Carry on Slaughtering should be the sub-title to Deathbringer. It's a camped up, sword-wielding, monster-slaying romp with Karn the Barbie and his magic sword Abaddon. It's awash with swish parallax and evil end-of-level baddies, it's a Michael Moorcock adventure that's just made for Children's BBC: good clean fun with weird overtones. A mixed bag of ideas and images it may be, but there is potential here for one of the best hack and slashers of the season.
Deathbringer has echoes of the Elric tales, so told by the Hawkwind novelist Michael Moorcock. These darker fantasy elements of soul stealing have been taken firmly by the wit and made fun. The game stars Karn, a barbarian of little brain but great reputation, and his soul-stealing sword, Abaddon. Together they form a pokey tag team - most of the time.
Karn is a run-of-the-mill, loincloth-wearing barbarian with a standard energy limit that's whittled down by enemy attacks. Abaddon is another kettle of worms altogether. Abaddon was a demon wizard and he has now turned himself into a blade to steal souls. The sword has retained the intelligence and bad habits of the original Abby. So when Karn uses Abby to kill someone, the sword gets to keep the soul. If the sword is filled to overflowing then he gives Karn the extra souls back as fresh life energy.
This relationship works fine when there are plenty of victims, but if Abby starts to hunger for a soul food-snack, and Karn can't top someone then the sword will start to steal Karn's life power. If the sword gets empty, then it just ups the hilt and impales the barbarian. Not that the lack of soul input is always Karn's fault - undead foes for instance have no soul to steal - and that's where the game lies. Keeping Abby happy and Karn alive. To win, Karn must find the Inner Sanctum of the Society for Creative Armageddon. The road there is a twisted and convoluted one that leads through fire, ice, earth and dungeon levels. Karn must proceed, fighting anyone in sight and then trouncing the guardians at the end of each level.
Guardians live at both ends of each road because Deathbringer introduces a wonderfully weird interconnecting map system. Karn enters each new level somewhere near the centre and therefore has a choice as to which way he goes. There's no right way, just longer and shorter routes, just as there are easier and tougher ones. Each different style of level and each specific level itself, has its own mix of combat intensity and distance to travel.
Combined, the map system, need for souls and avoiding combat damage sets the game's tension. Maintaining a health and sould balance is difficult but essential if you want to see Karn get shot of his sword as well as the wizards at the end of this trial.
All the dark trappings used to manufacture the plot are neatly ridiculed by the graphics. The action takes place over a smooth parallax background while silly monsters attack in daft ways. At the end of each level well drawn big guys prove that looks can kill by being as deadly as they are pretty. While Karn himself runs in a high knee, camped-up fashion - Conan he is not! Deathbringer uses sword and sorcery elements to create plot but it doesn't have its gameplay terms dictated by them.
The slickness of the graphics - particularly the smart tiled parallax - do have the unfortunate effect of bringing the game's weakest element into sharp focus. Karn, you see, is an uncontrollable lout. He does what you tell him, eventually, but never immediately. There's a minute delay between the joystick initiation of an action and its enaction on screen. A running Karn has to be stopped a step early for combat, sword strokes in battle have to be anticipated and cannot be reaction based. The time lag is tolerable, and predictable, so it can be built into your game plan. But when the going gets tough it annoys, as the early promise is squandered.
Deathbringer is fun as it brings a much needed lighter tone to the hack-and-slash genre - which generally takes itself far too seriously. Graphically, it does the business and the parallax is good enough to be worth mentioning three times in one review. As a game though, the lag between joystick movement and on-screen action takes it out of the major league. Deathbringer revives a flagging genre, it's no classic but the clever balance between sword and warrior, all mixed-up in the weird maps make it worth a hack.