Tuesday, April 16, 2024

En Garde Review — Flamboyant shenanigans and expert swordplay

I knew I would love En Garde! when I saw Adalia de Volador, the game’s swashbuckling protagonist.

Adalia is, first and foremost, an expert swordstress, her rapier slicing and dicing anyone who gets in her way. She’s incredibly acrobatic, dodging and diving out of trouble gracefully. Her wit is as sharp as her blade as she taunts her opponents with cheeky jests. And last but not least, she’s a hero of the people, a daring adventurer who strives to topple the monarchy and return its wealth back to those beneath it.

Adalia is an instant scene stealer, but swooning aside, developers Fireplace Games have given her the perfect stage. En Garde! is an action-adventure with challenging swordplay, a cast with endless charisma, and a sun-kissed backdrop that’ll have you booking the next direct flight to Spain.

In En Garde! you play as the loveable scoundrel herself as she thwarts the plans of the evil Count-Duke and his bumbling cohort. Structured into four chapters with their own self-contained story, Adalia needs to swoop in and save the day by fighting her way through the waves of soldiers, duelists, and lackeys until a final dramatic encounter at the end of each episode. You’ll be running through plush mansions, infiltrating fortresses, navigating underground lairs, and dashing between the town’s stone-paved streets. It’s a lighthearted comedy, that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Saturday morning cartoon line-up, and all to the sound of an upbeat original soundtrack full of bombastic bravado, complete with a castanet player who sounds like they’ve chugged three Red Bulls. 

En Garde review
Image Source: Fireplace Games

The heart of En Garde! is the game’s combat; the swish and slash of sword fighting. Getting to grips with the art of the blade relies heavily on your timing. Colour-coded circles indicate when to dodge and parry an enemy’s incoming attacks, and keeping an eagle eye out for an opening to land a well-timed riposte is just as important. You’ll learn these lessons by first dueling enemies 1v1, but En Garde! quickly begins to throw groups of goons at you thick and fast, forcing you to divide your attention from one lackey to a whole gaggle of armed soldiers and guards. 

En Garde! is challenging, but I wouldn’t say punishing, as the game gives you plenty of clues for outwitting your opponents. An HP is represented as little dots floating above a  ‘guard’ bar and getting that bar down to zero with a string of successful parries and strikes, and you’ll start to dispose of those dots. When facing tougher foes, their guard bar will have a lightning symbol, which means if they dodge one of your incoming attacks, they’ll instantly regain guard points.

Speaking of symbols, there is plenty to remember. Stunned, weakened, and surprised enemies all have their own icons and enemy conditions can stack. It’s a lot you need to consider in the fast-paced throws of combat En Garde! and it will not let you get away with button-bashing and hoping for the best. Sometimes all these signifiers can get lost in the throws of combat, but my general rule of thumb was that if the bar goes down – that’s good! If you are having trouble keeping pace, there are options. En Garde! has an Easy mode and an invincibility mode that you can toggle on and off.

As someone whose in-game answer to everything is to punch now, and talk later, En Garde!’s combat system truly inspired me to fight with finesse. Although fights are challenging, there’s also an effortlessness to them. Even when I was clumsily fumbling with the controller, Adalia would transform my awkward inputs into a dazzling one-woman show full of badassery. I’d hit the dodge button, and Adalia would launch herself into a graceful roll. If I jumped down from a high ledge in panic, she’d add a cheeky flip to the mix – just for pure showmanship. Her acrobatics add a wonderful flair to all your actions, so not only do you kick ass, but you look incredible doing it.

En Garde! Review
Image Source: Fireplace Games

It always feels like you’re toying with opponents, and the environment absolutely encourages that. I’ve chucked a bucket on a guard’s head which made him stagger backward into a weapon rack, which comically fell on top of him. I’ve dodged an incoming swipe from a soldier by expertly sliding across a tabletop. My absolute favourite move is when Adalia boots an enemy down a flight of stairs or – even better  – off a dock ledge and into the sea. 

Different chapters offer new devious environmental toys to play with. In one story, the game introduces bombs and explosives, so the resulting chapter becomes a playground of expertly controlled chaos. One move gave me a whole week’s worth of dopamine in seconds, I baited a group of six soldiers to chase after me into the firing line of a cannon, which I set off and blasted them all to kingdom come, and the game delivered it all with a smile and a cheeky wink.

It all accumulates into some incredibly dramatic fight sequences, where you need to react to your opponent’s attacks, make sure to dodge incoming swipes, and keep an eye on your environment. It’s essentially a masterclass in improvisation. You know you’ve had a great fight if the end result looks like a hurricane swept through the area – tables upturned, crashed chandeliers, smoking cannons, plates, and jugs strewn across the floor. 

It’s all shenanigans, and escapades in En Garde! and Fireplace Games really cranks up the campy comedy in its characters too. The Count-Duke certainly has some skills with a blade but has all the menace of a disgruntled chihuahua. His lackeys have as much grace as the Titanic post-iceberg and are as threatening as a fist full of wet noodles. When beaten, they actually don’t die but lie down on the floor accepting defeat, often remarking that they’re ‘just having a quick nap’ or straight up asking Adalia out for a drink.

En Garde!
Image Source: Fireplace Games

Adalia’s character also plays massively into this campy comedy. She’s not the usual hero we see in games, which is why En Garde! feels incredibly refreshing. A proudly bisexual protagonist, she’s essentially a queer Zorro. Her blue tunic and feathered hat read as distinctly masculine, but her knee-high leather boots and pink velvet cape read feminine. During her adventures, she meets an old acquaintance, a female pirate with whom she has a not-so-subtle implied history of the saucy kind. The back-and-forth flirting escalates until the end of the chapter, the two displaying a mutual love and respect for the other the only way queer women know how – a thrilling duel, of course.

En Garde! is both a challenging action game, but also a fun, flamboyant adventure full of colour and comedy where you play an openly queer swordstress. I love how Fireplace Games have taken inherently masculine troupes – found in both video games and in film – and have made each one of them fabulously queer, and I think that’s wonderful.

Score: 4.5/5

A copy of En Garde! for PC was provided to Gayming Magazine by PR.