Editor’s Note – As many of my readers know, I am on staff at Adrenaline Vault where I provide game reviews. I also plan on publishing these reviews here to keep a chronicle of everything I’ve written. That said, some of the games I get sent truly suck. Case in point, today’s feature. Don’t fault me for this dreck.
Ever since Harmonix proved there were millions to be made in the rhythm and music genre with the meteoric rise of the original Guitar Hero, a war has waged between game developers looking to launch the next hot music game. Of course, Harmonix moved beyond the guitar and assembled a full-on band with their latest hit, Rock Band, while Neversoft picked up the reigns to Guitar Hero III and kept gamers rocking all night. While those two franchises represent the apex of this formerly niche genre, there is plenty of competition looking to make a name for itself. Into the fray comes Planet Moon’s Battle of the Bands.
In Bands, the player takes the role of front man for a fictional ensemble and is tasked with journeying across the map taking on other garage bands. The character designs take a page from the Guitar Hero playbook, with the bands and characters projecting exaggerated cartoonish personas that are emblematic of their musical stylings – hence the Goth group that has sold their souls to El Diablo or the Day of the Dead skeletons that inspire a Mariachi band.
Where Band differs from its competition is in the choice of instrumentation. Instead of employing a peripheral controller (like the replica guitars, drums and sambas of other rhythm games) all of your actions are controlled with the Wiimote.
Band’s gameplay is set-up similarly to Guitar Hero, with your characters occupying the top 3rd of the screen while your musical cues stream up along a bar from the bottom of the screen. The objective is to mimic the directed actions as they hit a target line with a corresponding Wiimote motion. The majority of the notes call upon the user to flick their controllers up, left or right while every once in awhile being directed to employ a more complex action such as pushing the Wiimote towards the screen or shaking it back in forth in time with a longer section of the music.
As you build up successful notes, one of three battle power counters will fill. This is where the “battle” component comes into play. The more notes you complete, the more powers you have at your disposal and thus the greater your attack on your opposing band. These powers can result in some debilitating status effects upon your opponent, such as action icons that shrink, making it harder for them to time their actions with the target line. Successful beats and attacks will result in increased points which is the true indicator of who is winning the song. All you need to do to best your opponent is get a higher score than them and you’re on to the next stop on your tour.
The Battle of the Bands tour/campaign mode is broken out through stops on a tour schedule. You are presented with a map of the region and some details on the venue and the ‘house band’ that plays there. You’ll also be tipped to the song title that will serve as the basis for your battle. Once you’ve selected your next venue, the story will advance through some quick static cut-scenes and then the song will begin.
It’s the song choice that represents the most differentiating factor from other music games. Battle of the Bands ships with over 30 songs culled from a variety of genres including Country, Rock, Hip-Hop and Rap. Most players can expect to find a favorite in a deep play list that includes titles as diverse as Cyprus Hill’s Insane in the Brain, Soundgarden’s Spoonman and The Soggy Bottom Boy’s Man of Constant Sorrow, among many others. The catch is – as you’ll often be going up against resident house bands with their own predetermined musical taste, the game will alternate between the ‘normal’ version of the song (i.e. the recording of Spoonman sounds appropriately grungy) with the house band’s own take on the song. So if you are going up against a posse of Country & Western warblers, you’ll hear a countrified version of the Soundgarden grunge anthem. While the game will alternate versions through the course of the song, resulting in some interesting mash-ups, the band that is on a roll with the most beats hit will have their rendition of the tune playing the majority of the time.
Planet Moon wisely offers the ability to listen to any of these songs and their alternate renditions through a Music Player feature from the main menu. So, if you like your Blitzkrieg Bop with a twang you’ll be able to Dosey Doe to the “Hey Ho, Let’s Go” anytime you like. Any of the songs can be played in their Rock, Country, Hip Hop, Rap and School Band versions – all of which make for an entertaining listen.
Now, for the big question. Will groupies flock to this Band?
There’s no question that of all the rhythm games, Battle of the Bands is most comfortable ‘covering’ Guitar Hero. The stylish designs of the various bands and their arenas mimic the exaggerated cartoons that rep the Guitar franchise. While some of the bands available for selection slide a little too far into caricature (the hip-hop and rap groups suffer the most from this stereotyping) there are some creative designs that show artistic flair – with the player able to select from bands made up of cowpoke, alien abductees or the living dead. Each group possesses their own unique instruments that double as weapons, so as you play through each song, nicely animated renditions of the characters will wage war on the screen above – alternating between guns and poses. Unfortunately, as with many music games, the player’s eyes are too glued to the scrolling bar to pay much mind to the battle above, meaning a lot of that graphical flare is lost on anyone outside of bystanders. The background arenas share the same artistic bent and you’ll see some pretty creative venues including the inside of a disco-themed alien mothership and the apparent bowels of Hell – to name but a few joints you’ll end up rocking. This game’s sights are about on par with the genre and you can certainly see that Battle of the Bands has cribbed a few notes from its competition.
As a music illiterate, I was initially encouraged to see that I can control this game using only the Wiimote. As cool as it is to get your hands on a Les Paul and strum to the beat, I find that anything beyond 3 Chord Rock (i.e. Easy setting) has stressed my abilities in prior music games. That said, utilizing the Wiimote in a rhythm game tends to hamper the gameplay potential quite a bit. Essentially, you are just being tasked to flick your wrist right, left and up (occasionally employing some special moves) in time with the music beats displayed on the scroll. At no point do you actually feel as if you are in control of the musical instrument or controlling the flow of the song. As long as you can determine which direction to point your controller, it’s all just a matter of timing your motions. So, while I may be all thumbs when it comes to Guitar Hero, I do see the appeal inherent in actually strumming a guitar or banging the bongos. The peripheral sells the fantasy, allowing the player to live as a Rock God. With Battle of the Bands’ reliance on using the Wiimote, the learning curve may be solved but the fun factor is crippled. The game just gets boring quickly. The other feature is the fact that you are constantly competing against a rival band throughout the song. While it’s neat that your success in hitting the beats will drive the song selection (or allow your competitor’s unique vocal stylings to take over) – the battle that wages between the two sides seems arbitrary. As long as you hit your marks, it’s not too difficult to work through the songs and come out the victor. Essentially, you’re battling for a high score. At no point did I feel as if anything else was at stake so the battle element just seems tacked on. Occasionally you’ll be tasked with pressing your B button to deflect oncoming skull attacks, but that doesn’t really mix up the action as much as you would like. I found that I continued to play through just to unlock the various versions of popular songs – all of which are available from the Music Player at the start, anyway. On that note, Battle of the Bands is good for a laugh but not necessarily good for a game.
The controls are very easy to learn but that becomes the game’s greatest deficit. I believe music games have reached the success they have largely driven off the pack-in peripherals. I may not be any good at it but I admit that the only reason I ever picked up Guitar Hero was its guitar controller. The same goes for Rock Band and any of the other music games that have released over the years and placed an instrument in my hands – even if it is banging on the bongos to make an ape escape. Battle of the Bands provides all of the set dressing of a proper music game but then neglects the one facet that has improved the genre since the earlier days of Amplitude. Simply put, it needs instrumentation. By controlling all of the action through the Wiimote, I never once felt in control of the music nor did I feel like I was a true rock star. If anything, I felt the nagging strains of carpal tunnel creeping in as my poor wrist was called upon to front the whole show. There is nothing broken with the controls as designed – they are very responsive to your actions – but this game really needed to follow the leader and employ some instrumentation.
Music games live or die on their controls, their gameplay and most importantly their musical selection. To date, one of the Wii’s biggest flaws is the inability to download more songs to augment your playlist in games such as Guitar Hero III or American Idol – Karaoke Edition. Battle of the Bands doesn’t solve that dilemma but it does offer up a stellar set list of tunes that is made even better by offering up alternate variations of each track. Each variation is worth hearing at least once and some are so good, and so funny, that you’ll want to share the experience with friends and family. The ability to cue up any version of any song through the Music Player is a nice feature which I could see being employed to provide soundtrack to your house parties. While I may have issues with the gameplay and controls, the music carries this game to lofty heights.
As Battle of the Bands’ central gimmick is the fact that you are competing with a rival band, the game employs sound design outside of just the track being played. Your attacks all feature distinctive sounds which alert you to what you are sending your opponents way and what attacks you should prepare to defend against. The entire package is an aural delight and while the songs all feature the “as made famous by” tag, they’re all professionally recorded with the right fidelity. Again, the big surprise here is how entertaining these tunes are (when heard played in anything but their native tongue).
The single player game places the player in direct competition with the AI controlled bands. While the AI does not ‘cheat’ per say, players will find themselves defending more attacks the greater difficulty they choose. That said, the combat does not impede the gameplay too much and players will find they have to worry less about the computer-controlled assault and focus more on the notes that are flying fast and furious.
Battle of the Bands’ solo campaign mode presents the player with a running tour through the various bands. As a big component of the game involves the battle function, increasing the difficulty will not only add more notes to the song selections, it will also add more attacks to ward off. On Easy, you’ll see fewer beats and therefore fewer attacks. The difficulty scales upwards from there. The real impact felt by the change in difficulty is the impact on your wrist. The higher levels will give you a beating – a fact that the game broadcasts by making frequent suggestions that you give the game a rest. Players will find a moderate challenge no matter which level they tackle but they may need to find a physical therapist if they stick with the higher difficulties for too long.
While I may have issues with the repetitive nature of Bands’ single player campaign, there is some fun to be found in multiplayer. The musical combat format works well when played against a live opponent and the various status effects that you can deploy are more satisfying when you see the impact on a real-life adversary. While it may not match the dueling guitar heroics that other titles offer, jamming along with some of these wacky beats can lead to a lot of laughs. As such, this makes a pretty good party game as the controls are fairly easy to learn (anyone can flick their wrist) and the music can grow to be the life of the party. The multiplayer modes are fairly standard with simple head-to-head battles where the higher score determines the victor. Rock Band certainly has the edge when it comes to true multiplayer rock mayhem but Battle of the Bands has some fight in it as well.
This was a very mixed review for me – on one token, using the Wiimote finally found me hitting the right groove to excel at a music game. At the same time, I can clearly appreciate just how much more enjoyable music and rhythm games are when you have your hands on the right gear and can jam away all night. Without the instruments, Battle follows the lead of so many other Wii games that rely upon motion sensitive controls to sell their game play. And after awhile of swinging only your wrist in different directions, you may find yourself fitted for a brace. Make it sequined and wear just one and you might be on the road to pop stardom. While the gameplay may suffer as a result, Battle’s endlessly entertaining song list and mash-up motif make this a band worth listening to. At the very least, if the game play doesn’t grab you, the set list will. I think Planet Moon has a great hook with those alternate tunes. Were they to work some peripherals in to the game design, they may have the start of their own special series. Perhaps that’s an idea for their inevitable reunion tour.