Bow to Blood Review

What will game shows of the future be like? If human civilization suffers a catastrophic collapse, will we find delight in Mad Max-style bloodsports where the two people go head to head for the sheer delight of the crowd? Or will the wonder be enraptured by advanced technological innovations that give rise to wondrous displays of futurism that would make Moebius fall to his knees and weep? Whatever the setting, the one thing that remains constant is the need for entertainment and as the latest contestant in Bow to Blood, where victories make you popular and failures put you at risk of expulsion. Developed exclusively for the PlayStation VR, the developer Tribetoy has created a game that blends the ship mechanics of Star Trek Bridge Crew with an aesthetic that could sit alongside the likes of Disney or Naughty Dog’s Jak and Daxter series.  

Bow To Blood is what a reality game show would look like in a fantasy world where airships are the primary means of travel. Managed by a collective of unseen beings called the Overseer, eight captains take part in a point-based competition where the winner is determined by how many points they earn in a season. As the faceless, non-gender specific Freelancer, you’ll compete in seven seasons, each made up of different events that are a test of a captain’s mettle. Rival ship captains have their own personalities, motivations, and schemes that can influence your standing on the scoreboard (even at the most inopportune time) and on the battleground of psychological warfare. There are many opportunities to speak with these characters and forge partnerships or pit them against each other for the sole reason of manipulation. Helping them out, creating trust, forcing them to fight powerful enemies, and even having casual conversation can change their attitude to the point where, if taken to extremes, can resort in open hostilities. To recreate the feeling of an ongoing game show, and give the game more playability, Bow To Blood randomizes opponents, rivalries, alliances, and Arena games to make each playthrough different from the one before.

To battle enemy ships, other captains, and brave the elements of the Arena, the airship you command is modestly armed for the challenges ahead. As captain, you’ll monitor the ship’s health and oversee commands to its two-person crew. There’s a lot to the art of piloting an airship and I won’t lie, my initial meeting was more than a little intimidating. There’s a lot to juggle and I often felt on the verge of being completely overwhelmed by it all. From the captain’s perch, you directly control the ship’s movement and power distribution over four main systems: shields, boosters, drones, and advanced weapons. Diverting power nodes across each system can make them stronger and more effective. It also allows the ship to prepare for specific Arena games, like races where you’ll want to put as much power into engines as possible. In the universe of Bow To Blood, the ship is powered by blood (euphemistically called “essence”) and activating any of the four systems requires a steady flow. However, synthetic essence allows for a brief period of overload which gives the chosen system an extra kick of power. Synthetic essence is limited during an entire season so use it wisely. You are further assisted by the ship’s crew, a pair of chatty humanoids that can be assigned to four stations and offer an extra boon. Assigning someone to the ship’s turrets enables auto-tracking and auto-fire of the front weapon. Put someone on engines and you gain an extra pipette of speed and a better boost. The crew can be assigned to any station on the fly, giving you a chance to properly respond to any situation.

Managing the crew, rerouting power to different nodes, and shooting down enemies can feel like too much to handle when you’re first starting out. I missed the peace of mind I found in Bridge Crew as it was relying on other people to monitor their stations and act accordingly. But the more I played, the more the game clicked until I was feeling pretty confident in my grasp of movement and combat controls mapped to both of the PlayStation Move wands.

Ship combat is as easy as pointing the Move wands towards the target, getting in range, and holding down the trigger to let the broadside cannons do their work. Apart from other captains, the game features an enemy armada of ships that lie in wait at every turn. The ships in the armada range from weak scrub fighters and shielded cruisers to ship carriers and large elite airships. Although every enemy ship can be taken out with cannons, sometimes a little extra firepower is necessary. Destroying ships and opening up caches have a chance to drop special weapons that are really useful whenever you need to dish out damage in a hurry. Nova bombs, heat-seeking missiles, and a powerful energy beam can lay waste to troublesome foes. Weapons earned during a season cannot be saved so its best to use them up before the end of the game lest they are lost. On the other hand, some captains may reach out to you in between seasons and offer a sponsorship that restocks certain munitions at the start of each new season. Treat others honorably and earn their favor. Or don’t. Make enemies of everyone if you want. After all, all’s fair in love and war. Fair warning: even if you do play the good guy, the other rivals won’t think twice about betrayal as long as they benefit from it.

Each season in Bow to Blood is made up with four levels set in different locations around the Arena. These levels feature game types the order if which is randomized at the start of a new game. They consist of search and destroy missions, treasure hunts, battles against imposing Titans, train heists, and races, all of which are in service of earning as many points possible. At the end of a season, all surviving players are ranked by their points and ranked accordingly. The last two placing captains are subjected to The Culling where their fates decided by the other captains. Taking a cue from American Idol, everyone votes on which of the two captains to kick out of the game. As long as you’re not the one at risk of being voted off, other captains will try to sway your vote to favor some unknown alliance. Once the votes have been cast and the loser is kicked out, you’re sent home for the day to can catch up on e-mails, earn sponsorships, explore the captain’s cabin, and trash talk other captains before the start of a new season.

Progressing through the Arena is marked by increased difficulty. Later seasons feature stronger enemies and more elaborate structures that hide warp keys and other treasures. I often felt this was a teensy bit unfair because as the game’s difficulty increases, your abilities mostly stay the same. The ship’s hull cannot be repaired in between contests and broadside cannons start to feel no more effective than spitballs against tougher elite ships and it doesn’t take much to get wiped out. Bow To Blood handles death in a way that ties into the reality show nature of the game. If the ship’s hull reaches zero, the game doesn’t end outright. Instead, you keep all the points earned up until death in exchange for automatically being disqualified from the season. The game then jumps to the end of the season where points are counted and placement is finalized. It is here that you hope other captains performed terribly and spare an admission into The Culling. But as the number of captains decreases, so too does hope. As one of the two threatened to be voted out of the game, you might earn a stay of execution by a tie vote or if some other captain feels pity. Otherwise, you’re kicked out of the game and sent to the title screen to try all over again.

Though it gets harder towards the end of the competition, the growing difficulty is not enough to make Bow To Blood feel anything less than an absolute blast of a game. It all takes some getting used to and you might not win the game the first time out, but the randomly generated opponents and events make it easy to go back and do it over again. But the one thing the game does extraordinarily well is totally nail the game show experience. Competing for points instills a fierce level of competition against the AI opponents and you’ll learn to appreciate the wild card events, ship malfunctions, and Overseer meddling that adds so much spice to every playthrough. People you’ve curried favor with may give into opportunism and turn against you and those you voted against will come back with a vengeance.

What makes the game fun even in the face of defeat is just how great the ship controls and the level of PSVR immersion are. Virtual reality was made for a game like this. I only wish there were customization options to really give the ship a distinct look and feel. Different paint schemes, new crew members, or entirely different ship designs would go a long way to make the game feel a little bit more personal. I could even see this as having some online appeal, like pitting other human players together in a live contest that people can watch online (like 1 vs. 100 for the Xbox 360). Until that happens, other people can participate by downloading a companion app and influencing the AI captains to negatively or positively affect the person actually playing the game. From top to bottom, Bow To Blood offers a solid concept, fun player/AI dynamics, randomized play, and great VR immersion. This game belongs in every PSVR owner’s library.

Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.