Battle Bands is a 2D online card battler by Aerie Digital, where two teams face head-to-head to score the most points the fastest using the music-themed cards they have. This game is perfect for you hardcore punk rock people that like to get nitty-gritty with tactical card placement (and destroying your opponent with some sick combos). Note: this game is still in Early Access on Steam, so there might be changes/improvements when you get your hands on it.
I’ve been following the art (Chickadee Games) and music development (Fat Bard) for Battle Bands over the past year, so I was excited to jam out and see some crazy-silly art. I think overall the game came together… on those aspects. Let me break down the gameplay for you.
How Battle Bands works is you and each of your band mates are given a handful of cards, each with your own draw and discard pile. Card placement is centered around series of combos, which the game calls “song sections.” A song section card must be placed before other “performance” cards can be placed, creating a continuous combo string for the band. Playing cards cost currency, and once each player is out of currency the band’s turn ends, and the cycle continues back and forth. Cards earn players victory points, boost their shield, attacks the other team, and various other special cases. I only played the solo Tour Mode, where you travel through a procedurally generated map battling other bands and experiencing random encounters. On paper, the gameplay sounds logical, fun even, but in reality it can be quite frustrating.
As a person who’s developed and played many card games; it can be a tricky medium to get right, especially transferring a physical board game into a digital platform. When the band is playing cards, there is no determinate order on who places what; everything is placed simultaneously. The strategy I was planning on doing is suddenly destroyed by another player who wanted to play their combo. It also seems that all the other players get cool and interesting cards, so why is my deck still full of basic cards? Deck building one of the most difficult mechanics to incorporate into a game. The whole idea behind it is players start with poor, useless decks, but by the time the game ends they have powerful cards, ready to take on anyone that challenges them. It’s a very uplifting experience, especially when players understand how the combos work together. In Battle Bands, however, the feeling of improvement and progression is obscured by not knowing and not controlling how your teammates will act. On a rare occasion I had those successful moments of excitement where I couldn’t do anything, but another band member pulled through with some awesome cards. For most of the gameplay, however, I didn’t have much strategy or excitement. I really only knew what I had so I had to build tiny strategies on that. Like I said though, your teammates get way better cards than you do.
Ultimately I felt I had no control on what was happening within Battle Bands. I’m not sure what/when my teammates were going to play cards, I couldn’t prepare for what my opponent had coming for me, I didn’t feel like I was improving at all (the bonuses in the cards don’t play off of each other, as in, it doesn’t give me more opportunities to make combos and lay a hay-maker), everything just felt too random. It’s okay to have randomization within a game, it’s through random variables that unique and interesting gameplay can come about, but most interactions within Battle Bands are a form of negative cognitive dissonance (that being the outcome differs from what I was expecting). I didn’t get the cars I wanted: negative; I can’t play the cards I want: negative; the enemy just played a bunch of cards that I couldn’t prepare for: negative; the beginning/end of the battles I get to pick out cool cards for my teammates, but I get a lame one: negative. The game should’ve focused on helping the player learn and grow in a positive manner. Having to restart a Tour completely from scratch is disappointing. All the negativity has put me in a sour mood (makes me want to go start a punk band), but I think it’s because I couldn’t find out an optimal strategy through all the randomness the game gave me.
If I was with a group of friends online playing as a team, perhaps we would be better because we could communicate what we had. The problem with simultaneous play, is that we would have to dictate when we are about to play something. At some point in time the game would turn into a yelling fest where we’d be frustrated at each other, or someone would have to be in charge. Semi cooperative games should not be about who is in charge because everyone playing should have an equal part in the effect of the game, unfortunately the game design in Battle Bands leads towards a dictator role because of the lack of rigidity in turn order.
I don’t want to bash on Battle Bands anymore, but there are also a few problems I had not related to the gameplay design. If your opponent is all AI, you should be able to fast forward their turn. There’s also no way to pause the battle-- and I have a small bladder! If you watched me play you would see me dancing, but it wasn’t because of the music; I was trying to physically rush the Tour Mode along. I feel that the game focused too much on the multiplayer part and playing solo was tossed together at the end.
On a positive note (pun included), as I said previously the art and music is awesome. From having fully customized characters, band vans, and a myriad of interesting opponents, the art is great. Part of me enjoys the scenery the most, with some humor spread everywhere and kooky creatures bobbing up and down in the background. Some of the User Interface art was not at the correct resolution/pixel ratio (the heart reward symbol when battling, to be exact), and outlining these icons with varying backgrounds made it feel more like a rushed game jam game (game jams are games made in a short period of time to challenge developers).
The music fits the theme as well (I mean it better, it’s about punk rock bands). They’re fun and upbeat, with catchy melodies that have thoroughly wedged themselves in my noggin. I was hoping the music was a bit more dynamic, like when the announcer yelled “GUITAR,” a cool riff would play, or that instrument would be emphasized, but it was kind of on a simple loop (I think it switched to a sped up section if your opponent got more than half the required number of points to win). The sounds in Battle Bands were also fun, with the intense announcer, opponent grunts/exclamations, and feedback sounds. I think there should have been another sound to recognize the player selecting something, as the scratching of the guitar makes it sound like every choice I made was a wrong choice (and it got slightly annoying).
Gosh, I’m torn if I should suggest Battle Bands to you or not. On one hand, the art, music, and overall theme is a lot of fun, but the gameplay design with the cards is not as solid as I believe it could be. The game is in Early Access and I think the developers are passionate about the work they’re doing, so I’m hopeful that gameplay will be improved.