Sometimes you don’t know you want something until it’s right in front of you. I’m always on the lookout for new comedy-focused games, and Deathbulge: Battle of the Bands caught my eye after I saw a couple of devs mentioning it on Twitter (I mean X, actually no, I mean Twitter). So I decided to check it out and realised that I’ve really wanted to play a spiritual successor to Costume Quest, and Deathbulge is that game – a funny, (mostly) light-hearted RPG reminiscent of the games of beloved studio Double Fine.
For those unfamiliar, Deathbulge is a long-running webcomic from Brit Dan Martin. It’s certainly not required to be familiar with the comic to enjoy Battle of the Bands – the storyline is wholly original and there’s only one main character that previously appears in the comics. Personally, I wasn’t particularly familiar with Deathbulge before I played this game.
The basic concept of Deathbulge: Battle of the Bands is all in the title. You play as the three members of Deathbulge – Faye, Briff, and Ian (the de facto mascot for the comic) – and Faye enters them in a battle of the band competition. The twist is that every band from this music-centric neighbourhood that has entered the competition has unknowingly signed a contract to gain the ability to cause physical damage with their music – and the battles are a fight to the death. Once this becomes apparent, Deathbulge embarks on a quest to nullify this contract, battling any rival musicians in the way during turn-based battles.
Deathbulge is, first and foremost, a comedy game – and a good one at that. It starts off on the right foot with some great gags that show off the game’s fun, shouty characters. I was won over by a couple of early bits, such as Faye attempting to wake up Briff by playing guitar, and with her then-hidden new powers accidentally knocks him out instead. Then there was the first save point, which takes a detour into fourth-wall breaking and gives you the options to save or say ‘I AM IN AN MONOGAMOUS RELATIONSHIP WITH AUTOSAVE.’ And before I stop just mentioning great bits from this game, I’ll say that singing bass fish, like the ones that were a novelty in the early 2000s, play a major role in this game.
Oh, and there are the doors. This is based on what is probably Deathbulge’s most well-known comic. Every door you come across for the first time is emphatically kicked down – just like a rockstar would do. But instead of disappearing into the ether, every door is kicked somewhere, and you can see the result of your handiwork in the new location. Sometimes, the doors break something important. It’s a prime example of the overflowing charm and character of the game. The act of entering every room you come across is worthwhile because you want to see what a running joke does next. When I say that Deathbulge is reminiscent of Double Fine’s games, this is what I mean. Then there are other, more surface-level comparisons, such as the music-themed world recalling Brutal Legend or the battle system taking cues from Costume Quest.
If you don’t remember Costume Quest’s battles, the Halloween costumes of your characters translate into Kaiju-sized avatars that take part in turn-based battles. Deathbulge works in a similar way. Each of your three band members has four move slots that you can swap out in between battles – one is a basic attack, one dictates your class (and outfit), and the other two complement your class as you see fit.
There’s quite a lot of room for experimentation once you collect enough mods, as each character’s role is not exactly dictated by their default class. For example, Faye starts as a speedy character that can inflict burn (she’s the guitarist, so she’s melting faces). But she can be a healing busker or a hard-hitting but self-damaging headbanger. Multiple members can use a class; so for example, you might prefer the bulkier Ian to be a headbanger and Briff, with more healing moves available, to be a busker. In each battle, you switch between the three characters as your Final Fantasy-style active time battle gauge fills. This bar (separated into four sections, naturally), is where buffs and debuffs are applied, rather than to each friend or foe. It’s not the deepest RPG battle system around, but there are so many ways to mix and match as you progress that it didn’t get stale throughout my 11-hour playtime.
Deathbulge: Battle of the Bands is a breezy RPG that is genuinely funny and bursting with charm. It feels like it could be part of Double Fine’s stable, and to me, this is great praise indeed. If you fondly remember Costume Quest, this is a must-play.