By Evan Norris 10th Sep 2020 | 1,770 views
Bounty Battle is a great idea. It takes the 2D brawling template from Super Smash Bros. and replaces the Nintendo mascots with indie game representatives. With the indie market more popular than ever and with the Smash formula a well-documented crowd-pleaser, this premise makes a whole lot of sense. Indeed, for a while it's fun to see a collection of favorite heroes assembled in one place, outside of their natural surroundings. What ultimately undermines the great notion of Bounty Battle, apart from some technical hiccups, is its clunky, stiff gameplay. A brawler in the vein of Super Smash Bros. needs a certain fluidity and kinetic energy but regrettably Bounty Battle is missing those vital components.
Apart from the game's opening cutscene, there isn't much story to Bounty Battle. But, oh, what a cutscene! It shows several familiar characters, going about their business in their respective worlds, when they're sucked into pixelated portals and dropped unceremoniously into an unknown area. Still in high-alert mode, the characters start picking fights with each other. Set to throbbing music and featuring fancy hand-drawn art, it's an ideal, invigorating entry point for a crossover fighter. Sadly, the game never lives up to this fist-pumping preamble.
If you've played Super Smash Bros. or copycat titles like Brawlout, you know exactly what to expect here. It's a 2D side-scrolling mascot fighting game that supports up to four players at a time. It's also more accessible and user-friendly than a lot of tactical 2D 1v1 fighters, although Bounty Battle does add a handful of interesting mechanics to make the experience more competitive. The first is the Bounty Point system. If you chain together combos and diversify your inputs, you'll earn Bounty Points, used to unlock a minion unique to each combatant. On the flip side, if you abuse one action, you may lose points (you'll also earn the ignominious "spammer" notification). The second mechanic is an energy bar. Each special attack requires energy, so if you attempt to abuse your most powerful moves you'll run out of steam very quickly.
Together these mechanics add a strategic flavor to the tried-and-true mascot brawler blueprint. Alas, they're not sufficient to elevate the game's clumsy, wooden, and messy action. Bounty Battle simply doesn't feel right. Its characters move in a stiff puppet-like way, hit boxes are difficult to identify, animations are choppy, and the screen is far too cluttered with particle effects, indicators, and shiny auras. Everything just seems stiff, awkward, and busy.
If you can look past the rigid animations and halting gameplay, you might find some enjoyment simply by controlling your favorite indie heroes in a new setting. Indeed, Bounty Battle has a generous collection of characters: 30 in total, with five fighters unique to the game and 25 on loan from properties like Jotun, Dead Cells, Battle Chasers, Guacamelee!, and Axiom Verge. What's more, Developer DarkScreen Games has done its research, adding unique moves and minions to bring each adopted character to life. Otus from Owlboy, for example, summons his best buddy Geddy with the X button command.
While the roster of fighters is admirable, the selection of stages is decidedly less impressive. The total number of stages, 16, is great. However, despite a couple of exceptions, they're mostly flat, single-level maps lacking any depth or dynamism. It's neat to see locales from Flinthook and Darkest Dungeon, sure, but without elevation differences or unique fixtures they all blend together.
In terms of modes, Bounty Battle offers local Versus for up to four players or bots (sorry, no online) and a group of single player options including Tutorial, Tournament, Challenge, and Training Room. The heart of the experience is Tournament, which provides a five-chapter campaign of sorts for each of the game's 30 fighters. It's a tad undercooked. You can unlock character skins by finishing each fight without dying — which is nice — but the battles are on the tedious and repetitive side. Your reward for completing a campaign? A low-res still image of the character. Pretty lame.
Technically, Bounty Battle arrives in an unpolished state. The geometry of some models turns transparent at times or reveals the gaps between joints (see image of Calibretto below, far right). Moreover, the game often stutters when there's too much activity onscreen or when returning to the main menu. There's also a distracting distortion effect in the main menu that's either a glitch or an intentional cosmetic decision by DarkScreen Games; either way, it's intrusive.
All that said, DarkScreen deserves credit for its art direction. Taking 20+ indie heroes with unique graphical designs and adapting them into a singular art style isn't easy. That the studio found a way to make this work is impressive.
Similarly impressive is the idea at the center of Bounty Battle. It leverages some of the most acclaimed and beloved indie characters of the last decade, plugs them into a popular formula, and adds a few balancing tweaks of its own. Yet those clever ideas can't overcome clunky gameplay, technical warts, and simple, samey stages. With smoother action, a deeper story mode, and a little TLC, the game could evolve into a decent substitute for Smash Bros. Right now, though, it's simply not ready for center stage.