At first glance, Duck Game seems to be a gag title. A horde of homicidal mallards blast one another with improbable weapons, as they each die in a cartoony Looney Toons fashion. Ridiculous twists of fate are commonplace, with explosives that detonate with abandon, uncontrollable fires that engulf the entire map, and guns that behave unexpectedly. Also, there is a designated button to quack. But, despite appearances, this is a party game that strikes a fine balance between providing simplicity for beginners, while also offering methods for more experienced players to triumph over the apparent randomness.
Riding the wave of single-screen local multiplayer titles, such as TowerFall or Samurai Gunn, Duck Game tasks players with surviving a four-player free-for-all battle. If you’re the last one standing, you get a point, and the highest scorer after a few rounds wins. The controls are fairly simple. The basic actions are shooting, picking up or throwing items, and jumping. Each round takes place on a different map in the rotation, and players must quickly collect armaments before their opponents do the same.
The various weapons range from single-shot pea shooters to massive laser guns, with the better armaments spawning at harder to access choke-points. There are also swords, shotguns, net launchers, grenades, flamethrowers, chainsaws, mind control devices, and banana peels. The diversity of these tools of destruction sets up for a wide variety of firefights, ranging from memorable David versus Goliath showdowns to absurd series of goofs. While the core gameplay loop is very simple, the diversity of map designs and the multitude of weapons keep things unique from round to round. You may spawn in a tiny room full of grenades, as everyone plays hot potato with the shrapnel dispelling ordnance. Or you may end up with only net guns, requiring your enemies to be wrangled and then deliberately chucked off the map as they quack in dismay.
While fundamentally simple, the potential for skill gaps becomes apparent rather quickly. Since a single shot from any weapon kills, the basic gameplay is fast-paced, favoring those with a quick trigger finger and precise aim. There are also a few mechanics that add nuance to the movement. Hitting down on the left stick while in motion allows you to perform a slide. This is crucial for ducking under bullets, setting up for moments of stylish gun-fu that would make John Wick blush. While you can normally only aim forward, pointing your gun at a wall allows for aiming upwards. With certain weapons, this can be used to change bullet trajectory, setting up for clever kills that subvert expectations. If you throw an item at an opponent, they’ll drop their gun, meaning that you stand a chance even if you’re out of ammo. Due to your nature as fowl, you can flap your wings (somewhat ineffectually) to get some additional airtime. There is also a button for playing dead, turning your character into a limp noodle.
These various techniques combine with the arsenal of weapons and different maps to create a chaotic sandbox that rewards creativity. I’ve been armed to the teeth but then been outmaneuvered and killed with a rock. I’ve seen a player pretend to be dead, enabling a surprise attack where they wiped out the remaining combatants and stole the round. It also helps that the controls feel snappy and responsive, with matches often decided in the blink of an eye. And there's something pretty cool about sliding under an opponent's projectiles, as the recoil from your own weapon propels you backwards like a character from a John Woo movie.
While the controls can be grasped fairly quickly, this simplicity doesn’t come as a detriment. The combat is easy to get a handle on and is immediately gratifying, with snappy inputs and quick movements speeds. Even the weapons that are intentionally designed to be less effective can feel satisfying due to the sound design and their ability to one-shot foes. And getting your hands on powerful weapons, such as the far-reaching sniper rifle or wide-ranged laser cannon, is exceedingly empowering due to their destructive power. Beyond the simple core mechanics, complexity stems from utilizing the varying weapons in the context of each map. Although a shotgun may be effective up close because it cannot be evaded with a slide, a somewhat dinky pistol can out-range it, meaning you have to keep to tighter corridors. This adds an element of strategy to the madness, which makes things engaging even after you’ve gotten a grasp on the basic combat.
There is also free form insanity to the battles which naturally extends from the map layouts and varying tools of destruction. Fire spreads organically from combatant to combatant, there are bumpers which can be used to fling grenades in unorthodox ways, and there is a great degree of variety in the effects of weapons. The unique qualities of the different weapons combines with the physics engine and differing map types to produce some truly hilarious and gratifying moments. This emergent gameplay is the kind of stuff that makes games like Metal Gear Solid: The Phantom Pain or Legend of Zelda: Breath of The Wild so fascinating, albeit in a smaller scope in this context. This makes matches both inherently replayable and sets up for incredible moments that shine in a couch multiplayer setting. In short, the elements of skill and randomness blend to make an ideal party game that both rewards proficient play and allows many novel situations.
However, while all of this hectic fun excels in the context of local matches and private games, the single player and online multiplayer offerings aren’t quite the focus here. The Challenge Arcade is the only solo mode, allowing players to partake in a series of platforming and shooting challenges. While these time trials are somewhat varied and do a good job at showcasing the more subtle movement options, the progression system mostly undermines their appeal.
It doesn’t take long to hit a wall where to unlock more trials, as you must master the challenges you’ve unlocked thus far. Considering how stingily these are scored, and how well you must do to unlock more cabinets, it’s an experience that is far more annoying than it’s engaging. While I’m impressed by a lot of the granular platforming that can be performed here, speed-running these single player challenges hardly seems like the best way to play a hectic party game. And perhaps most frustratingly, doing well in these trials is required to unlock new cosmetics for the ducks and modifiers for maps, meaning a decent amount of content is blocked behind the mode.
The online multiplayer is a welcome addition, even if it’s not the most ideal way to play this kind of game. There is matchmaking, private game lobbies, and you can filter by certain settings, but there isn't a ranked mode or ELO skill ratings. As a result, you will often find yourself facing off against unstoppable killing machines or complete pushovers. But more importantly, playing online with strangers reveals that a great deal of Duck Game’s charm comes from ogling at all of the outrageous happenings and incredible reversals of fortune with your friends. When playing with strangers, these improbable moments are usually accompanied by poop emotes and quack-spamming, which is far less endearing over the internet.
All things considered, Duck Game is a thoroughly enjoyable and silly party game. Its simple but fast-paced gameplay, varied map design, and penchant towards bedlam make for unpredictable fun. While I would only wholeheartedly recommend the game for local play, it makes for a great addition to anyone's rotation of couch multiplayer titles.