Wolfenstein: Youngblood Review – Passing the Torch

Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM are often considered the granddaddies of the first person shooter genre, and they both spawned consistently successful franchises, both of which are being produced to this day. They have their similarities, but the franchises are separated by differences in aesthetic, gunplay, etc. For me, though, the main draw to either game comes from what kind of demons you want to spend the next several hours slaughtering.

Wolfenstein: Youngblood deviates heavily from the last handful of games, which has lead to divisiveness among the series’s fanbase. While some enjoy the new ground it treads, traditionalists disliked how not-Wolfenstein it feels. Both of these are totally fair ways of judging the game, and the different viewpoints stem from whether you want to look at the game as an FPS or as a Wolfenstein entry. This review is going to be from the perspective of the former, and I’ll be examining the gameplay features outside the confines of its franchise.

Youngblood continues the story of The New Order and The New Colossus as a sort of volume 2.5, occupying a space in the timeline 20 years after the last without being a full main-series entry. After the death of Hitler, Blazkowicz has settled down a bit to raise his daughters, Jess and Soph. When he disappears mysteriously, the girls enlist the help of their friend Abby to track him down, joining forces with the Parisian resistance. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement: they help eliminate Nazis from the city, and the resistance helps find their dad.

The first cutscene of the game is a long one, starting with BJ taking one of his daughters hunting (and dispensing a quote that will naturally be echoed back to him at the end of the game), while the other stays home to complete her mother’s brutal training regimen. This continues through their father’s disappearance, them running away from home with Abby to join the resistance, and even their very first kill. I’d normally excuse a long first cutscene for establishing characters, but neither of them have much character to establish.

Most of the comms between the girls sound not unlike friendly comms between teammates in a voice chat, without all the slurs of any sort. Throughout the game, Jess and Soph shout excited encouragements to each other like “damn, dude!” “you’re killing it!” “let’s kill some Nazi assholes”, with very little awareness of their own mortality and the danger they’re putting themselves in. During more quiet sections, they become introspective, reminiscing about their life as children and wondering what might happen if they never find their dad. I’m certainly not saying they’re flat characters, but compared to BJ’s confrontations of his fears and failures in New Colossus, it’s a bit of a step down.

Let’s get into the gameplay. Since BJ has two daughters, the game has two players! Invite a friend over, and— oh, there’s no split-screen. Sit alone in your own house and play with your friend from a distance and work together to blast your way through Nazi-controlled Paris. Don’t have a friend? That’s alright, the AI is mostly adequate! I’ve seen complaints about bad AI giving players issues, but for me she was mostly fine. You can have her focus certain enemies, she’ll follow you around unless you’re running from a firefight, and she’ll teleport to you if you try to interact with something that requires two players.

Instead of restarting from a checkpoint when you die, the sisters have three shared lives. If one sister goes down, they have about a minute before they bleed out. If the other sister can resuscitate them before the timer’s up, she’ll get a good portion of health and armor back and be able to continue fighting. If one of them bleeds out, however, they respawn immediately but lose a shared life. When all three lives are out, they’re sent all the way back to the start of the map. Checkpoint progress is saved, fortunately, but all enemies (including bosses) respawn.

This is one of the big deviations from the previous formula: the map is semi-open world. After the first mission, you’re taken to the catacombs, the base of operations for the resistance. From there you receive a variety of missions and can access different major areas through the metro. The main campaign until the last act of the game involves breaking into three Nazi strongholds called “brothers” and helping Abby take control of their computers. Each of these is located in a different region of the city, all of which are relatively open and have various buildings to explore and loot.

Youngblood also features a level-up system. Each kill secures you XP depending on the type of enemy, and leveling up gives you a minor but not insignificant boost, as well as an Ability Point. Completion of missions (main quest or otherwise) grants you these as well, giving you more incentive to speak to the resistance fighters in the catacombs and be their errand girl for a bit. The ability points are used on fairly simple skill trees, which give you anything from increased HP and armor to the ability to kill basic enemies in a single knife throw. It’s simple, but it’s very satisfying to save up for a cool ability and ride the increased power for the next hour or so before the game catches up.

The difficulty curve is mostly smooth, with a few exceptions. You receive the missions to invade the Brother strongholds within the first hour or so of play, so once they let me loose on the world I ran straight for Brother One. This was a mistake, as walling me from the entrance was seemingly endless waves of supersoldiers, robots, and drones capable of quickly shredding less experienced players. This was not, though, an insurmountable obstacle to grind through, but rather an invitation to check out the side quests and explore more of Paris. Not only were the side quests a welcome break from the main quest and a path to get stronger with no grinding, but they eventually allowed me to sneak in to Brother One and skip the roadblock entirely.

Let’s talk gunplay. Most enemies have one of two types of barriers, hard and soft. Soft barriers are weak to rapid machine-gun style fire, while hard barriers need short, hard damage to whittle through. Barrier types can be seen on enemy health bars, and every gun in the game is good against one of the two types, so you’ll be switching between different guns during firefights. This encourages variety and flexibility during fights, but since all the heavier enemies take more bullets and tend to have harder barriers, it can be very frustrating to have half your arsenal fully loaded but mostly useless.

The basic guns are standard, you’ve got your pistol, machine pistol, machine gun, etc., but eventually you can unlock the ability to use heavy weapons and put them in your inventory. These include a laser cannon, flamethrower, tesla canon, sticky grenade launcher/detonator, the usual Wolfenstein BFGs. Personally, I didn’t end up using these much, not because they aren’t fun or useful (which they certainly are), but I was always afraid of running out of ammo before a big boss. Ammo wasn’t exactly in short supply, most big enemies will drop some at least one type, but there was no way I was going up against one of the big boys without being fully topped off.

I rarely enjoy boss fights in these kinds of FPS games. It’s one thing in stylized shooters like Splatoon where there’s an assortment of weapons and movement options to play with to add extra layers onto the fights, but here every single boss just feels like a bullet sponge, and I didn’t have much fun with any of them. Because you and your sister can revive each other, there isn’t even much incentive to strafe or use cover, I just stood in front of every boss and unloaded the heavy weapons on them until they finally died. Standard combat is plenty of fun with the variety of guns to use, strategies for dealing with hordes, melee attacks, crush abilities, etc., but bosses strip all that away.

Speaking of stripping things away, the plot is… fine. It’s a nice story, two inexperienced girls battle their way through a world of darkness to rescue their father. It’s like a reverse Damsel in Distress story. The problem in, the story of The New Colossus was awesome, probably my favorite part of the game, and this just feels like a big step down. There’s some decent twists, but not nearly as much emotional investment, the same feelings of dread and loss aren’t there, and the plot doesn’t even go as off the rails as it did last time until the very end when BJ shows back up. People have mentioned the map design making Youngblood feel less like Wolfenstein, but if you ask me, the plot feels far more alien from the last two games.

Let’s talk graphics. I played the entire game on the Switch in handheld mode, and it went better than you’d expect. It doesn’t look that great, but considering you’re running a console game on a handheld system with no frame drops, it’s pretty impressive. Unfortunately, it completely froze twice, forcing a restart, so that’s unpleasant. I’d imagine the crashes are exclusive to handheld mode, though, and on other consoles and in docked mode the game runs much more smoothly.

Once you beat the game, you’re released back into the Parisian catacombs, free to take on any more missions, explore the city, and find new collectibles. As expected, BJ is rescued and the stage is set for Wolfenstein 3: The Multiverse of Madness. Overall, while it certainly does deviate quite a bit from the standard formula, Wolfenstein: Youngblood is a fun little “episode 2.5” with quite a bit of gameplay for the price and all sorts of potential for screwing around with a friend. Considering you can get the deluxe version for an extra $10 (putting the game at a very respectable $39.99), which allows a friend to play with you without putting down any money whatsoever, I’d certainly recommend it if you’re looking for a multiplayer nazi-slayer simulator to hold you over for the next entry.


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