Broforce is a run-and-gun platformer which joyously spoofs the bellicose masculinity of action cinema. It’s available on Steam Early Access for £12/$15, but its featureset punches above its alpha status: singleplayer, online co-op, deathmatch, time trials, a level editor and more are already in a fairly well-polished state with more tweaks and content planned.
Here are three uncharitable assumptions you might have made about Broforce: it’s a ten-a-penny mindless blaster; the whole “bro” thing makes it more ironic meme than game; it’s snoresomely reverent of bygone shooters like Contra. Happily, Broforce dodges all these bullets like a spry Sly Stallone weaving through a hail of preposterously inaccurate Kalashnikov fire. On the evidence of its Early Access release, it’s actually a game of breezy invention and energetic pace which deploys both its nostalgia for action films and pixellated shooters with a lightness of touch. And, though there’s a very good deal of carnage, it enforces some degree of tactical caution - partly because even a single bullet will kill you, but mostly because the levels are wholly and very readily destructible, quickly evaporating over-eager bros in devastating chain detonations or squashing them with falling detritus.
The aim of most levels is to get to the chopper - sorry, I mean: get to da choppagh - which usually extends you a rope ladder as you crest the summit of some diabolical aztec temple or tottering urban ziggurat shortly before the structure explodes to the sound of shredding hair-metal guitars. Along the way you liberate fellow bros and optionally disassemble all who stand against you with terrible, splashy violence.
This alone would make it a satisfactorily sprightly bit of 2D bloodletting, but Broforce’s gimmick is a gigantic unlockable roster of recognisable action heroes, each given a cheeky non-trademark-infringing pixelart makeover and a unique attack style. It’s more than just a nod and wink to the muscular, mulleted male power fantasies of the 80s and 90s: the way the player obtains and then cycles through these avatars lies at the heart of the game’s mercurial pace and risk-reward system.
Each level is dotted with cages containing fellow bros, often off the beaten path and sometimes well-guarded: risk your skin to smash one and you gain an extra life, but you also switch character. Given how dissimilar each character plays this has a dramatic change on the way you approach subsequent objectives. Several don’t even have any sort of ranged attack: Brogyver can only deposit dynamite, making the game an exercise in tactical demolition, while Brade (a passing likeness of Wesley Snipes stars as one of the game’s less successful puns) swoops around with a katana.
Some bros have secondary powers which are great for flattening mechs or other bosses: Chuck Norris (as Brodell Walker, Texas Bro) can call in an air-strike, while Arnie (in his guise as The Brominator) transforms into a shiny invulnerable robo-skeleton for a number of seconds, letting you charge into the fray with chaingun blazing. But you don’t want to roll the dice and end up with Harrison Ford when confronted with a boss - Indy comes with a flare gun and a whip, both of which have their uses in crowd control, but aren’t much cop against missile-spewing mega-tanks. Cue a shift in tactics: perhaps you can tunnel a path beneath your opponent, or demolish the ground to send him plummeting off the bottom of the screen. Perhaps some incautiously stored propane tanks might be ignited, sending them corkscrewing across the screen to detonate in his flank. The game is full of these little, energising switch-ups.
Why does Indiana Jones - sorry, Brones - have a flare gun? It’s not entirely clear, but by and large the game finds a surprisingly equitable balance between equipping its heroes with their signature weaponry and creating characters with very clearly differentiated skillsets. Indy, when the situation suits him, can be devastating. For one thing, Broforce has no analogue aiming - it’s left or right and that’s your lot. So Indy’s flare, which launches in a parabola, gives him the drop on enemies who you’d otherwise have to take head on. Being set on fire, meanwhile, strongly dissuades enemies from trying to shoot back. In a game where a single shot kills, that’s no small beer.
A lot of the time, however, the challenge is not killing enemies, but doing so without completely dismantling the level, or indeed yourself. Arnie (this time in his Brommando role) can deal out the damage, but at anything like close range his rocket launcher will pulverise the scenery he’s standing on. Will Smith, as the Bro In Black, wields a weapon which fires a needle sharp beam that then devours a circular chunk of the level at its far end - extremely effective so long as its recoil doesn’t send you flying to your death.
The fact that I just want to go on describing how each and every bro plays says it all really: these are both entertaining caricatures and cleverly devised avatars. Unlocking them and exploring their abilities is a powerful driving force. Or, at least, it is in singleplayer. Adding ill-disciplined friends to the mix makes things so chaotic that the subtleties of the design are somewhat obscured, and with only ten (relatively easy) levels currently playable in co-op the real meat of the game remains in the campaign.
Also, as the game’s title might suggest, ladies don’t yet get much of a look in - I suppose that’s the disappointing flipside to spoofing this particular genre of absurd machismo - but at least Sigourney Weaver rocks up wielding pulse rifle and incendiaries. However, the devs promise to expand the roster even further, and there are more than a few names in the hat: Cherry Darling, Tank Girl and Xena Warrior Princess being among the top possibilities.
There are some niggles: boss-fights often start with a short cutscene which you’ll end up sitting through a great number of times. It’s even easier to resent this when the random character selection doles you out a duff bro choice. The lobby system is also currently a little bit shaky, and doesn’t yet support invites via the Steam overlay. But that will likely come, as will Steam Workshop support for custom levels - a priority, say the devs, after sorting out other teething issues and bugs.
The devs are keen to stress it isn’t finished, but this is already more fully featured than most games are ten days into their Early Access launch, and more entertaining than some recent retro-styled 2D platform-shooters have been at final release. In its current state, I personally feel it’s a game worth paying for - which, being stingy and curmudgeonly as I am, is not something I often feel about Early Access games. But in this case I feel happy to say: I’ll see you at the party, Richter.