Thank god Bow to Blood didn’t go down the multiplayer route. Boasting the same televised tournament set up as both Rigs and Starblood Arena before it, Tribetoy’s VR debut could have easily ended up being another quickly-forgotten online wasteland. That would have been a real shame, as the game’s inspired mix of resource management, strategic relationships and arena-based combat make it one of the most dynamic and satisfying PSVR games of the year that’s not to be overlooked.
Instead of nauseating online battles, Bow to Blood takes a much more considered approach to answering the call for more ‘true’ VR games. Its randomized, permadeath campaign consists of seven events split into multiple matches that hinge upon several interchanging features. That not only means that no two playthroughs are the same but it also has you considering every slightest move, from the fire of a cannon to a simple choice in words.
Immediate gameplay has its simplistic thrills. You pilot a flying boat around large maps — complete with stomach-churning slow turns that initially give you a generous helping of seasickness — fulfilling different objectives that largely boil down to fending off attackers. Pointing your right Move controller to aim the cannons is as intuitive as ever, though the face buttons are an inevitably clunky substitute for navigation (you can also play with DualShock 4, which reverses those fortunes). The best battles have you zig-zagging in altitude as you try to dodge sweeping laser attacks before frantically switching to your personal firearm to take care of smaller, invasive robots that come aboard uninvited. Awkward as the movement can be, it is at least surprisingly responsive, making it easy to execute last minute dodges and sharp turns.
That said, Bow to Blood often struggles to root you in the moment and fully grasp the danger you’re facing. Perhaps it’s the large space between you and your attackers or the absence of any meaningful feedback from damage, but I never managed to escape the disconnect between my human body and the thunderous action of the virtual world, as if there was a protective barrier separating the two. There’s a lack of viscerality that robs all but the most demanding of encounters of the same kind of intensity you might have in, say, a really good first-person shooter.
Fortunately, it’s the layers built on top of that action that really make Bow to Blood shine. For starters, there’s a heck of a lot of micromanagement to be done on your ship, which more than makes up for the combat’s shortcomings. Through assigning two AI companions to different roles like shields and turrets as well as constantly rearranging your ship’s capabilities with limited Essence blocks the game takes a deeply strategic turn with a much more engaging edge than the base gameplay. It’s a mini-Faster Than Light by way of VR; quick orders need to be issued to repair damaged components and raw firepower sometimes needs to be traded in for the speed to escape a losing battle.
Bow to Blood’s real wild card (and its crowning feature), though, is the tournament itself and how you stay ahead in it. At the end of each event the two lowest-scoring “players” will risk being voted off by the remaining participants. In order to survive, you’ll have to build strong relationships with would-be competitors that approach you during and in-between matches to forge alliances, play tricks, scout for info or simply declare war. You’re put on the spot as desperate NPC “players” ask for a handful of points to keep them out of danger, plead for help in fighting off enemies so they can keep the rewards or seek to partner-up against more immediate threats.
It’s the impressive amount of agency this feature gives you that makes it so special. In one level, I toyed with the idea of leaving a player begging for power supplies to his doom so I could reap the profits, only to decide I’d need an ally in the upcoming vote, named The Culling. Helping him out meant I lost an Essence block for the rest of the event, but it also gave me better standing with the participants that had already allied with him. Soon the game’s leaderboard became an ever-changing relationship simulator in which I was constantly assessing the risk/reward balance of helping struggling opponents out and screwing them over. Ultimately in my most successful run so far (where I got to the fifth stage, which had taken nearly two hours to get to), I was coupled with the top scoring player, of whom I’d made a vicious enemy. I decided to take my chances and shoot him in the back. It did not go well for me.
This underlying system enriches each and every aspect of Bow to Blood’s gameplay and gives the player stories to tell unlike any other VR game before it. Do you have enough points to start leaving former allies in the dust? Or can you really afford to keep angering the tournament’s most popular player if you’re sitting just above The Culling? Tribetoy has done a stunning job seamlessly integrating choices like these into your actions, lending tangible weight to each and every encounter.
I only wish more use of VR had been made in this case. Interactions between players are displayed through simple text-based menus, and it’s a shame not to see VR’s ability to create empathy not explored here. It means that the decisions you make are mostly cold and calculated, without much of a hint of morality to them. The game’s bold, vibrant world, introduced by a spritely announcer and given life by your shoulder angel and devil companions, certainly feels like it could have brought these characters to life in more memorable ways. If Bow to Blood had managed to crack that final code, it could have made for something really special.
There’s a lot to learn about Bow to Blood and not all of it’s to love, but what does work elevates the game to soar with all the majesty of its battle-hardened ships. This is a deliciously strategic bit of randomized arena battling that might not make the most compelling case for VR itself but stands as a thrill to play in its own right. If I were to make a bet on what might be one of PSVR’s most beloved sleeper hits in a few years, it’d be this.