‘Wolfstride’ review: a stylish mech-smasher that takes some warming up

Cattletech

It’s been a good long while since a game gave me as much trouble picking screenshots for a review as Wolfstride. Each one feels like a manga panel. Each some strange, unique moment, so sharp and stylish that it’s tempting to forgo words altogether and just string up a gallery of them. This nicotine-stained, southern-fried, mech-battling JRPG is slick, goofy, heartfelt, and exciting. It can also be frustratingly ponderous, self-indulgent, and backed up with dull toilet humour. One moment I love it. Next I think it’s trash. Wait. No. It is trash. Lovely, lovely trash.

You play most of the game as a beatdown, tar-throated ex-Yakuza named Shade. Shade looks a bit like he just spent a ten-year stint in a tumble dryer full of angry hamsters, and a bit like Spike from Cowboy Bebop’s ketamine dealer. He’s still a surprisingly amiable character to spend time with. Aloof, yes, but only for an anime protagonist, which is to say he’ll still back away from conversation he wants no part of by moonwalking off-screen. As the story moves forward, Shade’s past and relationships surface, and that perpetual monochrome starts to fill with warm colour.

Shade can solve his friends’ problems. Talk a pig through relationship advice whilst sitting on a sofa atop a towering mountain of junkyard scrap. Perform impromptu exorcisms. Fix jukeboxes. Bicycle courier. Make a mean omelette. One thing he can’t do, though, is pilot a mech. And that’s where Knife – and much of Wolfstride’s gameplay – come in.

Combat uses a turn-based, action and movement point system across a seven-space horizontal arena. You’ll move, shoot, punch, repair, buff and debuff, all with the goal of destroying the opposing mech’s chestplate by knocking its HP down to zero. Abilities vary in effectiveness from different ranges, and you can spend double movement to crash into your opponent, sending them back a square. Some squares weaken their occupants, others strengthen, and if either side forces the other into the last square on their side of the arena, they’ll get a massive damage bonus.

Wolfstride
Wolfstride. Credit: OTA IMON Studios.

Throw in armour values that need to be chipped away through special abilities to prevent them absorbing health damage, and charging special bars for powerful healing or damage buffs, and you end up with impactful push-and-pull clashes that sometimes run a little bit too long or short to be truly satisfying. At its best – that is to say, when the challenge hits a sweet spot – the fights are just as great as two mechs knocking seven shades of steel out of each other should be. Chunky melees that have you focusing on positioning, conserving specials, and building morale for that one perfect turn that allows you to clinch the edge in what can be bastard-long wars of creaking attrition.

As every true mech aficionado knows, though, the fights are just peacock shows. The real game is buying cool hunks of metal with silly names and slotting them into your five billion tonne beast of a paper dress-up doll. Regrettably, your mech’s appearance never actually changes, but scavenging for cash, shopping for parts, and swapping out frames and pilot skills is still wonderfully captivating.

This customisation opens up a fair few approaches to combat, too. Ranged, melee and defence builds are all viable, with more options unlocking as you make progress. Cash is scarce initially, but a few hours in, I was raking in money from an arcade I’d invested in, cashing out on underground mech fights, and occasionally digging for treasure in an old junkyard owned by a flamboyant talking pig.

Wolfstride
Wolfstride. Credit: OTA IMON Studios.

It’s a solid loop, made pleasant by a great soundtrack, but it does have issues. The town itself consists of around five locations, and these get repurposed a lot for fetch quests and the like. This can get exceptionally dull. Especially when you’re pixel-hunting for some piece of extraneous shite or another. The upside is you do get to know each location intimately. Some of them might even start feeling like home.

A tonal litmus test, for you, dear reader. Do you find words like “crap-tastrophe” inherently amusing? If not, you’ll have to grin and bear it. Personally, yes, I like crap-tastrophe, although a robot trainer called ‘peepoo’ that’s pretty central to the plot is painfully unfunny. Elsewhere, the infectious friendship between your group means a few flat jokes and hit-or-miss meta-references are far more tolerable.

There’s a recurring pop-up whenever you try to pause a cutscene, informing you that an artist dies for every scene skipped. It’s a neat reminder how hard people work on these things, and I appreciate its inclusion. But it’s also somewhat of a hint at the impositions the game will make on you later with its lengthy dialogue, where the difference between touching and overwrought, between dusky sci-fi cowboy charm and self-important excess is all in the timing. And Wolfstride is often just that little bit too slow on the draw.

That’s not to say there aren’t some fantastic lines and moments to match the consistently absorbing visuals. Shade breaking kayfabe to explain to a friend the narrative complexities and joys of K-Drama with a diagram. Meeting Shade’s buddha-like sensei only to realise his zen appearance obscures constant sailor-mouthed insults. Even some of the more serious moments are genuinely effective, helped by a largely great set of voice performances. You’ll eventually unlock the chance to earn cash and prizes in side battles. But in those opening hours, the amount of story can seriously drag when all you want to do is get back into the cockpit.

So, yeah. It’s an odd one, this. The sort of singularly strange and strikingly individual experience you only really get when a single person does all the art and all the writing. Do I think someone should have reigned in their sillier and grander impulses? Yep. Am I sort of glad that they didn’t? Absolutely. Wolfstride is hyperactive to the point where it often loses focus. But I’d be lying if I said that energy wasn’t frequently infectious as hell.

Wolfstride is available now for PC.

The Verdict

Pacing issues and some, uh, highly subjective humour aside, Wolfstride is a pleasingly original, sharply animated and silly JRPG tribute. Go in with some patience, and it’ll eventually be rewarded with an infectious mecha-battler with heart and style.

Pros

  • Stylish monochrome manga look
  • Outfitting, upgrading, and testing out your mech is a great time
  • Warm characters you’ll (eventually) enjoy spending time with
  • Some wild mech designs

Cons

  • Slow and dull opening hours, with the occasional relapse
  • Let me customise how my mech looks, damn you
  • Some highly questionable dialogue choices
  • Combat can’t always find the sweet spot
  • Peepoo
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