Carnal fury and ghoulish lust inform this bloody beat-’em-up adaptation of Robert Zemeckis’ filmic version of the Old English epic, but “Beowulf” the game’s scattershot mechanics and stilted narrative mar an otherwise ordinary action adventure. Thirty years of an ancient hero’s life boiled down to a dozen hours punching buttons and watching badly spliced narrative may please some fans of gory graphics but probably won’t carry sales much beyond the film’s opening weekend.
“Beowulf” commits the cardinal sin of assuming players already know the story of this tragic Norse hero, unfolding less like a standalone package than a supplementary brochure for the Paramount/WB film. Beowulf fights crabs, monsters and throngs of dumb barbarians, wrestles with Grendel, steers a boat across stormy lightning-lit seas, and battles pattern-shackled end-level honchos. Esoteric references and a smattering of dialogue ensure that only students of the poem or fans of the film will have a clue. It’s all muscle and bone with no connective tissue.
The monsters come and go without explanation, their stories reduced to the number of heavy and light attacks or dodge-and-grab moves Beowulf needs to pull off to defeat them. The hero’s “carnal energy,” which builds over time and allows Beowulf to throw bloodier punches and kicks at the risk of simultaneously clobbering his allies, is supposed to provide a moral dilemma for players. But since enemies and friends constantly pile on together in huge scrums, the dilemma quickly becomes moot as players soon learn it’s impossible to use this power tactically.
Episodes blink by, scattershot, like multiple designers tossing ideas into a blender. A modestly inspired music game lets players tap out rhythms to rally Beowulf’s “thanes” who follow him squad-like into battle. Thanes are good at momentarily allaying swarms of enemies, but since their deaths cause missions to fail, they end up more like gimmicky albatrosses, crying for Beowulf’s help more than they provide it.
Beowulf’s swords and shields snap with use and need to be replenished from random piles or wrestled from enemies, though he does wonders with just his bare hands most of the time. Other than some interesting climbing and sliding animations, however, the list of attacks and finishing moves feels skimpy compared with other fighting games.
The Danish castle Herot eventually serves as a hub from which players can upgrade thanes, boost powers, or choose missions from a map of the kingdom. It’s also the place where players can view Beowulf’s progress toward “hero king” or “monster slayer,” a superficial minigame premised on how often the “carnal rage” power is invoked.
Characters are well-designed and move fluidly, but the environments are mostly dark, generic caves and outdoor areas washed out with crude environmental effects.