Empty Clip Studios has released their first VR game, Attack of the Bugs. It’s inspired by vintage sci-fi thrillers and billed as a horror game, but is it really a horror game? Either way, will the average VR gamer be won over by its gameplay mechanics and overall presentation? Or will players reach for the refund button with cries of “Attack on my Wallet”?
This review is based off of a SteamVR copy of the game. Everything said here will also apply to copies purchased on Oculus Home, as both versions are identical.
At its base level, Attack of the Bugs’ premise is horror-inspired, and indeed it sounds frightening on paper. Binge-watching B-horror movies leads to a lucid fever-dream, in which you are stuck from the waist down in the floor while an endless swarm of unusually large insects (and arachnids) pour out of cracks in the walls, intent on eating your face.
If that was the full extent of this VR experience it probably would serve as excellent nightmare fuel, and yet the scare potential is (for better or worse) diminished somewhat by the means you are granted to protect yourself; Armed with a small variety of handy tools, makeshift weapons, and your own army of plastic soldiers and toy robots, you are far from helpless. However, in order to fend off the insect menace once and for all, you must survive long enough to escort your toy soldiers across a room swarming with ravenous insects, to infiltrate an unassuming crack-in-the-wall in which the “evil bug queen” supposedly resides.
Unfortunately, the game ends on an anti-climactic note; this “evil bug queen” is never actually seen by the player, just a simple “congratulations” screen the instant your final required soldier enters her alleged lair. Even the fifteenth, final level of the game just feels like every level before it, and the only thing different when cleared is a notice that you have unlocked Endless Mode, in place of the “next level” button. A boss fight against the Bug Queen herself would have really allowed the game to finish on a strong note, and perhaps could have returned in Endless Mode, appearing at certain score milestones to keep the game flow from getting stale.
At its core, Attack of the Bugs could be best described as a hybrid between a shooting gallery and a sort of tower-defense game. Now, hybrid action / tower defense games are nothing new (some of my personal favorites were Sanctum, Dungeon Defenders, and Iron Brigade), but Attack of the Bugs sets itself apart in a number of notable ways. Perhaps the most obvious difference is that instead of fighting to protect an object in the level, the player instead is the defense objective, staring down approaching enemies from an immersive first-person perspective and giving the experience somewhat of a survival-horror feel (although I doubt anyone besides very young gamers would actually be frightened by the experience; I certainly didn’t find the oversized bugs to be that frightening, and I have a fairly low tolerance for horror games.)
Also of note, the tower-defense element is two-way, as the player fends off incoming swarms of enemies while also deploying their own units, and trying to ensure that those units reach the opposite end of the map safely. The soldiers move slowly, stop to engage any bugs they encounter, and can be taken out surprisingly easily if outnumbered, while the bugs themselves are always attempting to flank the player from the sides or above. This ensures that the player must constantly stay alert, keeping their attention divided across multiple fronts and deciding when and where to spend their resources.
At first, the individual tools at your disposal each seem incredibly basic in function; you shoot bugs with the nail-gun, the bug-spray is similar, but trading a limited range for powerful DoT and a lingering area-denial effect, and the grappling hook is used to grab cardboard boxes filled with random supplies. After playing for a few levels, however, you’ll start to notice some simple yet meaningful layers of depth and strategy to the use of these items; for example the bug-spray, although highly effective against grouped insects and a certain type resistant to both nails and attacks from normal toys, also creates a lethal hazard to your own army men. Beyond it’s direct application, it can also be used a crafting component to create bombs, flamethrowers, and upgraded versions of your toy soldiers and robots (with their normal bullets replaced by the ability to shoot bug-spray, themselves), resulting in an element of resource-management.
The grappling hook, although featuring a laser sight for easy aiming and hitting targets instantly, takes a while to reel in before it can be fired again. The player can release its hold on an object or swap items before it has returned completely, but neither skips the reeling process; when equipping the grappling hook again it resumes where it left off. More importantly, boxes pulled carelessly into the paths of your own soldiers can accidentally crush them, or impede their progress, and in some levels the boxes are intentionally spawned in such locations that you must wait for your units to get out of the way before retrieving them. Other times, the game’s physics can be made to work in the player’s favor, for example if a box ends up on top of another one, you can hook the lower one and carefully pull both closer at the same time, far quicker than reeling each in individually. While reeling in a smaller box, the player can give their motion controls a quick yank like an angler trying to reel in a fish; if done correctly the box will fly directly into the player’s waiting arms, bypassing the time needed to reel it in the normal way (but do take care not to punch yourself in the face or damage your VR headset while attempting this maneuver.) If the player wants to get really creative, they can even use their grappling hook to re-position their troops, or hook the bugs and yank them across the room.
This kind of creative, well thought-out design really took me by surprise, and made the otherwise simplistic game a lot more fun to play than I expected it to be. It is also worth noting that the game can be played just as well seated or standing, and requires only one hand, making it accessible to those who lack the use of both (or who don’t want to set their drink down before playing).
If I could improve anything about the gameplay, it would be the enemy AI, as I found the bugs’ movements to be a little too robotic and predictable, all moving in a slow, straight procession from wherever they spawn to their objective (either the player themselves or to a fuse box, which if destroyed by the bugs will cut power to the lights and reduce the player’s vision to a narrow flashlight beam) and deviating only when passing very close to one of the player’s toys. Had their behavior been more erratic, and their movements resembled the actual bugs’ more accurately, it would have upped both the difficulty and the creep factor of the game.
It would also have been nice to see a little more variation in the types of enemies (there are only three, altogether) more differences in the traits and behaviors of each, and perhaps to have more types of toys and weapons available to the player to combat them.
Attack of the Bugs’ eerie soundtrack is limited to just a couple of tracks (immediately nostalgic to anyone who has actually seen vintage sci-fi films), but never feels repetitive or distracting. As background ambiance to the sound of bullets and shrieking insects, it does a good job filling space and setting the mood. Perhaps most important, the music does not cover up useful audio cues; 3D audio is an aspect of VR games that often goes under-appreciated, and AotB puts it to good use.
Really, the only gripe I have about this aspect of game lies with a few over-used lines of dialogue; Hearing a squad of toy soldiers proclaim “Knowing is half the battle” or “Is this another bug hunt?” is amusing the first time.. after the thirtieth or fortieth time, these pop culture references start getting old.
Empty Clip Studios describes themselves as a “small operation”, but they have a track-record of good-looking games; Attack of the Bugs is no exception. Everything is colorful, with the exception of the muted, natural colors of the bugs themselves. Most of the models and textures look crisp, and I was particularly impressed by the lighting and shadows. The latter are especially noticeable if and when the lights go out (I won’t spoil how this occurs), leaving the player with only a narrow flashlight-beam of vision in an otherwise pitch-black room
There are, however, a couple weak points in this area; Particle effects from certain weapons look a bit too artificial and cheap, contrasting the otherwise realistic style of the game. Additionally, I found the animations of the bugs themselves to be overly simplistic and not terribly convincing. If the developers had made the bugs move more like the real things, the game could have been much creepier. Alternatively, they could have played up the camp / humor aspect a bit more; cheap, rubbery props on strings were a staple of old B-movies, after all. Either way, I expected more from what is arguably the main focus of the game, the bugs themselves.
Attack of the Bugs could have been better, with a stronger ending, more variety of content, and more complex AI. However, I suspect that the majority of players will not regret their purchase; in my opinion, the game’s all-ages appeal and nuanced gameplay mechanics outweigh its limitations. In particular, I think it will be a hit among younger gamers who want something spooky but not too scary.
Oddly enough, I’d even consider the shortness of the initial fifteen levels to be a selling point. Within the span of two hours, you’ll know the game well enough to decide if you want to keep it. If so, you can tackle the difficulties of AotB’s Endless Mode, or hand the VR headset to friends and family to see how much they squirm when facing down the insect hordes. If not impressed, you’re likely still eligible for a refund, making it risk-free to check the game out!