locations.

And occasionally it looks like this:

Blank tiles! That means you get to choose the upgrade of your choice.

Maybe you already see where this is headed. Over time, your play space becomes not just larger, but also less predictable. It’s entirely possible to build up comfortable fortresses on one part of the map, but you must always activate a new tile to start the round. But the larger field also provides more options, more possibilities to build cool combos: Arrows and Teleporters for fast travel, Heals for repairs, Acid to strip armored enemies so you can actually kill them.

And then we add Morphblade‘s second core trick: The upgrades. Each tile type has a particular trigger to gain upgrades: Generally, weapon tiles must kill 6 enemies, and all other tiles must have 6 enemies die on them. Or you can kill a special black upgrade bug, that works too. Once triggered, you can upgrade a tile, granting it an additional special power based on its type — and on the types of adjacent tiles.

This feature wasn’t in the Morphblade alphas I played, but it very rapidly became my favourite thing.

Now, suddenly, building your field is a multi-layered puzzle. It’s not just a matter of ‘what do I need in this region’, but also ‘what would I like adjacent tiles to eventually have’. Should this tile become a Teleporter so I can escape the barren edge of the map, or an Arrow, so I can upgrade this Hammer with extra range? You get the idea.

Morphblade, of course, doesn’t sit idly by while you get stronger. Enemies show up each round, and over time, they become more numerous and more dangerous. Pusher enemies don’t deal damage, but can knock you off the board. Ranged enemies don’t have to get close. Flying enemies are mobile. Armored enemies are resistant. Exploding (‘baneling’) enemies blow up when killed, taking the tile they’re on with them — you can reconstitute it freely after the round, but you might not always get the same upgrade, and any adjacency effects are gone with the wind for now. And that’s before the game starts stacking enemy types…

Armored Range bug: I had to get it to an Acid tile to be able to damage it, but it had no reason to get anywhere close to me. Won’t surprise you to see that I lost that round.

And that’s… really it, honestly. Once you learn and understand all tiles, powers, and upgrades, you understand 100% of Morphblade. Which is easier than you might think, since you can always right-click on anything to learn what it does. The challenge in Morphblade is simply to survive as long as possible. There’s no larger goal or convenient ‘out’ like Hoplite, you just fight until you die.

Hey, look who got himself into a doomed scenario.

The only measure of score in Morphblade (so far) is the number of rounds you’ve cleared. My absolute best so far is 30 rounds, which I’ve gotten to twice. Think you can do better? Think you want to prove you can do better? For only five Steam-bucks, Morphblade is a neat, short, minimalist game that cleanly expresses its core systems without clutter, that doesn’t bolt on more than is needed, and that almost always manage to make an inherently random set of starting conditions, upgrades, and enemy spawns feel like they’re in your control — or at least in control enough that you have a strong sense of mastery over the environment, right up until the point where you don’t. So by all means, go try! Let me know if you got better than me.

I’ll be waiting.

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Jarenth has finally remembered to put something of an end-of-article footer in his columns! To celebrate, follow him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

One comment

  1. I went into Abzu with the knowledge that it had the same art director as Journey and I was just flat out disappointed with how dull of an experience it provided. It felt like it hit all the same beats but with less poignancy

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