When Band of Bugs was first announced as a work in progress title, it was pretty much an unknown game, and one that was not well explained. All it had going for it was the developer Ninja Bee, who have already proven themselves with the likes of Outpost Kaloki X and Cloning Clyde. Up steps BoB then, released last week for 800 Points; not bad considering it’s a brand new, fresh game. But does the game do enough to keep gamers everywhere interested? Or is it another sting in the tail for the XBLA?
Band of Bugs is another turn-based strategy game entering the Arcade world. Playing on the same thing that made Worms so enjoyable, BoB features amusing characters as well as a variety of different terrains. However, the game actually features a story, as well as different tactical moves that will need to be utilised if players want to succeed here.
Even before starting any kind of game, it is clear that BoB is different from the rest. When a loading screen pops up saying “This game is guaranteed to be full of bugs!”, you know there’s something unique about the game right away. All throughout, whenever there is a loading screen, there will be a funny quote which is always highly entertaining.
Bugs generally though are not the most exciting of creatures. Some keep them as pets, others tread on them to make sure they never return. Upon loading up the main part of the single player and taking control of hero Maal, you’ll see insects that you would definitely keep as pets. Every bug encountered has a personality, thanks to Ninja Bee’s excellent attempt at humour, already seen in the loading screens. Along his journey, Maal meets all kinds of different bugs, from grasshoppers to mosquitoes to Barbarians. There is even a ninja Bee that’s usable, another touch of humour from the developer. Each bug wields a different weapon, and some such as the fire-mage Moth use magic. There’s a great sense of balance with the characters, as every level usually has a mix of long range weapon carriers and close range weapon carriers Maal is naturally the best insect and features in every level; after all, it is his story you will follow.
There is a story of why players are controlling bugs across a variety of different landscapes, but chances are most people won’t take too much of an interest. Maal is initially an unhappy bug, who decides to join the royal army to give his life some direction. Immediately he is pulled into a war to save the Queen and the Kingdom, by defeating the almighty monsters. The point of the story is really just to keep things moving along nicely; the story becomes boring early on.
Every bug has a maximum range in which they can move, as well as a maximum range in which they can attack. Every bug is unique in this respect, since flying bugs (the Rogue) can reach where others can’t, and can hover above water. This is balanced by a having a lower amount of hit points than the rest, as the Rogue will often be the first to die in the party. Similarly, the fire-mage Moth has a great range for it’s attacks, as well as a good variety of magical abilities, but lacks fighting prowess up close. When entering combat, a series of calculations are made, without any user input. Critical, normal and weak hits are usually the options that the CPU has, and is determined by percentages of each particular bug. There is the chance of a counter attack too, but again the player has no direct control over this. It may initially seem confusing, as an explanation will often be sought as to why a critical hit was countered by a normal attack, however it happens infrequently enough for it not to become annoying.
The game is simple enough for almost anyone with two thumbs to pick up and play. At the start of each level players are given a team with varying objectives. Players can choose any of the characters available to them to use, but how they are used depends on the bug. The majority of bugs are suited to attacking, so placing a bug right next to an enemy is the best way to deal some damage. Range attackers of course are better positioned away and higher up. Once the bug has been moved, players are then given the option to Attack, use a Skill or Item, or if there is nothing else to do at that point, wait until the next round. There is a healer character too, who in the later levels proves to be invaluable. Each bug can only be used once per round as is typical with all other turn based strategy games. Hit points vary according to what type of bug is being used or attacked, and how far you are in the single player. Bugs on both sides get stronger over the course of Maal’s Story, with attacks doing more damage than previous encounters.
The main idea throughout each level though is not necessarily the amount of enemy units you kill, but how you killed them. There are four medals per level attainable (the usual Platinum, Gold, Silver and Bronze), with the main idea of course being to get a Gold or Platinum. Points are racked up based on how many rounds taken and how long it took (the quicker the better), as well as attack positions. Having a bug in front and behind an enemy unit results in more points, as does attacking from above. It all sounds easy, but the AI ensures that it is not.
The game very much relies on what moves the player makes, similar to chess or, more closer to home, Worms. It’s more prudent than in Worms though, as there will be countless times when players will have to go back and try again, and witness that an alteration of strategy results in an alteration from the AI too. There will be times when some levels simply infuriate as they are seemingly impossible. They are not, nor are they outstandingly difficult; nine times out of ten it was a bad selection of move on the player’s part that allowed the AI to exploit such an error in an unforgiving way. There are twenty levels featured in Maal’s Story, and a good ten will need to be replayed at least once, if not more.
That’s not a problem though since the gameplay mechanic is fun and the graphics are solid. There is nothing “wow” here, but the graphics do enough to not make your eyes bleed. Character animations are solid also, from firing a bow to clonking someone over the head with a stick. Death animations are interesting too, as every one is unique. Sure, dead characters disappear into the ground, but for an XBLA title, it’d be rude to expect more. The camera is a touch fiddly though, thanks to an isometric viewpoint. This limits the camera as it can only be positioned in one of four places. In the later levels when it gets a bit cramped, it can often be a bit of a challenge to select who you want to move. There is the option to zoom in and out, but there’s no real need to do that.
Other problems in the story mode? Hardly any actually. Each landscape does the job and is varied enough to not seem as though the same one is being played over and over again, and there is plenty of challenge. There is a framerate issue though, which may come as a surprise for an XBLA title. It doesn’t appear that there is all that much on screen when it happens, however it is a noticeable drop. It doesn’t render the game unplayable though, it’s a slight niggle in an otherwise near-perfect single player experience. The length too is not an issue. There’s a good couple of days play so long as no-one hammers away at it.
Aside from the main storyline sees a wealth of other options available. There are single missions that provide a nice break from the onslaught of monsters, as well as a Skirmish mode for those one off missions. Let us not forget the multiplayer experience too though, which is always worth coming back to.
The multiplayer in BoB is a very diverse multiplayer that does an excellent job of uniting the Xbox Live community. Game modes consist of Elimination, where the opposing side must be eliminated; Capture, where the opposing side can be eliminated or players can rush towards the enemy capture point for a sneaky win; Spider Hunter where players have to rack up as many points as possible by killing spiders and mosquitoes; Missions which offer a little bit of team work; and finally Escape, which sees one player defend with considerably more bugs than the other player is attacking with. Escape is perhaps one of the more challenging of the multiplayer modes.
Sadly, there is not an option to choose which bugs to use in your battles against other human people. Obviously a deliberate choice to keep the balance and a level playing field, but the option would have been nice. Not a problem though, as both teams soon utilise what they have at their disposal, and some matches can swing in the balance throughout. A counter attack can change everything, and provide huge amusement. The game can incorporate up to four players, with two teams, which works exceptionally well as there is no lag whatsoever. Even the aforementioned framerate issue is missing online with four players. The game also supports the Vision Camera, although the window is so small most people turn it off as, quite frankly, you can hardly make out anyone or anything. Thankfully Ninja Bee have mastered the lobby system; a rarity in itself for an XBLA title. Where Arcade games before it have booted players out after every match, BoB keeps everyone together and lets the host tweak any settings that need tweaking. This is the way it should be done, and Ninja Bee have clearly taken note.
Last but not least, there is the Level Editor. As the name suggests, you can create your own levels for use in single player skirmishes as well as in multiplayer. The wealth of options available are truly staggering for an Arcade title, and the possibilities within are fantastic. You get to choose which side gets what bugs, where they all start, the height of each tile and so forth. There’s a lot to play around with, and whilst it might not be quite as deep as Forza 2, the stuff you can put about each map to make it look all pretty will keep you entertained for a good thirty minutes or so, if not more.
The levels created can also be shared over Live. Depending on Host options, it’s possible to do battle over a whole new terrain that is likely to be unique. The level editor offers so much customisation that it’s unlikely two levels will be the same. It mixes it up if the standard mutliplayer matches have been played to death already.
The Achievements are pretty straight forward, which is surprising in itself for an Arcade game. Not a great deal of time is required to be spent with the game to gain the full 200/200. The only one that may take some time is a Gold in each of the twenty levels, which is definitely a challenge. All the supposedly online Achievements can be earned without actually playing someone else, and the Level Editor proves useful in more ways than one. Don’t try and view the Learderboards though, because BoB has a major issue here. No matter which one is viewed, it will always say that no data could be retrieved, giving you two options: Retry, or Back. The game won’t care which you pick and simply freezes the whole thing, forcing a full-on reset. It appears not to happen to everyone, but it is certainly present and makes for a highly irritating bug. If you want to see how your score compares to others, waiting for a patch is the only option at the moment.
Overall then, and the game is perhaps the most complete experience to be had on the Arcade yet. The single player does enough to keep a lone man interested, despite a lacklustre storyline. The way combat is done keeps it entertaining and varied enough to make the player want more. The multiplayer too is excellent, and chances are it won’t take long to find a decent partner to do battle with. Four way friend matches are great, with the taunts as another critical hit lands getting louder each time. The Level Editor too provides more fun, as there are a lot of possible ways to make new levels. Despite the sometimes questionable framerate, and despite the lack of a user-friendly camera, Ninja Bee deserve to be applauded for what they have created here, as the game is humorous and lovable. Despite the lack of coverage for the game, Band of Bugs is one title that shouldn’t be missed by a gamer. Once again, Ninja Bee have provided one the best experiences on the Arcade to date.
Final Score: 8 out of 10 - Good (How do we rate games?)