Version tested: Wii
To the tune of Blitzkrieg Bop, a gang of hillbillies bang double-barreled banjos against an undead Mexican trio known as "Scaryachi". Next, an edgy goth group trades the notes of Feel Good Inc. with a peppy, baton-twirling marching band. Bullet barrages, lightning bolts and grenades arc across either side of the stage, each products of timely Wiimote wagging on your end.
Battle of the Bands isn't meant as a serious competitor to rhythm gaming's recent heavyweights, but more a comic sidekick. A cartoony, casual approach to the floating note genre in place of plastic peripherals, players wave the Wii remote left, right and downward, with shakes and stab motions in between. Not just a showcase for your speedy joints, but a gesture palette tennis players should find comfortable.
For those not Wimbledon-bound, the setup will seem uninspired. Any gamer guitarist that's tasted the nuanced notes of Guitar Hero and Rock Band can breeze through anything Battle throws at them, and aside from erratic conducting, is wrist-shaking a proper or exciting analogue for actual music? Excluding Samba de Amigo advocates, nope. Thin motion template or not, we can say it handles relatively well, with little effort needed to pick up notes. Force feedback is integrated nicely, buzzing when you're tracing a jagged zigzag of shaky notes, and beeping through the built-in speaker when you block attacks.
But without appealing tablature, what's left? Gameplay-wise, it's weapons. Each of the game's 11 groups utilises three attacks to rack up extra points, activated by combos of varying length. Players can opt for safer combos to launch basic strikes for smaller scores, or try to string more notes together to deploy their special. These disruptive items can screen your opponent's playing area with smoke or make it scroll faster, shrink their notes or slide them about the board, mine their frets with bombs, or electrify the side rails of their beat board to deal damage. Swapping between weapons on the fly with the A button allows flexibility, as combos-in-progress can transfer to other attack types at no penalty.
Add in Battle's blocking mechanic, and songs become a bit like Pong - tapping out notes to send munitions your opponent's way; hitting the B trigger to repel theirs with a deflector shield as you're juggling Insane in the Brain with your right hand. Shielding factors in most during a face-off, sections where all notes launch attacks (in the form of a green skull, naturally) and bands alternate between offence and defence. It's easy, it's accessible, and along these lines we can appreciate Battle's emphasis on mini-combos over maintaining multipliers. Still: no Star Power stand-in, no solos to speak of, no customisable characters or instruments. Weapons do unlock upgrades as you clear adventure mode, but the depth is much too meagre to boost Battle above bargain party game status, we're afraid.
The set list redeems a fraction of this. 30 tracks are covered in five genres (bullet point opportunity: "150 songs!") - rock, hip-hop, country, marching and Latin. Hearing "Black Betty" or Soundgarden's Spoonman transition from a rap variant to fully-translated Spanish lyrics is a nice novelty and, together, Def Leppard, Korn, AFI, Tenacious D, Audioslave, TV on the Radio, the Black Eyed Peas, LL Cool J, Keane, Rick James and more are represented. None of the included tracks are originals, but the covers do a decent job of playing up a stereotyped style that suits each genre.
The same can't be said for the game's cartoon aesthetic. Battle is begging for better textures and a cleaner interface. Sonic skirmishes could've been shown in some unique ways on-screen: maybe squads of camo-clad groupies would storm the stage, or one side's instruments would be riddled in holes if they're not keeping up. (If we had our way, we'd meld a music game with Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime - life bars, clean sprite graphics, combos that load cannons to launch attacks overhead, and a sprinkling of light tactics to make points an afterthought. We'll keep dreaming.)
Instead, it's low-res flames floating back and forth as points tally up, bland backgrounds, and enough clashing colours to make you wonder if the art team interned at Lisa Frank. An exaggerated interface is one thing, but million-dollar-bill fretboards lined in gold chains? Not appealing. The bands themselves boast the likeability of a fast food toy line. A turntable with machinegun barrels for the hip-hop group? Appropriate. A makeshift cannon in the bass drum? Sure. Blunderbuss-banjos? Okay. But oddly, these accoutrements aren't accompanied by enough animations to act things out - bands seem content to idle during their war hymns, occasionally firing off whatever particle effect you've pre-loaded as a weapon.
The lack of on-screen hijinks is another missed opportunity to enkindle comical tone, but we'd care less if there was more content to keep us occupied. Three indistinct boss battles against a classically-trained maestro break up single-player, but a simple two-player versus mode isn't an attractive alternative to solo play. The odd omelette of dated art design drapes the bands in stale stereotypes, while static models and rocky animations resign the bands to being poor caricatures.
This isn't Guitar Hero, but our middling appraisal doesn't need another standard to judge Battle's shallow, safe and unsexy design. When it's all sung and done, the mediocrity stems from shallow motion controls. A wrist-flicking rhythm game already has something stacked against it in keeping players engaged, but a bare bones gesture set doesn't give the gameplay much spark.
5 / 10