Bow to Blood's sharp design and unique concept can't overcome poor controls and repetitive gameplay. It's fun for an afternoon and not much longer.
An ominous group known as the Overseers is putting on the greatest show in the universe: "Bow to Blood" where eight airship captains compete over various stages and worlds to determine who will be the last captain standing! Though this might sound like the latest battle royale game, courtesy of the craze populated by PUBG, Fortnite, and Apex Legends, it's actually anything but. Bow to Blood: Last Captain Standing is only a single-player experience, and that might be its biggest fault.
The original Bow to Blood released as a PSVR exclusive late last year, and the tropes and trappings of virtual reality are evident right away. The game's controls are slow-moving and have a lot of lag to them, making the maneuverability of your massive airship incredibly cumbersome. And though the graphics were improved for this non-VR port, the HUD text and design could have used a touch-up; there's some MS-paint level graphics here, with a hard-to-read all-caps font to boot. However, a few additions from the VR transfer are delightfully welcome: the addition of a hard mode for seasoned veterans of the arena and a bunch more types of enemy ships to duke it out with players.
And duking it out is the name of the game here. (Actually it's Bow to Blood [a terribly ill-fitting name for a light-hearted reality show romp].) The game has no traditional campaign, instead featuring a randomly generated "story" involving the player as the latest entrant in the "Bow to Blood" tournament. The season of the show involves seven different events, each incorporating a couple different challenges. At the end of each event, the highest ranked contestants vote to eliminate one of the bottom two players in... the culling! It's sort of like a futuristic Survivor if all the reality stars were space pirates.
It's up to the player to earn as many points as possible to stay out of the bottom two and avoid the culling. Depending on the challenges of that particular event, points can be earned by discovering secret caches of loot, destroying enemy ships, or beating a rival in a race to the finish. The first round of an event allows the player to choose their destination and the main event, but the second round is always chosen for them. Once players look past the polish of different world appearances, they'll quickly see that there's not much variety to the gameplay. It's a lot of pilot there (slowly) and shoot that. But the game still has a few tricks up its sleeve.
In addition to the rote piloting of their vessel, players also must manage their crew positions among several stations. Moving one of their two crew members to the engines, for instance, will allow the ship to pilot at a greater speed than if no one is manning that area. Additionally, shields can be recharged, but only when the crew is attending to them; they'll fall pretty quickly in massive fire fights. Don't worry, if even they fall all the way and the hull of the ship loses all its health, the game doesn't end. Players still retain whatever points they accrued that event, and their ship will be ready to go for the next "episode." Of course, that's only if they survive the culling.
The strategy element of crew management is both fun and decently challenging, allowing players to navigate difficult areas easier with the knowledge of which stations to man. Fans of simulators like FTL will catch on quick to this mechanic, but for the seemingly intended audience of casual players, it may take a bit of practice. It's a shame that this organizational element isn't paired with more deftly made piloting; perhaps in VR these controls were more intuitive. Bow to Blood overall still has the essence of a VR game, one that is being explained to you by the developers as you play it at the local con.
After flying around for a while, collecting points, many of the other AI competitors will approach the player with offers or threats. These are random each play through, making for nearly endless replayability for those that find that the game's charm out ways its flaws. A captain may warn you of a bomb he planted on your ship and demand points to deactivate it. Another might offer the location of a cache and split the reward with you. It's up to the player to decide what to do in these situations that are very often (near) life or death. It's important to keep in mind that these will be the same AI voting to keep you in the game or not if you're in the culling, so players should always have at least a few allies.
The entirety of the campaign takes about three hours or so, each event lasting somewhere from 25-30 minutes. It's fast enough that with the Switch's portable mode, you might be able to make it through a campaign on a plane or bus ride. But playing Bow to Blood, it is hard to shake the feeling that there should have been multiplayer or at least co-op incorporated into the game. The premise alone: making alliances and betraying them, then working together against a massive boss to see who can land the final blow; joining a real-life friend in battle would not be out of place in the slightest.
For those players looking for something new and original, Bow to Blood certainly hits all those marks. As a single-player experience, it manages to overcome some of its weird quirks to be fun enough for an afternoon. It just needed a bit of polish to truly captivate.
Bow to Blood: Last Captain Standing is available now on PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and PS4. The title was previously made available on PSVR, HTC Vive, and Occulus Rift. Screen Rant received a Switch copy for purposes of this review.