Band of Bugs
Role Playing Games have generally been a niche market. Some of them seem to involve hundreds of character classes, species, weapons, spells, monsters, potions, scrolls, attacks, skills... certainly most are too complicated to interest the casual gamer, and the time and effort taken to gain experience and level up your characters also puts off those purely after a bit of fun in their spare time. Action points? Str, Con and Dex? Generating characters? What's a Spellsword? What's the difference between a Dark Elf and a Black Elf? All these things bewilder and frighten this rather large share of the gamer market.
Recently there's been a new wave of RPG. These are simpler, removing all the fiddly bits that are hard to understand, designed to look good and be fun to play. Just such a one is this week's review, "Band of Bugs", combining a much simpler interface and gentler learning curve with a friendly and fun storyline. Throw in some high quality graphics and sound and you've got something with wide appeal.
There is room for future expansion but for now the game features just one main quest, though there is also the option to play single missions, create your own and play either online. The main storyline for "Band of Bugs" concerns young Maal, an insect sent to fight for his Queen and his lands. After a few training missions, Maal and his growing group of warriors (all different kinds of bug, all with their own unique abilities) set out to defend their lands. Each mission progresses the story, with stolen eggs and mysterious enemies along the way. As the game advances, the group gain new skills, new spells and new items.
Controls are a little weird. Mouse control will work menus and so forth, but selecting and moving your bugs uses the keyboard. You can also use a gamepad - indeed, "Band of Bugs" is also available in console format. It took me a little while to adjust to this dichotomic interface but once I did I found it quite effective. Each round you and any other teams on the map take turns to select a bug and move it. Each bug can only take one turn per round. When all bugs have taken turns (or been defeated), the next round begins. Each turn involves moving the bug and then performing an action - be that an attack, using an item, casting a spell or using a special skill. You can also just wait if you don't need them to do anything else.
Graphically, "Band of Bugs" is superb. Bugs all move differently, all have their own attack styles, all look distinctive and are all coloured according to the team they are on. The 3D landscapes are filled with obstacles and "doodads" and the view can be rotated. While the bugs and landscapes are all quite square, with all directions at right angles, this simplifies the gameplay without adversely affecting the game's look. Particle effects represent spells in action and bugs stoop more as their health is depleted.
One of the many good things about "Band of Bugs" is the conversation between the characters. Maal is a unique bug in the game, which attracts a fair amount of comment from the other bugs, and Maal himself remarks on how bugs of the same type look identical. All this is accompanied by actual speech, though insect language is, to us, gibberish. There's also a range of unobtrusive backing tracks and a variety of sound effects accompany attacks, movements and so on.
"Band of Bugs" also scores well on playability, obscure control systems aside. Replacing action points with the simpler move, attack/etc system still allows for plenty of strategic decisions - which bug to move first, whether to try and get round the back for a higher chance of a critical hit, whether to attack or use a spell, and so on. Maal's Story begins with three training missions for the basics and then introduces items, spells and so on gradually over the rest of the quest. You can replay any mission you've unlocked and you can save/load games at any point.
Another way in which "Band of Bugs" is so highly accessible is the way missions are divided up. In the traditional RPG style, bugs have different levels, and as they level up they grow more powerful. Unlike the usual RPG method of gaining experience, however, bugs simply increase in level at set points. They thus grow more powerful and more effective as the quest continues, gaining new skills as they go, without penalising players that don't take every opportunity to train their forces. Bugs that are defeated return next mission, health and status is reset to normal each mission and thus there is no penalty for a bad round. Instead, your progress is given by score and rank - purists can try for a platinum medal for every mission, replaying them as necessary. Anyone scoring platinum for mission 8 is doing especially well!
Criticisms are difficult to identify, as "Band of Bugs" is so very carefully put together. I did encounter a crash bug on mission 16, which seems to be related to a saved game issue - playing that mission from scratch avoided the problem. Ninjabee are looking into this bug as I type. Indeed, they have an entire forum section dedicated to bughunting (in the software sense!) so that any errors can be quickly identified and squashed. They also responded to my emails in astonishingly quick time, showing a duty towards customer care that is sorely lacking in most major companies these days. I wish my bank was this attentive.
With a level editor (though more in-depth instructions would benefit this) and an online community to play against or share maps with, plus the distinct possibility of new downloadable quests and content, "Band of Bugs" has a lot of staying power. Certainly I feel it calling me back - I want another crack at scoring platinum for mission 8! Visiting relatives over the Christmas period can be most distracting. With such strong gameplay, stylish looks and a liberal pinch of humour, this is likely to stay on my hard drive for a long time to come.
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