Friday, 5 April 2019

Switch Review - Bow to Blood: Last Captain Standing


‘Bow to Blood: Last Captain Standing’ proves that complexity and thoughtful depth have a place in Arena based combat.

Developed by Tribetoy
Released in 2018

There’s a whole generation of TV viewers that expect to be able to participate in what they’re watching. Growing up on a diet of ‘X Factor’, ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Strictly Come Dancing with the Stars’ they feel they deserve to have a say in the outcome and progression of a programme. Such interaction does blur the lines between the audience being passive and active of course. By picking up the phone and casting a vote they are no longer simply consuming, they have been given the illusion of control. In this way the differentiation between a TV show and video game becomes less defined. Traditionally you watch the former and interact with the latter, but as both media have changed and evolved over time they have become increasingly indistinguishable.

It’s no surprise that games therefore have often presented their worlds as being part of a TV show. It’s an idea that even pre-dates the explosion of reality TV with ‘Smash TV’ being an obvious early example. The unrealistic and unpredictable twists of the game are the results of an unseen home audience making decisions. Random events are justified and become somewhat easier to stomach if they’re the consequence of fictional viewers or other in-game characters casting votes. It seems easier to forgive when it’s not simply the game making arbitrary choices that determine your destiny. 

This is the background of ‘Bow to Blood: Last Captain Standing’ an arena based warship battle game developed by Tribetoy. Playing as a character called Freelancer, you’re captain of a deadly airship competing in the ‘Bow to Blood’ arena game show. Competing against eight other captains, you’re participating in a “deadly blood sport with life changing stakes”. Each season of the programme is seven matches long and each match consists of two events. The two ships with the lowest total points at the end of each match will be put to a vote in a spectacle known as “The Culling”. The one with the most votes from the other players is eliminated, so to avoid being booted off you have to either perform well in missions or build up a relationship with your opponents. There’s a subtle but impressive relationship and morality system in place, so often it’s worth supporting the competition knowing that because you’ve scratched their back, they’ll likely scratch yours when the votes are being tallied. Conversations with other captains also occur between stages, and like a Telltale game, how you respond to them sculpts their opinion of you and the way the rest of the tournament will evolve. “We all love when games ask us hard questions, the ones that make us question what’s right and wrong” notes Tribetoy. “We think the experience of managing relationships with a diverse cast of AI characters who all have conflicting motivations and goals will provide a lot of interesting situations where there is no clear correct answer”.


Events are rarely simple death matches where you have to gun down the other ships. More common are race missions, searches for a hidden warp key, and objectives like activating a number of the overseer’s communication beacons. Some play a lot better than others though. The airship you’re steering has a real feeling of weight, turning slowly and ponderously crawling through the arenas. While it feels empowering to be in command of such a beast it is quite cumbersome and unresponsive at times. Navigating to specific points can prove more challenging than it needs to be, and as you plan another wide arching turn to reach a treasure you’ll yearn for a smaller more nimble ship. You’re not alone on your vessel though; a crew of two are at your disposal, willing to follow your every command and decision.  But, Captain Freelancer isn’t surrounded by faceless no-bodies; care has been taken to flesh out not just the opponents you compete against but also the crew on your decks. With distinct personalities and different quips in battle you’ll end up knowing less about your protagonist than you do your opponents and those under your command. When you inevitably get culled from the completion you’ll even feel oddly guilty; like you’ve somehow let your couple of deckhands down.

While piloting the gargantuan airship and avoiding hazards is obviously important, equally necessary is the need to juggle crew placement to best meet the demands of the situation. Should you find yourself surrounded by foes you’ll want to assign one to the turret, but then you’ll also want the other to be looking after you shields. Should the battle go badly you’ll then need to transfer one to the engines to make a speedy getaway. As the captain you’ll find yourself continually juggling a multitude of different tasks and that’s before you even factor in weapon decision and something called “the essence system” which effects ship behaviour. “’Bow to Blood’ … takes a lot of elements from our favourite games and combines them to create something new” admits Tribetoy. “We wanted to create a game that had the feeling of an arcade shooter with the tactical depth found in resource management games. We also wanted to make relationship management a core part of that experience.”

“You’ll be piloting an airship, tasking your crew, rerouting ship power to various systems, building and managing relationships all while trying to become champion of an arena in a fantasy reality show”. It all seems hugely daunting at first and while there is a brief tutorial you are expected to master all of the gameplay mechanics immediately. The opening event can consequently feel overwhelming as you struggle to recall the complexities of ship navigation while juggling the placement of the crew and completing objectives, all without getting shot down by the other captains or generic level enemies.
It is worth persisting with the initially complicated controls though as once everything falls into place the matches can be exhilarating. You’ll likely find an approach that suits you, be it all out war with others or objective completing while supporting and befriending the competition. I found the friendly approach to be far more productive as a completely selfish play-through saw me thrown out of the tournament in the third culling. Clearly, because of my lack of compassion, no one wanted me to stay and was happy to see the back of me. Complete seasons take around four hours and while that may seem longer than expected, ‘Bow to Blood’ does slightly outstay its welcome. Similar to ‘Star Link: Battle for Atlas’, monotony sets in fairly quickly; as once you’ve played each of the mission variations the novelty is lost when you play them again. The arenas may look different with unique colour palettes and hidden routes but what you have to do in them is limited and drawn from a finite objective pool. The character conversations and moral choices may be randomised, but, regardless of the specifics of the mission the core gameplay remains very similar throughout. I believe slightly smaller arenas and quicker missions would have benefited the game as a whole. You ideally want to play a season in a single sitting so it’s hard to find four hours to devote to the game.

Initially designed to be played on PS4 VR, ‘Bow to Blood’ has a simplistic and cartoon-like aesthetic that echoes the likes of Disney’s ‘Treasure Planet’ movie and Gearbox’s ‘Borderlands’ series. Realism has been rejected in favour of bold colours, and distinct outlines. “We went with a stylised art style in order to [work with] the strengths of VR and create a truly unique World to explore” clarifies Tribetoy. While this design decision may have been chosen to cater for the technological and practical limitations of PS4 VR, it also aides play on the Switch’s Tablet mode.  On the smaller screen, complex visuals would be hard to interpret and with so much going on during a match excessive particle effects or visual flourishes would only complicate things further. However, even with the stylised visuals ‘Bow to Blood’ is battery intensive and I found I needed to charge my undocked Switch within two hours. It is impossible to play single seasons from Start to finish without having to recharge the Switch so this is perhaps further evidence that the monotonous lengthier mission needed to be shorter.
The game was also victim to clipping on more than one occasion. I found myself trapped inside an impervious mountain at one, and also trapped in the walls of star port freighter. When the only escape is to abandon the mission these glitches prove to very frustrating, and hopefully such cases can be rectified in a patch. Tribetoy have also promised Pro Controller support which at the time of launch isn't supported. At 1.9 GB it also takes a great deal of space on the hard drive; it’s a large game that is reflective of its big ambitions, but at no point does multiplayer seem to have been on Tribetoy's  to do list.

Considering that the game sees you battling against individuals it seems odd that it’s impossible to make these opponents human controlled. Admittedly this would mean the social/morality aspect of the game wouldn’t work but ‘Bow to Blood’ could simply have the voting disabled during online multiplayer. How popular the game would actually be online is debatable however. Like the hulking great shops, the game is slow and thoughtful, a far cry from the most popular games online which define themselves on the intensity of their combat and the immediacy of the action. ‘Bow to Blood’ rewards tactical play especially during the longer capture missions. The airships aren’t really designed to dogfight, with combat more akin to the galleon battles in ‘Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag’ or ‘Sea of Thieves’. While different weapons gifted to you throughout the campaign means you can occasionally shoot from afar, for the most part the only way to destroy others is to get close enough for your cannon like weapons to be in range and then win the battle of attrition.

A less forgivable absence is the lack of narrative closure, which again is curious considering the care taken to establish the game world and the characters within it. At the end of a long drawn out season you’re simply flung back into your hanger with little fanfare. Awaiting you is a text message from the ‘Buzz’ a-like game-show host, congratulating or commiserating you then encouraging you to play again. It’s barely more than a Game Over screen and feels painfully anticlimactic.

That being said it’s likely you will play again as ‘Bow to Blood’ is a game that certainly improves with each play through. By the second iteration you will have mastery of the controls and full command of your vessel. By the third, you’ll have a greater understanding of the nuances of the morality system and the ability to manipulate the emotions of others to best serve yourself.

There’s clearly a lot to ‘Bow to Blood’ that takes time to appreciate. This naturally means it’s not a game for the impatient or the gung-ho but it’s understandable why so many people call it the hidden gem on PS4 VR. Like its pondering airships ‘Bow to Blood’ takes a while to reach its destination but it’s worth the wait. I just hope it survives the vicious public vote during the time it takes to get there.

A digital copy of ‘Bow to Blood’ was given to review. No one has seen or had any influence on the content of this post prior to publishing.

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