Developer: Ninja Bee
Release Date: June 20, 2007
Band of Bugs is really an odd game. It takes you down into the world of insects, which is not an uncommon theme for video games to explore. However, the world of Band of Bugs is no normal insect world — some great event granted sentience to a number of insects. Beyond that, it bonded all of the insects together, forming them into a giant colony that can create new breeds on demand. Even odder still is that it gave them all the ability to cast magic! Such a strange setting seems perfect for a video game, and in many ways, it is. The mix of insect types and the unique environment provide the perfect breeding ground for gaming antics. Band of Bugs puts you in control of an army of these strange magical bugs as you battle other bugs for control of the tiny plot of land you call home.
Like most strategy-RPGs, combat for Band of Bugs takes place in a turn-based environment. However, rather than switching between player phases, both sides share a single round and switch turns after each character movement, rather than at the end of a phase. Per turn, each player can move a unit of his choosing, and control switches back and forth until each unit has moved once, and then the round ends. It's a minor change from the normal, but it does require players to change their tactics a bit.
Unfortunately, the rest of combat isn't quite so interesting. Every other element of the game is purely formulaic, and this generic design isn't used in a particularly interesting way. Every aspect of combat comes down to the same thing: get behind the enemy (from a higher terrain, if possible), and attack. It's strategy-RPG boiled down to its very simplest elements, and this is one case where simplicity is not a good thing. Even against other players, battles quickly become tedious and boring because there are limited things to do. A greater variety of moves or more combat elements could have done a lot to alleviate the tedium.
While enemy bugs can be dangerous, they are far from the most hazardous element you'll encounter in Band of Bugs. Being smaller than a blade of grass has its disadvantages, and everything can be dangerous. Shifting grains of sand can force your bugs to move around against their will, dropping them off cliffs or simply moving them into an enemy's ambush. Antlions hide in holes on the ground, and going into their lairs will end your bug's life quicker than a can of Raid. Sometimes you even have to deal with collapsing platforms that send unwary bugs to a gruesome demise. However, while all these elements and dangerous, nothing can match the almost-constant threat of water.
One of the most interesting elements of Band of Bugs is how you can interact with water during combat. Insects can't swim at all, so water functions as an inescapable deathtrap for them. Using this in combat can fundamentally change the way you play the game. By using certain abilities or weapons, you can knock enemies back a space, and by knocking them into water, you can instantly kill them, saving you the time and effort required to beat them down the normal way. Of course, the same goes for your troops, so you have to make sure you never end a turn with your back to a puddle. However, while water is a dangerous obstacle, it can also be turned to a clever player's advantage. By having your mage cast an ice spell, you can turn a block (or multiple blocks) of water into ice, converting it into a makeshift bridge for your bugs to cross and allowing you to flank the enemy. Of course, an enemy can turn this back on you by using fire magic to melt the ice, sending any bug on it to a watery doom.
The problem with the environmental hazards in Band of Bugs is that they're not very common. With the exception of water, you'll only encounter the other elements a maximum of once or twice. A vast majority of the stages are made up of boring elements broken up by almost useless water. In the stages where the hazards do come into play, they're a lot of fun to work with. Luring a group of foes onto an ice flow and then melting it under their feet is deeply satisfying, but there are only one or two stages where this is a viable tactic. Instead, you'll spend most of your time simply beating enemies to death, which just isn't very fun, considering the lack of rewards.
The single-player aspect of Band of Bugs most revolves around the campaign mode, which plays almost like a parody of strategy-RPG clichés. You have the generic hero, with a mysterious past, and his misfit band of allies, ranging from a mentor with a prosthetic arm to a burly Barbarian bug who just happens to resemble a classic RPG dwarf. Taking your team, you travel through a short quest (only 20 missions) to discover the source of the evil Jelly that is plaguing your insect land. This is unsatisfying both as parody and as an actual story. The parody elements that show up are funny, but they are few and far between, leaving the bulk of the character interaction dedicated to resolving the completely incoherent plot.
Band of Bugs attempts to hint toward a larger overall plot, but it makes no sense at all, and most of the storyline elements are left unresolved at the end. Instead, you simply travel from place to place, gaining and losing compatriots without any prior warning, until the final boss shows up out of nowhere with a plot and backstory that are never addressed. For an Xbox Live title, I wasn't expecting much, but this is truly bare-bones.
The most frustrating part of the single-player campaign is that you have no control over the makeup of your band of bugs. Each stage throws you in with a pre-selected team, all at pre-selected levels, and even with pre-selected items. There's no point in planning or strategizing beforehand because everything you need is given to you in the most obvious ways. It's even more frustrating when you lose a character who is useful in exchange for a character you'd really rather not use, such as the Rogue Mosquito.
Instead of feeling like a strategy title, Band of Bugs comes off feeling like a puzzle game. Each stage has a trick to it, and once you figure it out, the rest of the stage quickly comes tedious as you march on toward the inevitable conclusion. You can pick up items in each stage by landing on them, but the items are lost at the end of every stage, and you start every level with more than enough healing potions and items, so going out of your way for these extra tools seems worthless.
The simplistic gameplay would be tolerable if the enemy AI were any good, but it isn't. Rarely have I seen enemies act in more illogical and bizarre ways; they'll often attack random targets, leave targets undefended, or stop moving because they can't figure out where to go, allowing me to snipe them to my heart's content. The only challenge comes from the fact that you're always outnumbered by stronger foes, and even then, they're all so dumb that you never really feel threatened by them. It's entirely possibly to lose troops, but that is more because your own side appears to be made of papier-mâché, not because the enemies are very smart.
After you've finished the campaign mode, there isn't much left to do offline. There are a variety of modes that challenge you to battle the AI, but all of the same issues that plague the campaign's enemies are mostly evident here. They're not very smart and they're not a real threat, and most gamers will quickly outpace them and grow bored in a few games. To its credit, the modes themselves are fairly interesting and challenge you to do things ranging from eliminating all opposition to capturing valuables from enemies. They're nothing particularly new or creative, but they manage to do their job quite well. In a game with better variety and more interesting combat, they would have certainly added more to the replay value than they do here.
The real selling point of Band of Bugs is the game's Xbox Live capability. The Live gameplay allows players to compete in a variety of modes against other players. These modes range from regular combat to an enchanting mode, where the two players team up to battle a hoard of feral spiders. While these modes can be fun, the real star of the show is the Create-a-Level feature, which allows players to create their own ant farms and trade them with others. While the actual stage design is sadly limited, clever players can create all sorts of traps and tricks to spice up gameplay. However, even the allure of created levels cannot prevent Live gameplay from eventually growing dull.
For an Xbox Live title, the graphics in Band of Bugs are quite nice. The isometric camera gives you a solid view of the entire battlefield, and it's generally easy to keep track of the warriors on the default maps. All of the character models are well-designed and easy to recognize, and they move quite well. The attack animations are good, if a bit lacking in spice, but they get the job done. The levels themselves are fairly bland and prone to reusing the same basic textures over and over, but when your whole world exists in an area smaller than a ping-pong table, these sorts of things are to be expected. On the whole, it is a pleasing graphical experience.
The audio, however, is rather forgettable. The music (what little there is of it) is so bland as to be forgotten almost immediately. Sound effects lack punch and really don't pull you into the experience at all. Surprisingly, one element that works very well is the bug's voices. Rather than speaking English, the insects in Band of Bugs speak made-up gibberish, which adds a bit of playful charm to the characters, as they all clearly have personalities — you just can't understand them.
For a $10 Xbox Live Arcade title, Band of Bugs shows a lot of potential. It looks quite nice, and a lot of the basic features work exceptionally well. Unfortunately, once you start getting into the gameplay, you can't help but feel that something is missing. If the game had a more developed campaign mode or a wider variety to its basic design, it could have been a smash hit. As it stands now, however, it feels empty and basic. For the price, Band of Bugs is not a bad buy, but don't expect to spend much time with it, either, as it lacks the replay value to keep you coming back for more.