A bombastically endearing tribute to classic action movie excess that is occasionally too chaotic for its own good.
Broforce should be unbearable. It has all the worst features of indie hipster PC gaming in 2015. Cute pixel art winkingly combined with lashings of extravagant gore. Retro-styled side-scrolling gameplay and stiff difficulty. Most of all, an obsession with tongue-in-cheek 1980s B-movie culture.
It should be unbearable, and the fact that it's actually enormously likeable and loads of fun speaks volumes about developer Free Lives Games and the way it has carefully evolved its giddy template from lo-fi game jam entry through Steam Early Access to full release.
Here's the hook: every TV and movie action hero you ever cared about, thrown into a bombastic side-scrolling platform shoot-em-up and delivered in a tone pitched somewhere between the innocent bloodlust of a 1985 Saturday morning cartoon and the post-modern lunacy of a Terry Crews Old Spice commercial.
Gameplay is appropriately simple. You start with just one character - Rambro. You march from left to right, gunning down enemies and rescuing others "Bros" who are trapped in cages. Each one, when rescued, becomes your new player character and also acts as an extra life. The more you rescue, the more are added to your roster for random selection next time around. The twist is that each Bro only has one health point. Take a hit and they die, and you respawn at the last checkpoint with another bro.
There are 30 such characters at launch, many of which were added during the game's three year gestation. A large part of Broforce's initial appeal comes from seeing which iconic character will be unlocked next, and how they'll have the word "bro" awkwardly inserted into their name. I won't deny I squealed a little when Bro Dredd appeared, but you can pretty much guarantee one of your favourites is in here. From Double Bro Seven to Indiana Brones, and even deeper cuts like Broniversal Soldier, the game runs at the pop culture buffet table and piles its plate high.
It's the sort of winking referential comedy that can go horribly awry - as in movie clankers like Meet the Spartans, where the appearance of a famous character is considered a joke in itself. Broforce skirts that trap by putting real thought into how each character can be realised in the game's wacky world, and how their iconic features can be used to tweak the gameplay.
BroboCop, for example, has his famous handgun which charges up the longer you hold down the fire button, then shoots in bursts. Indiana Brones has a whip and a pistol, the Arnie-esque Brommando has a rocket launcher, while others - such as Bronan the Barbarian, Broheart and vampire hunter Brade - must rely on swords for melee attacks. The Brocketeer, of course, has a jetpack, and The Boondock Bros come as a pair - essentially two lives for the price of one.
Each character requires a subtly different style of play, and also has a limited stock of special attacks which add a more tactical layer to the carnage. MacBrover lobs a chicken stuffed with dynamite, for example, which attracts enemies then blows them all up. Time Bro, a riff on Van Damme's Time Cop, can activate a slow motion mode.
On the surface Broforce is anarchic, with destructible environments, exploding barrels and crates, and fuel tanks which take off like rockets when hit. Chain reactions are common - and often deliberate. In a landscape of procedurally generated roguelike indies Broforce dares to be designed down to the last pixel, meaning optimal routes and hidden secrets are there on purpose, not simply random chance. You feel smart and motivated, not just lucky, when you come across them.
Movement is similarly well honed with nimble flea-like leaps and a sticky wall climb that carries echoes of Super Meat Boy. Weapons feel satisfying and weighty, while the enemies fly apart with tangible cartoon splatter. Simply ping-ponging around each level is a pleasure, as you seek out new avenues of exploration and destruction.
There's deeper strategy here, should you wish to find it, and the more you pay attention the more emergent layers you discover. Enemies have emotional states, for example, so a particularly grisly attack on one of their comrades - such as Brochete's disembowelling melee attack - will cause them to panic. They can also be caught unawares, providing you don't alert them by making too much noise. It's never a stealth game, but nor is it just a straight ahead action romp. For those who want to explore the overlapping systems and experiment with different approaches, there's plenty to enjoy.
It's a generous game too, having accrued lots of extra content in Early Access such as Alien-themed levels and a suite of rock hard post-game Hell stages. There's a level editor, a custom campaign mode that lets you sample and rate other player's creations, a versus mode and drop-in co-operative online play.
It's this last one that reveals Broforce's greatest weakness: it is possible to be too far over the top. With four Bros all rampaging around, the mayhem is absolutely ridiculous. It's hilarious, but also frequently impossible to keep track of, and you'll die many deaths as you get lost amongst the explosions and geysers of blood. It doesn't help that the HUD for each player takes up one corner of the screen, obscuring vital gameplay areas and adding to the confusion.
These issues come to a head during the game's boss battles, which are just about manageable solo but become a bewildering insta-death soup with four players all spamming attacks at the same time. It's annoying, and more than a little upside-down. More players should make boss fights easier to handle, not harder.
It's also sometimes frustrating when the game randomly assigns you the next Bro and it's someone whose attacks are a poor fit for your situation. Boss fights with a sword-wielding character are no fun, but equally some of the more over-powered characters, such as Will Smith's Bro in Black and his immensely destructive "noisy cricket", can demolish an entire stage in seconds without really trying. It's never less than fun, but the option to choose your character would add a little more nuance. That's probably not a word that belongs anywhere near Broforce though.
Those are really the only major complaints that stand a chance of penetrating the game's glistening rock hard abs. I've had Broforce since it entered Early Access last year, and it's never really left my frequently played Steam list since - partly because of the steady drip of new content (which hopefully won't dry up post-launch) but mostly because it's a perfect game for those 15 minute palate-cleansing blasts of arcade fun.
From its generous amount of content to its deliriously engaging gameplay, this is a game that is smarter than it looks, knows what it wants to do and achieves it in the biggest, silliest way possible. Flex and enjoy.