Release date: September 10, 2020
Developer: DarkScreen Games
Publisher: Merge Games
Indie games deserve their own Smash Bros. Bounty Battle is not that game. On the surface, it does so much right: like Nintendo’s all-star crossover brawler, it gathers dozens of popular characters from a variety of iconic indie games to duke it out in 2D fighting action. But it doesn’t take long for its promises of epic indie crossovers to fall apart. Bounty Battle is broken, hideous, and nothing short of sickening to play. It’s worse than disappointing: it’s a disgrace to the hard work of the indie developers who mistakenly lent their characters to this abomination.
Bounty Battle starts off strong. It opens with a beautifully animated intro, showing beloved characters like Otis from Owlboy, Juan from Guacamelee!, and the Prisoner from Dead Cells fighting in their own worlds before getting sucked into a bizarre multiverse where they all must do battle with one another. This intro does a nice job setting up the basic premise while paying homage to the many intellectual properties it celebrates.
And that’s the last good thing I can say about Bounty Battle. If the colorful opening managed to make you smile, those positive feelings are soon ripped away when you’re greeted with the laggy eyesore of its main menu. Here, the gameplay modes are clearly laid out: you have three tabs, one for options, one for multiplayer (which seems to be local multiplayer only with no option for online), and one for single-player content. Using the menu itself is when the problems truly begin. It takes seconds at a time to switch between options or for button presses to register. Then, when the menu finally lurches into your chosen destination, it’s nearly impossible to see what you’re trying to select thanks to the ridiculously faint cursor. Even when I played the game on a large TV screen the menu cursor was nearly impossible to see. The situation is even worse in portable mode. The menu is nothing short of a nightmare for accessibility and a trial in patience—and we haven’t even started playing the game yet. That’s not even to mention its gameplay UI, which is packed with meters and bars and notifications yet crammed into tiny boxes at the corners of the screen, making them largely illegible.
The fact that I’ve written so much about its menus alone should show you how bad things get from here. Imagine putting Smash Bros. in a blender that obliterates its responsive controls, colorful personality, and fanservice, leaving you with a mess that’s a pain to look at and even worse to play; that’s Bounty Battle.
Bounty Battle suffers from an extreme lack of focus. It seems to have no idea what it actually wants to be; on top of its star indie lineup, it also tosses in random “bounty” mechanics that reward players for taking down the winning fighter, mechanics that make characters glitch out when they spam moves too much, and the ability to summon smaller minions to your aid. None of these ideas feel like they have any reason to be here – everything feels like it’s been haphazardly tossed together with little rhyme or reason. Why does a deep-voiced announcer declare that the winning player is “wanted dead or alive”? Why are these characters randomly glitching out? Why are countless little minions flooding the screen?
A fighting game doesn’t need to have an in-depth story to answer these questions. But Bounty Battle can’t even justify them with its gameplay. There’s no cohesion to speak of – at best, it’s a jumble of unrelated, tedious systems. At its core, Bounty Battle continues to draw comparisons to Smash Bros.: you have light and heavy attacks, which can be augmented by using different directional inputs, along with dodges, jumps, shields, and grabs. Problems immediately arise even during the first moments of the tutorial: Bounty Battle’s controls are ridiculously slow and unresponsive. It’s nearly impossible to appropriately time your attacks. Will an attack execute immediately after pressing the button, or will it take a second or two? It’s completely random and unpredictable.
That’s not to mention that the moment-to-moment gameplay is simply a slog in its own right. It’s extremely slow, and it feels like it takes ages to simply walk up to an opponent. Even supposedly fast moves like dashes and slides feel sluggish. There’s nothing wrong with a fighting game having a slower pace, but Bounty Battle’s shoddy execution ruins the whole package. You never know how fast you’re really going. On top of the unreliable flow, it also stops, stutters, and freezes at random. This makes the game even more impossible to control. You might be pressing forward on the d-pad, the game freezes, and by the time it comes back, you’ll have run yourself off the stage. Even in the rare moments that the gameplay is fluid, its animations are barebones at best. It’s often difficult to tell what action each character is performing since their motions blend into each other.
Beyond the simple local multiplayer battles, Bounty Battle also features a series of single-player “challenge” campaigns, which throw you into several battles before facing a makeshift boss (usually just a normal fighter but with a different color). To give credit where it’s due, there is a nice variety between each of these challenges – some will have you fighting hordes of opponents while others will have you defeat enemies under a specific time limit, for example.
That can’t hide the fact that it feels like garbage to play. Not only is the gameplay just as frustrating here as it is in multiplayer, but there’s so little payoff. Whenever you defeat a character’s challenge mode, you’ll get only two rewards: a new skin for them, and hand-drawn art about them. The problem is that the skin is hardly enticing -does anyone really go “oh boy, now I can play as Juan but in green” – but the artwork is devoid of any context, personality, or fanfare. It’s just a random blurry jpeg flashing across the screen without so much as a “congratulations.” It’s a tragic emblem of just how careless this whole project is.
The most unforgivable aspect of Bounty Battle is how haphazard and slapdash the whole thing is. It’s as if the developers knew their game was a flop in the making, so they slapped some indie characters on it in a desperate (and ultimately vain) attempt to give it some semblance of personality. It gives none of these characters the love they deserve. There were so many missed opportunities to make Bounty Battle into a love letter to indie games. Instead, it simply painted the skins of various indie icons onto generic fighters and called it a day. None of these characters feel like their source material: nothing about Trace really feels like Axiom Verge, and nothing about Juan’s moveset feels like it pays homage to Guacamelee!. Even the stages and music feel like they’re phoning it in at best: the vast majority of the music is either pulled directly from the source material, or in most cases, the music is just Bounty Battle’s own bland, original chiptune soundtrack. There are no exciting remixes of indie themes, and even the songs that the developers did manage to squeeze into their game are hardly worthy of a fighting game. They’re slow and relaxed, which in a way complements the molasses-like gameplay.
The presentation is Bounty Battle’s icing on its moldy, rotten cake. Its frame rate is never consistent, constantly jumping between 30 frames per second on a good day and down into the low 20s or even lower. It never settles anywhere, meaning that it’s an uneven mess to behold that can be seriously sickening. Its visuals don’t fare any better. Character portraits are bland and disgustingly low-resolution, standing out as blurry blotches against its relatively clean backgrounds. There are clearly a lot of systems at play in each moment of Bounty Battle, but with such unreliable performance paired with its muddy visuals, it’s nearly impossible to keep track of any of them. If the game was at least fun to play it would be worth the effort of understanding. However, that’s far from the case here.
Bounty Battle is more than terrible; it’s a stain on the indie games scene. It’s a shoddy release in every regard, with garish visuals, dreadful performance, and unacceptably poor gameplay. Such a poor showing is an insult to the hard work of the incredible developers who allowed their cherished characters to feature here. Owlboy, Darkest Dungeon, SteamWorld, and every other franchise represented here all deserved better than this. Worst of all, a true indie Smash Bros. may never come to pass now – I wouldn’t blame developers for being hesitant to lend their IP to any crossover project after the train wreck that is Bounty Battle. In the end, Bounty Battle’s very name is a lie: I can’t imagine anyone ever caring about this game enough to battle over its bounty.
Review copy provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.