Trials Of The Blood Dragon Review (And Narrative Analysis)
When a game is announced at the giant gaming convention known as E3, its release date is usually months, if not years away. But Ubisoft bucked the trend this year with Trials Of The Blood Dragon, which was announced at the press conference last week and then immediately released following its conclusion.
An odd release strategy for sure, but it is by far not the oddest thing about the game, a strange amalgamation of the Far Cry: Blood Dragon franchise and the long-running and extremely popular Trials motorbike game series. By taking the VHS B-movie aesthetic of the Blood Dragon universe and combining it with the always off-kilter Trials sense of humor and style, the creators of Trials Of The Blood Dragon have made an interesting thing, even if it whole doesn’t match the sum of its parts.
Oh, and also the game might just be a stark social commentary and allegory for America’s war on terror, criticizing how the media twists the will of the people to fit the machinations of an evil and uncaring military-industrial complex.
Or maybe that’s just me seeing that. But we’ll get there.
The game sets itself up as a sequel to the original Blood Dragon (which was originally released as a “stand alone expansion” to Far Cry 3). In a combination of narration and cinematic, it is reveled that Rex Colt married Dr. Darling, the femme fatale from the first game, and they went onto have twins, Slayter and Roxanne. Unfortunately, Darling vanished when the children were young, and Rex died in battle not soon after. As a result, the children were taken in by Rex’s commanding officer, General Ryback, and summarily recruited to join his army of cybernetic soldiers in the war against communists (in this universe we’re on Vietnam 4).
Sometimes this conflict plays out via fairly traditional Trials gameplay, with either Roxanne or Slayter maneuvering dirt bikes through varying nefarious and dangerous landscapes, such as enemy bases deep the in Vietnam jungle, drug dens in the heart of Miami or in hidden temples full of lost artifacts. But soon, the game mixes things up, with the player assuming control of the young soldiers as they pilot jet packs, six-wheeled tanks or even go on foot, guns-blazing.
Throughout it all, the game is dripping in pastiche, kitsch, throwbacks and homages to various cultural artifacts of the 80s and 90s. The game’s story and setting seem to be drawing from all kinds of films from the era, including obvious picks like Rambo and Predator, but also from lesser-known fare like Delta Force and Dungeonmaster. In fact, it’s probably a safe bet that the creators of this game watched the entire Canon Films and Empire International Pictures catalogs as inspiration. The cutscenes, with their low-budget cartoon feel, also draw heavily from classic Saturday morning cartoons like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and G.I. Joe. The references even extend to the game’s hub world (made to look like a 90s kid’s bedroom) the opening logo scrolls (featuring graphics straight out of a Nickelodeon graphics package circa 1997) and the game’s fantastic score, a synth-heavy affair that draws from every straight-to-video movie that used a synthesizer instead of an orchestra in order to save money. Literally every aspect from this game is steeped in some sort of nostalgia for something.
It’s a cute hodgepodge of culture from bygone eras, and it’s all very welcome, because without it the game would most likely not work at all.
The Trials engine is a remarkable piece of software. Take a scroll through the user-created content for Trials Fusion and you’ll learn that first-hand. In the years since that game’s release, players have used the game’s editor to make damn near everything, from pinball machines, Pac-Man homages and even first person shooters.
But rarely do those experiments outside of the core Trials biking gameplay mechanic pay off. Yes, the Trials engine can do just about anything, but it really shouldn’t. That’s the case with the user-created levels, and that’s the case with Trials Of The Blood Dragon. Whenever this game leaves the bike behind, whether it be for a shoot-em side scroller level or a dexterity test piloting a finicky jetpack, it wipes out. Hard.
The game just doesn’t control well enough to handle those sections, many times demanding a level fidelity that it can’t provide. This leads to needless crashes and restarts. Thankfully the game isn’t as punishingly difficult as previous Trials games, but when you’re playing to get a high score and a fast time, taking a dive only because of sloppy controls can still be a maddening experience. However, the game’s short running time (about four hours) does assure that you won’t be that annoyed for long.
Honestly, this is a game where less is more. By dazzling you with its amazing aesthetic and reverence for its source material, Trials Of The Blood Dragon survives solely on charm for at least the first 90 minutes of gameplay. Non-frustrating additions to the game’s mechanics, such as some cool gravity tricks and a nice grappling hook, help pad out the rest and make the faults much more forgivable.
And then there’s the whole thing about the game being a secret commentary on American culture and the dangers of perpetual war.
Okay. So I’m going to get into story spoilers here. And yes, I know that sounds strange when talking about a Trials game, but trust me. If you have any interest in actually playing this game, then stop now and return once you’ve beaten it.
So, as I said before, the game takes place in the Blood Dragon universe. So a core plot point in the game’s story are the titular blood dragons, strange beasts that roam the jungle, terrorizing all in their path, much like kaiju. However, the blood of the blood dragons has special powers. In the previous game, a mad scientist used it to create an army of mindless soldiers. Here, the Viet Cong are trapping the monsters and using their blood as a sort of energy/weapons source.
Early in the game, Slayter and Roxanne put a stop to that by destroying a VC base, which as the side effect of releasing the beast into the jungles to lay waste to communist forces. From there, the duo go to Miami to battle drug lords, take down an evil band of ninjas posing as cartoon superheroes, and battle the CIA (Communist Insect Aliens). Along the way, they discover not only that their father is alive, but that their missing mother was actually a blood dragon in human form, giving them special powers that humans do not.
To rescue their father, who has been brainwashed and is now fighting with the VC, the two children go on a quest for the holy grail (hello Indiana Jones reference), hunt their dad down, kill him, and then use the power of the grail to bring him back to life, free of the brainwashing that made him the enemy. The children accomplish their mission, restoring their father to his previous self, for a heartfelt reunion.
But wait, it turns out that Ryback was really their mother in disguise! She, being part blood dragon, left the family to help her race. But when she found out that Rex was “dead” she returned incognito to help her children…and to help further her race’s plans. It turns out that every mission you’ve taken hasn’t been part of the war against the commies, but instead has been part of a secret plan, devised by your blood dragon mother, to help free her people on earth, decimate their interstellar nemesis (the CIA), and help lay the groundwork for a complete Blood Dragon takeover.
Darling confesses her love to both her children and to Rex, and asks them to join her cause, or die. The screen the fades to black, asking the player to collect several keys hidden throughout several areas to unlock the second half of the ending (as well as a series of incredibly hard challenges). Once the player does that, and rather annoyingly beats the final level again, the remaining section is shown. Rex defiantly pulls a gun on his once love, proclaiming his allegiance to his country. His wife then pulls a gun on him. The children pull their guns out as well, each pointing one at their respective parents while the parents turn guns on their own children.
Then, a cut to black followed by a gunshot.
So what the hell do we make of this? Is this just a final homage, a call back to the nonsensical plots of the films the game is drawing upon? Or is it something more?
Perhaps the game’s non-stop references to war films and the “Ra! Ra! Ra!” jingoism of the Cold War are more than just light-hearted pastiches and nostalgia-fueled parodies. Perhaps the game is using those cultural reference points not to have a laugh at 80s culture, but as a social commentary of today’s culture, albeit coated in a layer of 80s day-glo.
Because if you strip away that neon layer of disconnect, and take the game’s story at face value, it is dark from the get-go. You’re no longer controlling a pair of rag tag teenage heroes against the evils of communism; you’re playing as a pair of child soldiers whose fragile minds have manipulated to be cast into a war they don’t understand. You’re not even fighting against “the enemy” but are actively aiding the enemy’s actions, at one point you’re tricked to committing genocide against an entire race (the CIA). You’re told its because they’re “the enemy” and are conspiring with the communists in Vietnam, but the truth is that they’re only race that can defeat the blood dragons, so Darling orders them destroyed, using the threat of communism as a smokescreen. Is this sequence nothing more than a silly homage to Starship Troopers, or is it also a commentary addressing the war on terror?
And maybe the game’s countless references to the war-fueled media of the 80s are also commentary on the era from which they came. They could be critiquing the way that the media aids the military-industrial complex by grooming of children to accept and embrace war. Maybe the game isn’t a loving tribute to the cartoons of the 80s and 90s, but a dark attack on them, with its depressing ending that shows the real brutalities of war serving as a stark counter-point to the trivial way that combat was portrayed in Saturday morning cartoons of the era. Captain Falcon and Duke of G.I. Joe never lost a comrade to battle, never had to deal with PTSD. Imagine if an episode of that show ended with them in tears, trembling at the sudden realization of the madness they’ve enabled.
That’s how this game ends, with the children, having been manipulated by their own mother to be mindless killing machines, utterly crushed and destroyed emotionally as their parents point guns not only at each other, but at them as well. Rex, a sick, sad perversion of the American Dream, a blind patriot unwilling to accept the evils of his own people, ready to gun down his wife, an oppressed minority driven to commit terrorist acts of brutal violence (and destroy the lives of her own children) as a sad response to the violence against her people. It is a brutal reminder that the government cannot be trusted and that no matter how sugar-coated and fun the media makes it out to be, that war is a gruesome hellscape from which no winner emerges.
And that is why, despite its shortcomings, that I recommend this game for anyone who feels that the media is dropping the ball with its coverage of the war on terror, and want to see a game that really shows the harsh reality of what we’re doing to our youth. Intentional or not, Trials Of The Blood Dragon is probably the best commentary on today’s fucked up culture that I’ve seen to date.