Deathbulge: Battle of the Bands is an RPG based on the Deathbulge webcomic. Despite minimal familiarity with the comic, I was attracted to this game. As an avid bass player who loves puns and meme humor, how could I not play a game where one of the protagonists is a muscular skeleton who plays a bass (guitar) that looks like a bass (fish)? And no, exposure to the Deathbulge comic is not required to enjoy the Deathbulge game.
Deathbulge: Battle of the Bands looks like the Deathbulge webcomic come to life. The wacky character designs don’t have the most complex colors and textures, but their originality and exaggerated animations are nifty. Many locations have cool details that aren’t immediately apparent in screenshots but are more noticeable as you play the game. This is a game that looks better in action than in pictures. You need to spend time with it to really appreciate the creativity that went into the visual design.
The story begins when guitarist Faye’s friends/rivals Platinum and Scrumptious (who comprise the musical duo Platinum Scrumptious) harshly wake Faye up. A battle of the bands contest is accepting sign-ups, and Platinum wants both her and Faye’s bands to sign up. The problem is that Faye’s band, called Deathbulge, hasn’t played together in a long time. Drummer Briff spends his days sleeping on Faye’s couch, and bassist Ian has retreated to the woods to find himself. Platinum doesn’t care about Faye’s excuses and and insists she go with her and Scrumptious to sign up.
Faye reluctantly signs Deathbulge up for the contest but must now wake up Briff and retrieve Ian to reunite the band and get them show-ready. If The Blues Brothers taught us anything, it’s that “getting the band back together” after a long hiatus is easier said than done. Not only that, but there is something sinister and supernatural surrounding this battle of the bands. Faye inadvertently signed Deathbulge up for more than they bargained for, and participation is a binding contract with nefarious consequences if you back out.
Absurdity and comedically melodramatic hijinks reign supreme from beginning to end. The characters all have big personalities, especially our protagonists. The interplay between Ian’s misguided zeal, Briff’s naïve optimism, and Faye trying (and often failing) to play it straight make for amusing banter. One thing to note is that because the main writer is British, some vernacular might throw off US gamers.
Exploration is encouraged in Deathbulge: Battle of the Bands. Objectives are relatively clear, but directions to your destination are sometimes vague, offering plenty of opportunities to zig instead of zag. There is a main quest to follow, but tons of sidequests open up via talking to people and venturing off the beaten path. Save points occur at important junctures that allow healing, supply restocking, and basic skill upgrades. The game also includes an auto-save system. Unfortunately, there is no option to manually save games to different save slots.
Deathbulge: Battle of the Bands‘ turn-based battle system is complicated to describe but straightforward to use. The simplest way to explain is to compare it to the Grandia series’ battle system with sliding bars that determine turn order but with an added twist. Utilizing skills that place buffs and debuffs within the travel paths of player and enemy sliders is the core of battling. This blend of strategy and spontaneity keeps players on their toes during combat. Only one character fights at a time but can switch out on the fly, either while the party’s bar is moving or when it’s their turn to act. Those on standby recover Hype (MP).
Character building is key to getting the most out of your musical battles. Each character can equip one Beat (a regular attack/skill that doesn’t cost Hype) and three Mods (special skills). The Mod in the first slot determines the character’s class, which alters their visual appearance, base stats, and reduces the cost to use Mods for that class. The classes have music-themed names like Busker or Headbanger but are comparable to traditionally named RPG classes we’re all familiar with.
Deathbulge only has one difficulty level that I found challenging. You need to learn the gameplay systems inside and out if you want to get anywhere. Bosses and even several basic enemies are merciless unless you’ve figured out optimum character builds and skill sets advantageous for given situations. Some might call it wonderfully strategic, whereas others might feel railroaded into using character builds that suit the game rather than their tastes. If you are a casual gamer who just wants to play for the wacky story, you’re out of luck because there is no easy mode. Grinding excessively to overpower bosses is not an option either since every dungeon imposes a level cap for the party.
Enemies are visible on the field and respawn unless a plot point dictates that they do not (like the Ego Exorcism quest in the haunted bus). I think a finite number of enemies that don’t respawn would have been a better design choice to eliminate tedium and make sure you’re adequately leveled. This worked in the aforementioned haunted bus, making it my favorite dungeon in the game.
A music-themed RPG lives and dies by its soundtrack, and Deathbulge: Battle of the Bands‘ soundtrack is phenomenal! The music slaps, bops, rocks, slams, and does everything you want killer music to do. Several music genres represent the myriad of locations and diverse in-game music artists, from country crooners to metal bands. Mutilla is easily my favorite in-game band. All the music fits the context of the game while being engaging to listen to outside of it. I would have liked the music to be more integrated into the gameplay (e.g. having rhythm game-style button presses during Limit Break-style special attacks called Performances), but that’s more wishful thinking for a sequel.
Deathbulge: Battle of the Bands is a good game whose small development team has big talent. The music alone is worth the price of admission. Deathbulge: Battle of the Bands is an enjoyable, if challenging, 12-15 hour (closer to 20 if you do all the sidequests) romp for those willing to invest in thoroughly learning and experimenting with the play mechanics. Deathbulge: Battle of the Bands is not for everyone, but if it sounds like your jam, you will love it.