Game Review – The Bug Butcher

The Bug Butcher is a 2D arcade shooter by Awfully Nice Studios, a two-man team comprised of former Blizzard employees. You play as the exterminator Harry, dashing along the ground and firing upwards to blast bugs in quick succession, narrowly avoiding contact to keep up your combo. It launched on Steam in Early Access on July 20, 2015, with a full release later on January 19, 2016. Work in progress art can be seen in its thread on the TIGForums. A demo is available via Steam. Review last updated 2016/02/07.

Banner - Bug Butcher

Aspect Ratios Menu UI messy beyond 4:3-16:9, still playable
Triple Monitor Possible
Framerate Cap 144+
Performance Just Fine
Options Almost None, Audio Volume/Toggles
Key Rebinding Yes, Incomplete
Controller Support/Rebinding Yes, No
Local Co-op Endless Co-op Mode

PC Port Quality

The biggest problem with the game is the menu UI. The HUD while playing is fine, but all of the menus have an abundance of issues. They utilize a slick aesthetic, but elements break apart and hidden elements are shown when scaled wider than 16:9. The menus support keyboard, mouse, and controller, but it seems like a mashup of shortcuts that work well on some and horrible on others. Mouse is by far the least fiddly, but lacks many of the hotkeys the controller has access to, forcing you to click on sometimes small UI elements. It’s really quite a mess beyond the first glance, and while none of this effects the gameplay, it does cause resetting the level (which you will need to do frequently) to be a pain depending on your input method. Keyboard-only is 13 inputs, controller is 4, and the mouse is 3. They have plenty of room both on the keyboard and controller for a single reset key, and that inclusion alone would alleviate a ton of the frustration caused during the more difficult stages.

Bug Butcher - Wide Split
Menu & Gameplay at 32:9

Key rebinding is present but isn’t complete, and controller is limited to one default mapping which I don’t find to be all that optimal. I opted for the keyboard for all of my play at the end of the game, as the WASD + Space + ? + Right Shift played well, being the most responsive considering the movement is digital rather than analog. Local Co-op is playable with a single keyboard, KB + Controller, or two controllers. Co-op keyboard defaults make little sense, but can be rebound separately from the singleplayer controls.

The game supports at least 144hz and forces v-sync. All of the bouncing enemies that seem to be using some sort of basic physics movement set, don’t properly update their position at >60hz. They move identically, it’s just that they skip positions and can appear to stutter across the screen, though this is likely only visible to those with ultra-low motion blur capable displays. The most important and impacting aspect however, being the camera panning across the level which happens almost constantly depending on the width of the room, does update properly and is smooth, as are the character and the few enemies that walk along the ceiling and floor. I’ve been told all of the character and enemy animations are hand drawn at roughly 12FPS, but such animations can be and are perfectly crisp and solid when moving across the display if their movement in space is done properly. The camera and walking enemies are done properly, while the bouncing enemies are not.

Gameplay

The core gameplay across all modes entails walking along the floor, dashing, and firing directly upwards, as bugs crawl out of every surface. It would play a lot like a traditional arcade shooter like Galaga or Space Invaders, but the dash and variety of enemy movements/attacks make it quite unique. Each bug is vibrantly color-coded, contrasting strongly with the background environments. This is key as their movement, attack, and self-replication patterns are consistent, and reading said movements becomes essential when trying to perfect each level. As far as I can tell, none of the bugs actively seek you out in any way; you position yourself to avoid collisions and line up attacks, rather than simply fleeing while firing blindly. You can use your dash to put yourself in the way of danger to rack up kills faster, and you’re actively rewarded for that risk. Dashing won’t trigger while holding the fire button, so you can’t be sloppy with your inputs. Dashing operates with a “heat” limitation similar to energy weapons in modern shooters, so you can hold the button for a long uniform dash, or tap repeatedly to clear distance slightly slower but you eliminate the risk of capping the “heat” which will trigger a longer cooldown preventing dashes.

Bug Butcher - Zap

Excluding one power-up I’ll cover later… weapons, abilities, and movement are equal across the modes. You have your standard blaster that shoots a small straight shot at a slow/medium speed, with four additional weapons as pickups. Each have a set amount of ammo, and cannot be removed or switched without using all of it.

  • Laser – has very little juice but is insanely powerful, hitting everything in a line above you. You can extend the life of it by gently tapping fire; holding and swiping across when presented with dense groups.
  • Gatling Gun – has a delayed response, a randomized spread, and deals low damage per projectile, but has a relatively large amount of ammo and can be held for relentless fire.
  • Lightning Gun – shoots slowly, but the damage chains between all the bugs nearby.
  • Rocket Launcher – fires like a slow shotgun, shooting a number of small rockets with each burst that home in on enemies and inflict AOE damage.

There are 3 trigger-able power-ups that are picked up in the same fashion.

  • Homing Missiles – act like the rocket launcher weapon, but one shot, with a greater number of larger rockets, that home in from a far larger distance.
  • Speed Injection – increases your speed, fire rate, and movement speed, while also making your invincible for the entire duration.
  • Freeze Grenade – turns all enemies on screen and those that enter while it’s active, into ice that stick in mid air.

 

*Video is considerably out of date, a number of things have changed since that alpha state, but it’s still a good taste of the music and the 5 weapons you have at your disposal.

The automatic activation of the various weapon pickups will get you killed from time to time. In the heat of combat, you may time a shot meant for your base weapon and received an unintended result, having not realized you just dashed through a pick-up moments before. I don’t feel manual weapon switching is the solution, you already have enough to worry about, but a greater level of awareness would be very beneficial in tense moments. They already use other overlays (a deep red when on your last pip of health and ice during the freeze grenade), so I think a similar implementation could work well. Alternatively, making the icon and ammo bar more vibrant, with a unique color for each of the 3 weapons, as opposed to the standard neon blue used on almost every other part of the UI.

The main single-player mode consists of 30 levels across 5 areas, each with score targets for 1-3 star ratings and a target combo, achieved by killing bugs in succession before the 4 (6 w/ perk) second timer ticks down and without getting hit. The difficulty options simply adjust your maximum health, allowing you to take 1, 4, or 8 hits before death. You can survive through the 30 levels pretty quickly without too much trouble, but simply finishing isn’t the real goal. The challenge is meeting the score and combo-count requirements for each stage. Most players should be able to fully complete the first 4 areas, but the 5th isn’t easy. While the difficulty setting has no impact on score, taking all of those hits and losing your combo each time will likely see you falling short of those goals. If you hold the combo for the entire stage, each additional kill multiplies everything you did from beginning to end. Losing the combo once in the middle of the stage could cut your final score by more than half, and leave your maximum combo under the target, as it’s usually seems tailored to 50-80% of the spawned bugs.

Bug Butcher - Final Stage

All of the bug spawns are orchestrated; you can memorize the patterns and will likely need to when perfecting the final few levels. I believe power-ups and weapons are dropped from specific enemies, but the actual item you get is randomized. While that adds variety, it can dramatically change your run, as usefulness varies wildly depending on the exact situation. Because of the score-attack focus, I think specifying the drops would improve competition between players and fairness in the game’s challenges, as you’d be on equal footing after every reset. That simply isn’t the case at the moment; getting a lucky roll made sections dramatically easier. There are coins to collect, and while they add slowly to your score, their intended use is buying upgrades to the weapons and power-ups, as well as 3 perks. +2 Seconds to your combo timer, a shield that blocks one hit (maintaining the health and combo), and a 30% boost to speed; you can only have one of these active at a time. Again, because of the score-attack focus, I don’t see why there is any progression system at all. It seems out of place, though you’ll have the money for every unlock before you finish a single run through the 30 levels. It’s not an issue for long, becoming irrelevant before you go back to complete all the score and combo targets. A better use for the coins in my mind would have been costumes for the player character; still something to unlock and look forward to, without putting you at an immediate disadvantage.

Panic, the only other mode at the moment, is an endless score attack and is playable with one or two players locally on the 5 maps. Players can revive each-other by spamming the A button over their body during a small window after they’re downed. The coins here are accumulated during the run, are reset upon death, and can be spent in the pause menu to enable all of the power-ups and passive buffs from the singleplayer. A deploy-able bubble shield is added to the roster of power-ups, and is done so because the waves of enemies can get far denser than anything throughout the missions. Enemy spawns seem randomized, though it is hard to tell, but they definitely start off with different bug types depending on the area you pick. While I personally preferred perfecting the more structured timed missions, this is a change of pace, and it was good fun with a friend. There are no achievements or unlocks tied to this mode, but kills during do contribute to the achievements for 1000 kills with each weapon/power-up. A local VS mode was shown off a while back, but doesn’t exist in the current build.

Bug Butcher - Co-op

Overall the core gameplay is very tight and satisfying, but there will be certain moments where you feel legitimately cheated. I came across many instances of odd glitches and inconsistencies that often forced a reset. Three times enemies ceased spawning. I had bugs get stuck in a layered stack. I’ve had them ricochet off of my bullets instead of dying, pinging off in some direction they weren’t meant to ever go… It’s all somewhat excusable, until it happens in the run you were nailing up to that point, ruining the whole run and frustrating the experience. Combine that with extremely questionable choices involving components in the levels that can redirect enemies unexpectedly based on a pinpoint collision, bug out and block shots, or even kill you directly. Certain power-ups can also cause certain bugs to spaz out in unpredictable ways. It’s largely a fair and rewarding challenge, but when those conflicts pop up, they feels like a slap in the face. Because of the length of the game this is relatively minor, and it will only really effect most during the very end, it’s still something that could be worked on. I would have liked to have seen more traditional boss stages, but being fair it’s far more effort to do it properly vs a standard enemy, and you can’t even use it as often, especially if designed with a high health pool. Maybe something for a sequel.

Presentation

A mix of Jetpack Joyride, Castle Crashers, and Awesomenauts, the visual aesthetic is exceptional. There’s a small amount of aliasing on some of the assets, but it’s largely crisp and defined, with excellent color choice. The bug designs, while nothing iconic, all have a goofy charm and wear bright colors that both assist in gameplay and look great. In hectic scenes, you’ll have many colors going at once, yet it remains unified because of the contrasting but not clashing color choices.

Outside of a few small sound effects that could be improved, the short intro sequence was so well done that it really made me wish there were more like it to tie together the 5 stages. That together with a BattleBlock Theater-style linear hub, would have oozed polish if done to the same standard. The Menu UI looks great, but it’s clunky to navigate. An in-world pop-up menu for upgrades and doors to each stage might have been slower to walk to, but I feel would have provided a better sense of place and progression through the facility you’ve been tasked with clearing.

The thumping electronic music was hit or miss for me. I liked one or two of the tracks, but most of it was merely background noise. If you do like it however, it has been said that the soundtrack will not be available for purchase because of licensing issues. The ambient intro was nice, but a few of the small pieces during transitions while starting a level probably would have been smoother if removed. The core sound effects are well defined, though the volume balance overall didn’t feel quite right to me, and I even had issues with the volume misbehaving from what I thought I set in the options menu.

Conclusion

The Bug Butcher is a satisfying and unique 2D arcade shooter, where speed and precision are heavily rewarded. It’s charming, vibrant 2.5D cartoon aesthetic is very appealing but also helps keep hectic situations readable. While relatively light on content, its score attack format and achievements had me enjoying myself all the way to 100% completion in around 8 hours of play, with only a small amount of frustration perfecting the final few levels, stemming from small glitches or inconsistencies. The menu UI needs some work and though the port is nowhere near top-notch, it’s good enough to be enjoyable on ultra-wide and high refreshrate displays. Co-op functionality for the 30 main missions, additional modes in general, and small enhancements like visual character customization would be greatly appreciated if development continues. In its current form it’s a good value and is well worth a look.

Bug Butcher - Scorecard


For full disclosure, The Bug Butcher was won in a giveaway during a promotional live stream. I’ve given public feedback to the devs on the Steam community discussions. If you have any feedback on the review format, feel free to shoot me an email/tweet or comment below. If you found this review helpful, consider a rating on Steam.


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