When I heard that LEVEL-5 (known for Ni No Kuni, Professor Layton, Dark Cloud, and Dragon Quest among others) and Keiji Inafune (Creator of Dead Rising, Onimusha, and Mega Man) were coming together to create something new, needless to say I was pretty excited and curious about what the result would be. Now the curtain has been unveiled and we are given Bugs vs. Tanks! for the 3DS. As you can probably deduce from the title, it has bugs pitting off against tanks, though with a few twists.
Fighting against bugs may not be anything new, as Earth Defence Force did it before, and pretty well, but instead of an invading bug army it turns out the solders and tanks are shrunken down to “smaller-than-bug-size” to put a slightly different twist on it. In Bugs vs. Tanks! you’ll control a tiny tank, making not only the bugs themselves large adversaries, but you’ll have to deal with the terrain and litter on the ground as well.
The setting is World War II and you’re a soldier in an elite tank squad. Newspapers start reporting that some battalions of tanks are missing and they are simply written off as killed-in-action; however, it turns out that the enemy has somehow shrunk down you and your crew to smaller than bug size and now you’re fighting to simply survive against hoards of ants, moths, spiders, and more things that are much larger than you. You also need to find the rest of your crew while scavenging for resources and intel on how to return to normal size.
There’s an odd angle to the story though that I didn’t really expect. You’re actually part of the famous German Panzer squad, and while you’re not fighting the allies in Bugs vs. Tanks!, it still feels a little odd playing the Germans in a World War II setting, even if it never directly associates (or mentions) Nazis from the 1940’s. While you may be fighting bugs in a grass and dirt setting instead of directly facing off against the Allies in Europe, it just feels weird to be playing the side of the Germans set in a “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” motif.
That oddity aside, the tanks have very basic and straightforward controls, as you can only move, pivot, fire, and use a special ability once per level. To simplify things even further you don’t even control firing of your canon; when bugs get in range it will automatically fire at your target. If you hold down the Right Bumper your canon will not fire automatically unless you let go; some people might like this added challenge, but I’m not sure why there wasn’t an option to use the Right Bumper to fire, rather than to suppress firing. As things become very chaotic and challenging in the later missions I would highly suggest just letting the gun fire as you’re going to need all the firepower you can when you get swarmed. If there’s a bug directly in front of you your machine gunner will lay down cover fire, which won’t do any real damage, but it will slightly slow them down so that you can try and maneuver out of danger. This is generally only useful against swarms and I found that the larger enemies seem to ignore the slowdown effect for the most part.
Controlling your tank is very basic at best (not even including the automatic firing), as you use the analog stick to move your tank, though reversing and going on at an angle feels counterintuitive (as I was reversing the way I would a car, but it doesn’t work that way). You can pivot your canon to face any direction while you maneuver in another, and you rotate the canon with two of the face buttons; again, I wish I could have remapped this to the Triggers instead since you don’t actually have to shoot manually.
While controls and mechanics are very basic, surprisingly the bugs themselves are done quite well. They look mean and they certainly act the part once they know you’re in the vicinity. They won’t stop attacking you until your tank is no more, and if you rush in rather then take your time and kill the ones in your way you will be destroyed quite quickly. It’s near impossible to survive a swarm of ants coming at every angle, as they bump you and interrupt your movement with every hit. These are the times you use your “one time per mission” SOS skill. Using your SOS is essentially calling in an artillery strike from your comrades at home base (a corner of dirt in the jungle) that will attack every enemy on screen. The problem with the use of SOS skill is that it doesn’t feel anywhere near as powerful as it should there are times where it misses some of the bugs on screen. Don’t expect it to be a ‘kill everything’ attack, as it’s more just to help against a swarm of weaker enemies in a worst-case scenario. It doesn’t seem to damage the largest enemies very much at all. Coupled with the game’s difficulty, and cheapness at times, it can become frustrating when you want to rush through a level but can’t as you need to take your time killing every bug in your way.
Missions are pretty standard as you have kill quests, scavenge runs, collect items, and defend your base type missions along with a few other ‘boss-like’ levels. There are some collectables in certain missions as you can find hidden tanks that you can unlock. Between missions you can customize your tank, from body parts to the type of ammo and even the paint scheme. If you’re a tank buff it might be odd seeing specific tanks with the wrong turrets on them, but each part has its own stats, so you’re free to customize to suit your play style. Of course, painting your tank pink or with hearts is the real draw here though.
The biggest frustration I had with Bugs vs. Tanks!, which was noticeable almost right from the first mission, is that your tank does not match the speed of the bugs. If you need to retreat or get away, you won’t be able to. The bugs are so quick that you can’t even outrun them while going in a forward direction (it’s even worse in reverse). This is where the machine gun turret is supposed to help you, but sometimes you have multiple bugs on you from different angles. In the normal missions it’s not really a big deal, especially if you learn to take your time and take them on one at a time, but when you’re racing against the clock or in specific boss levels, you’ll have to restart the missions a few times. Don’t even get me started on the first spider boss level either…
Bugs vs. Tanks! mission structure is quick paced and each level is very short, making for some quick matches if you’ve only got a few minutes to play. While the missions rotate the objectives, there simply doesn’t feel as if there are enough objectives in the mission variety, as you’re generally always going to be doing one of three things for the most part. With over a few dozen missions, the game isn’t terribly long, but you are ranked on each mission based on your performance and there are those hidden tanks to find to entice you to keep playing.
With the limited environments, the gameplay feels very repetitive, especially early on until you get to the more unique missions, and even on the easiest setting, things can become frustrating very quickly. The worst offender for this is the base defense missions where you need to hold off waves of bugs attacking your headquarters. Later missions of this type become extremely difficult, as you don’t really have a meter or know how much damage the bugs are doing to your base before it’s too late and you fail.
There are local co-op play specific missions if you have up to three more friends with the game, and there’s even a StreetPass feature that will allow you to call in extra SOS strikes. Not having online co-op seems like a big mis-steps to keep the game’s longevity going after you’ve S-ranked all the missions and found all the hidden tanks.
LEVEL-5 is known for their gorgeous worlds and art styles so I was a little surprised with the graphics for Bugs vs. Tanks! and in a bad way. While the tanks and bugs themselves look decent, the rest of the game looks and feels muddled and bland at best. Everything has jagged edges, muddy textures, and generally looks flat; it really reminded me of an early PSone game. I don’t normally care about graphics as long as the rest of the game can hold up, but maybe I was expecting a little more considering who’s behind it. Your pink and heart patterned tank will definitely stand out though, especially with the 3D slider on.
The audio isn’t anything to really write home about either. The soundtrack sounds like something you’d expect from a military game, and while there are a few voiced audio queues, they don’t sound great in any way; “Panzer Four!” being the worst offender. Even when the tanks fire, it never sounds like there’s ‘oomph’ behind the impact and you’ll get tired of the sound of the tanks treads on the ground very quickly.
Bugs vs. Tanks! isn’t a game that meets the standards of LEVEL-5 games of the past, but what it does give bite sized gameplay that allows for casual play over the course of a few days. I don’t suggest sitting through it and trying to finish it in one sitting, as I don’t believe that’s how it was meant to be played with its mission structure. The tank customization is fun, but I wish there was a little more to it, but the almost constant unlocking of paint schemes for your tank was somewhat rewarding. In the end if you forget that you’re playing as World War II Germans, and you play a mission or two at a time, there’s some fun to be had in there now and then, even if it is bug sized and not as complex as an actual tank. That being said, the overall experience isn’t a particularly good one. Tanks for reading, now go blast some bugs if you dare!