En Garde makes a fantastic first impression. Awash in cool blue and vibrant orange and inhabited by characters just as colorful to match, with a few early teases of the game’s snappy combat, it’s charming from the jump. It’s easy to see why the game’s demo, which went live during a recent Steam Next Fest, earned a fair bit of positive press.
Following some light tutorialization and hardly any narrative table-setting, the game quickly sends you fencing your way through four brief episodes that each cover a different mini adventure of the swashbuckling Spanish rebel, Adalia de Volador. These consist of a series of combat encounters with some minor platforming wedged in for good measure. This all takes place in environments that, while visually striking, are functionally spartan, without any real branching paths or big surprises to speak of. Structurally, our En Garde review finds it to be an action game without any frills, which means it’s able to hook you right away – a good thing for a game that clocks in a shade under 10 hours for a single playthrough.
The main event here is undoubtedly the combat, which, with its emphasis on parrying, pips denoting multiple health bars, and prominent poise meter, looks at first glance a bit like Sekiro. The similarities are mostly surface-level, though, as En Garde quickly sets itself apart with an engaging combat system that defies easy soulslike comparisons.
En Garde’s biggest accomplishment is how it handles a messy conundrum that many similar third-person action games face: how to deal with groups of enemies. There is a balance to strike between having groups attack the player all at once, which can feel unfair or overwhelming; or having enemies take turns attacking one by one, which often reads as artificially forgiving. En Garde elegantly solves this by having a single enemy engage you in a standard duel, while the rest of the group looks for opportunities to jump in with wild, unparryable attacks in an attempt to prevent a clean, fair fight. Because these interrupting attacks are clearly telegraphed, it makes them easy enough to react to, but because they are unparryable, it means you have no choice but to dodge, temporarily disengaging from your primary opponent and looking for another opening.
With large groups, these openings can be few and far between, even if you position yourself carefully. This is where the game’s slew of environmental hazards come into play as a means of leveling the playing field. These hazards range from barrels that you’ll kick at guards’ knees to roast turkeys you’ll toss on their heads to balconies you’ll send them tumbling off. The slapstick on display is immediately evident, with guards regularly windmilling their arms as they wait expectantly for you to kick them into the ocean or entire squads stumbling on a wine-based Slip and Slide of your own creation. But these moments are also critical tactical calculations, as they give you the opportunity to fight off a single enemy with one hand, while simultaneously incapacitating their buddies with the other.
En Garde has a chance to be this year’s funniest game, or at least the best game you could confidently label a comedy game, and it isn’t just because you can blind your foes with a roast turkey. Few games try so commendably to lace humor through their dialogue outside of just a few isolated jokes, and those that do often end up grating more often than not. En Garde is the rare exception that nails its goofy tone from the jump and never really lets up. While Adalia gallivants her way through town markets, royal villas, and island caves like some kind of Spanish Jackie Chan, guards frequently cut in with insults and taunts, which Adalia is more than happy to rebut with rejoinders of her own.
The tone is family-friendly, but still reliably chuckle-inducing. Some lines are quick references, from a quick jab at Puss in Boots to the Princess Bride line you saw coming from a mile away. Still more are running jokes, the best of which is a reminder, made clear from a surprisingly wide array of barks, that none of your enemies are actually dying. Instead, lines like the impotent, “we didn’t have enough time to warm up!” or the shrugging “not my palace, not my fight.” make it clear that these goofuses just don’t have it in them to duel you to the bitter end, and, if it’s all the same to you, they’d rather take a quick nap.
Although En Garde mostly aces its action and comedy elements, it’s held back a bit by its limited scope. This has less to do with brevity (although the campaign definitely leaves you wanting more), and more to do with a nagging shallowness that becomes noticeable in the game’s back third. The team at Fireplace Games clearly made a valiant effort to remix everything they had in new and creative ways, and many times it works out fine, but there just aren’t quite enough enemy types, combat mechanics, or platforming elements to keep things fresh the whole way. Ultimately, this is a minor gripe, but it does leave things feeling a bit like a rough draft at times.
So while En Garde definitely makes a fantastic first impression, it’s in some ways so strong that it leaves you wondering what this team could do with more time and money behind them. Given the dominance of massive running franchises in the current videogame landscape, it feels counterintuitive to ask for more of the same, but the possibility of richer duels, more enemies, deeper platforming, and more time with these characters is so tantalizing that it’s hard not to view En Garde as the rare game that cries out for a sequel.
En Garde review
En Garde is a tantalizing first outing from new studio Fireplace Games, thanks to its slick combat and wonderful sense of humor. It’s in some ways so strong that it leaves you wondering what this team could do with more time and money behind them.