There aren't too many games about sisterhood. Considering the paucity of games about women's experiences in general, this is not surprising. Brothers are everywhere, and the complex interplay of traditional masculinity and tenderness in the relationship of brothers to each other is fairly well-trod territory. But games about two young women against the world? Those are all but unheard of.
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Wolfenstein: Youngblood has one of those stories built into its core. That's probably why I like it so much, despite its flaws. There's a scene about half an hour into the game that cements it for me. Soph and Jess, twin daughters of Wolfenstein's famed Nazi-killing action hero BJ Blaskowicz, are on board a Nazi airship. One of them has just killed an armored guard. The first human they've ever killed. We know this trope, we've seen this story before: The person who did the killing is supposed to react horribly, with guilt and terror, as they process their own actions for the first time.
Instead, what Youngblood does is campy, frenetic, and fast: a montage of reactions, from the girls vomiting to high-fiving to cackling in their thick Texan accents above their enemy's corpse. The sequence ends with one of them drinking what appears to be a futuristic juice box (it's a campy game, like I said) and the other helping her to her feet, where they share a quiet moment of solidarity before continuing their mission for the French resistance. There's a sense of comraderie in this moment, and in all of Youngblood, that strikes me. Two young women, embarking into a space of violence and terror, having each others' backs. Y'know, with assault rifles and power suits. Normal sister stuff.
Developed by Machinegames, the creators of the modern Wolfenstein series, with help from Arkane Studios, creators of the Dishonored and Prey games, Wolfenstein: Youngblood is a co-op side entry in the series of alternate-history anti-Nazi resistance games, starring one or two players as BJ's daughters as they hunt for their missing father. Structurally, it's a bizarre hybrid of the typical single-player scripted approach of the previous games and a more open, mission-based system with character leveling, upgrades, and a small open world of dense Parisian streets. There are health bars, repeated side missions, and enemy armor that responds only to certain weapon types. The whole thing has been Diablo-ified.
Do these changes, meant to make the game more suitable to repeated co-op play, work for a series that has succeeded via the drama and tight design of its blood combat? Largely, they do not. The sprawling, layered Parisian streets and Nazi outposts you explore are fantastic places to be in, but the health bars, armor system, and emphasis on experience and collectibles all feels like busywork. I dug desperately through the menu for an option to just turn the health bars off and didn't find one. All the additional noise is aggravating, and pulls the player away from the basic things Youngblood does well.
Those successes are mostly tonal. The half-goofy half-earnest story of these sisters gripped me, and I adore the way the co-op element of the game ties it into every aspect of play. Your sister is always there, helping you, offering you health and encouragement, fighting by your side. This works best with a real player working the controls, but the AI is, while not great, decent enough that I mostly didn't pay it too much mind outside of poorly balanced boss encounters. Likewise, the girls control somewhat differently than their father. They're more wiry, more frail, faster and smaller. Even when wearing a super-powered exoskeleton, there's a sense of being of a different shape than most of your foes.
If only the game was better structured around the relative frailty of its heroines—the lack of effective stealth, specifically, is a bummer. Wolfenstein has an ongoing problem with this. The games want you to try to sneak around and include some tools for doing it, but never enough tools, and the enemies are always laid out in a way that makes effectively stealthing through a section of the game impossible. Even with a default stealth cloaking ability, I found sneaking around like a shadowy knife in the night to be largely undoable, which always frustrated me.
But, oh, the mood of this game! The feeling of running through the Paris streets causing trouble with your sister. The way Jess and Soph squabble in their thick accents. Their small attempts to appear more imposing, and more adult, to their allies and enemies alike. Their inside jokes. There's a vibrancy at the narrative core of Youngblood that radiates outward, and it charms me even at the game's otherwise most frustrating moments. I love these sisters and their big, dumb Nazi-killing adventures. Games need more young women like this, messy and alive and fun as hell. I love being in their presence, and I hope this isn't the last game we see them in. They deserve a better one.
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