Game Review #249: Bow to Blood: Last Captain Standing
Reviewer: John B.
Developer: Tribetoy Publisher: Tribetoy Category: Action, Simulation Release Date: 04.03.19
Price (at time of review): 19.99
Buy Bow to Blood: Last Captain Standing from the Nintendo Switch eShop here.
Since virtual reality exploded onto the gaming scene, we haven’t seen much in the way of intersection between VR games and regular games. Bethesda seems to be leading the charge, taking their popular games like Skyrim and Fallout 4 into the VR space, but I’m not aware of any games that have gone in the reverse direction; VR to non-VR. Tribetoy is among the first to take the plunge, with their latest release Bow to Blood: Last Captain Standing. Bow to Blood was originally released for PSVR in August of 2018, but Tribetoy has expanded their release to XB1, Oculus, Steam, and, most importantly, Switch in April 2019. The transition away from VR has left some design elements that muddle the regular screen experience a little, but the solid game ideas underneath show through enough to even out the experience.
Surprising No One, Reality TV is Better With Spaceship Combat
The mysterious Overseers have put out the call for entrants into The Arena; a ship-based gladiatorial combat reality TV show. Eight contestants have been chosen, including yourself, the rogue entrant known as the Freelancer. Every captain has their own agenda, strategy, or mysterious objective, most mysteriously of all The Arena’s Overseers themselves. Can you navigate these competing agendas and the obstacles of The Arena to become the champion? Well, yes, you can – that’s the whole point of the game. It doesn’t mean you will – the competition portion of the game is one of the most intriguing elements of the experience – but you definitely can, if you’re good enough. The game’s writing is sharp and clear, providing unique, compelling personalities for each of the game’s captains and making for a very well-crafted narrative experience.
The Rules of The Arena
The ships and their crews will have to navigate seven rounds, each consisting of two matches. After every round, the bottom two performers are in danger of being voted out of the competition. Their fellow captains each vote for one of the two endangered crews, and the one with the least votes is out of the competition. Matches come in a variety of formats, from races to scavenger hunts to blowing $#!t up. You get points for every action performed in a match, like destroying enemies, finding hidden items or treasures, and completing certain objectives for the match. The points from each match are added to the captains’ cumulative totals, which determine the standings.
The good news about the voting thing is that just because you’re losing, it doesn’t mean you’ve lost. Between rounds in your quarters and between matches on the bridge, you will be contacted by your fellow captains. Your responses to their questions and demands will change their disposition towards you. By being friendly you can make them like you, making you less likely to be voted off. Unfortunately, not everyone is interested in being friends; some captains come with threats and blackmail, and giving in to their demands will carry an additional penalty, like a loss of points or damage to your ship. The good news is, news travels fast around the Arena water cooler, so other captains will hear about your disputes. If you hate the same people they hate, it may improve their disposition towards you. As long as more than half of the captains actually like you, you probably won’t be voted off.
Of course, the better strategy is to actually get enough points not to be in the bottom two, but it’s nice to have a safety net. I really, really, liked the reality competition portions of Bow to Blood; it was well-written and -implemented enough to give the narrative real tension and high stakes. From a design standpoint, both in terms of game and aesthetic design, Bow to Blood has a lot of things to like; the reality TV setup, for me, is right at the top of that list.
Wait… I Thought You Said There Was Ship Combat?
Oh, yeah – the combat. The actual gameplay. There’s some of that, too, but the reality competition stuff was really the most interesting to me. The meat of the game, however, lies in actually piloting your ship, which is a little bit more of a mixed bag in terms of the game experience. First and foremost, Bow to Blood was originally developed for VR, and that may have something to do with some problematic design choices. The game takes place from the player’s perspective on the bridge of their ship, which is a pretty cool idea and makes for an interesting POV in terms of visual appeal, but in terms of the gameplay it mostly just gets in the way. It limits your field of view, which gets in the way during missions where you need to be able to look around at multiple targets or find certain items.
It also has the negative effect of cluttering the screen slightly, making this a much easier game to play while docked. Unfortunately for Pro Controller enthusiasts, the analog sticks on the Pro Controller don’t work at the time of this review. It is a known issue, though, and a patch is coming. Detached Joy-Cons still work, which is good. Playing this game docked is almost a must. The screen is so busy during combat what with the whole bridge being visible that it makes it very difficult to track the action on the Switch’s undocked screen – heck, it’s kind of hard to track even on a TV.
The basics of controlling your ship are fairly simple; you have three speeds – forward, faster forward, and reverse – and you move at a constant rate while your ship’s engine is active. You use the left stick to navigate and the right stick to set your camera. The right trigger fires your weapon, while the A, X, and Y buttons control a different special skill. I found the Overshield to be the most useful, since negating damage and preserving your ship can be pretty tough to do when there are a lot of enemies around. The Smart Drone disables one enemy at a time, which can be useful, but not all the time. There are multiple weapons to equip for your final special, from armor piercing ammo to a big laser, which are all fun but not as vital as the Overshield.
You have two crew members that you can assign various roles on your ship. There are five stations to which they can be assigned, each having different useful effects. The turret station will see your crewman autofire that station’s turrets at the nearest enemy. The shield station allows the crew member stationed there to increase the durability of your ship’s shields, which is a must in combat-related missions. The drone station will allow your subordinates to launch their own Smart Drone; you don’t get to pick their target, but they usually pick the target that they see as the biggest threat. The sensors station expands your radar range, which helps you find certain item during scavenger hunt style missions. Finally, having a crew member at the engines station will increase your max speed.
Put together, this makes for some pretty interesting mission execution. Matching your crew station assignments to the current mission adds a pretty neat layer of strategy on top of the work of actually controlling the ship and directing its weapons. Having them assigned to the right area can really ease the difficulty of most missions. Your ship kind of handles like a dead slug, making the race matches harder than most. You have to hit boost diamonds to have any chance, and I found hitting them accurately to be very tough. There’s no way to practice a mission type in like a simulator or anything, so getting in enough practice to get good is not an option. Since mission types are generated randomly, I just had to deal with it when a race popped up. Otherwise, however, I sometimes found the sheer number of enemies swarming around made a mission seem unbeatable, while at other times there were only one or two flies buzzing around and it just felt like… why bother having opponents? Having enemies constantly teleporting in, combined with the aforementioned difficult maneuvering, made the combat elements of the gameplay frequently more frustrating than rewarding.
Fly Your Flag and Sing a Shanty
Unfortunately, you can’t do either of those things in Bow to Blood: Last Captain Standing. It would be cool if you could, though. No, this is just the graphics and music section of the review. The game’s visual design reminded me a little of one of my favorite games – Borderlands. They have a similar cartoony-but-realistic vibe and a very similar color palette. So many of Bow to Blood’s levels take place near sunset or in red-orange skies, creating the image of a desert wasteland in the sky. It’s a really cool effect. The ship design was somewhat reminiscent of another of my favorite games, Skies of Arcadia. I’m a big fan of flying pirate ships, and that’s what we’re working with here.
Visually, one of my favorite parts of the game is the captain’s quarters, which you visit between missions to save and have conversations with other captains. As you progress through the competition, new decorations appear around your cabin to commemorate certain events. It’s a fun, visually rewarding substitute for an official achievement system, and it’s just a really cool, small touch to make the game feel more real and lived-in. The music is less memorable, unfortunately, though in no way bad. It’s intrepid and intense during fights, but more of a laid-back guitar riff during the menus and in your cabin. The voice acting is pretty good, too, but again the visual design of the game is where the art direction really shines.
I Was Not the Last Captain Standing
Bow to Blood: Last Captain Standing is an interesting experience full of great ideas. The reality TV show elements of the game, like managing your relationships with other captains and strategically voting off weaker competitors, was well-executed and added real drama and stakes to the campaign. The visuals are fantastic and showcase a great sense of design. Unfortunately, while it has some interesting elements like managing your crew, controlling your ship is a bit cumbersome and the on-bridge POV for the game sometimes gets in the way. The control problems are made all the more frustrating by the fact that there is an amazing game buried under them, dying to break through. Hopefully when the patch to fix Pro Controller support comes through, some gameplay balances will accompany it. There is a worthwhile, fantastic game in Bow to Blood: Last Captain Standing. Some things just need to get tweaked to find it.
Buy Bow to Blood: Last Captain Standing from the Nintendo Switch eShop here.
*Review Code Provided by Plan of Attack