Deathbulge: Battle of the Bands’ greatest trick is making me enjoy turn-based combat

By admin May26,2024

I may have winced a bit, initially, at Alice Bee’s choice of RPS Game Club game for this month. Deathbulge: Battle of the Bands looked funny and all, but it’s a turn-based RPG, a subgenre that usually elicits the same amount of enthusiasm from me as the phrase “by Ernest Cline” does from Alice. Deathbulge, however, is a clever little sod of a game, managing to devise not only a turn-based combat system that avoids the usual waiting-around tedium but one that’s outright good fun in itself.

Essentially, you don’t take turns – you race for them. Both your party of rock band weirdos and the opposing gang of tree stumps/DJ birds/fish bagpipers are represented on markers that slide towards the end of a four-part bar: when a marker hits the end, it’s their turn to make a play, regardless of who took the last one.

Crucially, the pace of that slider is based on the speed stat of your lead party member, and with the right build you can easily dash your way to making two moves before a foe can manage just one. This by itself is an entertaining take on the initiative concept: as my opponents got tougher and faster, I increasingly found myself leaning into the screen, willing on that little slider to beat the other guy’s to the finish line. And if it looked like they might pip me at the post, there was even a bonus test of reflexes to try and switch out my speedster (guitarist Faye) to slow-but-tanky skeleton lad Ian before the hit could land. There’s a tension here, a need to stay alert, that I’ve rarely felt in other turn-based games where characters (and thus, you) simply wait their turn like they’re in the queue at Argos.

Briff drums out a healing spell in Deathbulge: Battle of the Bands.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Five Houses LLC

Still, there’s much more to Deathbulge’s sonic duels than the sliders. Each of the bar’s four segments can, and likely will, become filled with Measure Effects – status modifiers that help or hinder the party as their marker moves through that section. Some deal damage or sap mana, while others can slow down or speed up the marker itself, often dramatically rejigging turn order and forcing strategic rethinks over the course of a few rounds.

It’s still a race, but specifically a Wacky Races kind of race, where you’re encouraged to lay traps and fuck up an enemy’s progression while being at constant risk of the same. It’s an egalitarian system of screwing each other over, and as such never feels unfair, even when it ends up foiling your plans. For instance, my early strategy of just leaving Faye out front for every fight, outpacing all comers, was soon scuppered by damage-dealing Measure Effects and other debuffs that would leave her battered and weak by the time the marker slid home. But this only made each fight more active and interesting, as I’d constantly switch the party leader, on a segment-by-segment basis, to whoever could best endure the hurty measures and whoever could benefit from the helpful ones. All the while, I could still plan and execute Dick Dastardly manoeuvres of my own, forgoing the burst damage of a direct strike to instead launch attacks that replaced the enemy’s beneficial Measure Effects with painful ones. Nyeh heh heh heh!

A singing bird summons an audience during a battle in Deathbulge: Battle of the Bands.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Five Houses LLC

It’s always the passivity of turn-based games that I’ve never got on with. The watching, the waiting, the standing around while someone whales on you unimpeded. The best ones still give you plenty to think about, like XCOM’s three-dimensional cover shooting and the dash of real-time positioning that Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth affords, but the bulk of their encounters are still only advanced by tapping a single button and sitting back idly while an animation plays out. Even if Deathbulge still has a hint of this when it’s actually time for someone’s turn, there’s so much going on between those turns – the slider, the lead switching, the Measure Effects – that you can scarcely take your hands off the controls. Now that’s my kind of alternating RPG brawlage.

By admin

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