Steam’s Early Access doesn’t often require introduction to stir fire in many a gamer’s belly, and the bottleneck of the under finished and underfunded can be a tricky scene for plucky studios to traverse. But despite Awfully Nice Studios’ scant list of creations, the two-man band’s debut successfully stirs hope in that notion, demonstrating that it is indeed possible to see the end of the tunnel, whilst creating a solid shoot ’em up in the process.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
The Bug Butcher plumps you down into the unflinching boots of titular Bug Butcher, Harry. He’s the cool-headed jerk summoned to the aid of Planet Zoit; a research facility with a serious bug problem. Joined by a trusty scientist and beloved machine-gun Ol’ Reliable, you’re tasked with taking on a tyranny of mutant creepy crawlies. It’s not the typical nine-to-five, but it’s far from dull. With an armory of vaporisers, rocket launchers and effectively everything containing a laser at your disposal, you’ll traverse the facility exterminating the bilious pests that dwell within each of its thirty floors.
With an art style comparable to Valiant Hearts, The Bug Butcher’s stockily drawn characters and garbled voices often wangles a laugh or two during the game’s encounters. Each bug has its own repulsive idiosyncrasies, but there’s something undeniably beguiling about each beastie’s inherent grossness. Squashy pink jellies that splice into smaller, squishier pink jellies. Putrid green booger-monsters that dive bomb you information, and squid like face-huggers that can end you in one easy hit. Precision is key in The Bug Butcher, but getting to know your many-legged friends certainly pays off. And rest assured, over the course of the Arcade Mode’s thirty levels, there’ll be plenty to get acquainted with.
As intriguing as I found its winning style, my anticipation for the disgusting delights ahead were marginally thwarted by its initially wonky control scheme. I rushed from my tinny spaceship, only for my character to suddenly halt, recognizing neither controller nor keyboard.
This was during the tutorial. The alleged ‘safe-zone’ of the game. Upon returning to the options menu, I found that the commands given in the tutorial had been incorrectly mapped, requiring manual set up, despite using the keyboard which – with a PC game – I would’ve expected to be the default.
But alas, The Bug Butcher’s menus make it plain that this is a gamepad affair. All prompts are explicit to the Xbox controller, and I had to rebind the keys to match the onscreen keyboard tutorial. Although easily rectified, it wasn’t the best introduction to the game, especially as levels themselves control responsively and instinctively. Indeed, once the bug-squashing commenced, the distraction soon dissipated.
Despite his vast medley of military-grade tech, our hardy bug-whacker’s movements are comparatively limited. You can walk left and right, dash, shoot and activate power ups; a setup that soon had me reveling in thankful simplicity once the anarchics of bug-catcher truly began to unfold.
Although memorable and instinctive, the straightforward controls are often what makes the gameplay so challenging later on. You can’t fire diagonally, so you’ll need to position yourself directly under your enemies. Whilst the prospect of innumerable bouncing bug-slams seems inevitable early on, each alien has its own offensive patterns that become easily exploitable after brief observation.
Each of The Bug Butcher’s 30 levels implement the same objective – Kill bugs, and ’em fast. The mutant macrobeasts come in waves, and you’re given a specific time frame to exterminate all pests on the floor. Powerups are aplenty in this game, cropping up every so often during levels. In no time at all, I’ve become a frenetic laser-beamer, freeze-rayer and rocket-launcher, rendering my foes into bug-blivion, eagerly anticipating the next superpower I’d pick up. And more importantly, what it’d possibly do to my rancid foes.
The phrase “Combos are your friend!” becomes increasingly pervasive to the gameplay. Much of your bug-smushing antics will revolve around keeping combos humming by avoiding hits, which earn you one-off abilities to use during a level. You can blast aliens at lightning speed without taking damage, or temporarily freeze all enemies to focus your aim. I fervidly favour the latter; it comes in dreadfully handy during final waves.
Bugs also drop coins upon their demise, which can be used in Arcade Mode to permanently upgrade weapons and abilities and acquire special perks, lending Ol’ Reliable some heartening devastation if levels begin to try your patience, or allow you to take one hit without losing your streak. That, and it’s always fun to pepper the room with combusted bug-chunks with all the confident veneer of James Bond.
Make no mistake, a lot of what makes these moments of slick adroitness in The Bug Butcher is it’s pandemonium. The earliest levels had me juggling one or two bouncing beasties, before gearing ultimately up to brave near-bullet-hell territory. But there wasn’t a moment in which I didn’t feel in control. When I died it was certainly my fault, and my strategy improved with each return I made to The Bug Butcher.And the stronger you get, the more reason there is to return – it’s not easy to bag those high scores, but when you do, it feels marvellous.
I never found a penchant for the likes of Deathsmiles or DoDonPachi, but I was irrefutably reassured by The Bug Butcher’s progression pace. However prolific it might look, it hums along to a predictable rhythm; a rhythm that, once you’ve a taste of each enemy’s attack pattern, becomes a joy to jive with.
But if Arcade Mode is a jive, there’s something of a jitterbug to be had within Panic Mode. Playable either solo or in split screen, Panic Mode’s sole objective is to survive as long as possible, and often found me darting for additional time power ups whilst tremulously juggling my squishy buggish friends. Upgrades are available here to buy at any point through the pause menu, but in Panic Mode, their use doesn’t extend beyond levels.
There’s something to be admired about The Bug Butcher’s toonish visuals and forgiving pace, but the efficacy of its boisterous sound effects shouldn’t be ignored. It’s fittingly bizarre; powerups and combos stir a malevolent snicker from our protagonist, amidst the delightful pinging of gathered coins, whilst the effervescent combustion of overhead bugs is satisfyingly squelchy – as it damn well should be. They contribute a lot to the atmosphere, and actually kept me from tearing my hair out over trying segments, convincing me to chuckle instead, as the synthy cyberpunk soundtrack melted into my movements.
Despite initial technical glitches pulling down the intro, The Bug Butcher is an immensely balanced game. A lot of the time, it’s utter bedlam. But it’s an organised chaos that encourages the player to adapt, without really ever feeling outmatched. The tight, simplistic control scheme makes complex maneuvers optional, and with an ever-expanding armoury and laundry list of cutely repulsive foes, it’s a game that lets you deal calamitous damage – without getting too big for your boots.