“Bullet hell with a twist” would be the easiest way to describe Battalion Commander, an interesting arcade-y game brought to the Vita by SPL Games. While it’s a fun distraction for an afternoon, there’s not really enough meat here to make it a worthwhile recommendation.
You’re given nothing in the way of story or introduction upon booting up the game – just dropped into a series of menus. All navigation around these is done by touch and it’s fairly easy to get to grips with this, although there’s a distinct lack of tutorials to get you started. After a bit of fiddling with options, you’re lead straight into the bulk of the gameplay by entering the campaign.
What you’ll discover is that the game is a vertically-scrolling shooter, much like any classic SHMUP, where you control an army commander as he ascends a field fighting off enemies. The gimmick here is that he can command a battalion – you’ll come across cages during a mission which if broken will free an allied soldier, who can follow you around and provide additional fire. Through repeated play you can build up a team of 10+ allies to flank you, all with varying abilities (flamethrowers; grenades; rocket launchers), giving you a veritable army to play around with.
And repeated play is very much the expectation here – it’s unlikely you’ll complete much of the game on your first try, but practice means you’ll keep getting better and slowly start progressing further. Adding to this is a progression system – downed enemies drop stars which give you experience – you can gain more by completing specific challenges (i.e. killing x number of enemies), and this experience will rank you up as a commander allowing you to buy upgrades using the coins you’ll have collected from the battlefield.
While a nice system, it rapidly becomes frustrating as you can only ever have 3 challenges on the go at one time, which are replaced once completed. This means the game often asks you to do things you’ll have already done a dozen times prior, so it comes across as an artificial way to bolster the title’s length.
Still, the upgrade system does provide some nice bonuses such as new classes to recruit; new weapons and power ups such as air support, all of which aid you in battle. Core gameplay consists of moving your commander left, right, up and down to fire at the various buildings and enemies that appear at the top of the screen, while occasionally pressing the power up button.
Sadly interaction with the game is little more than this. Your character and squad fire automatically; you can’t organize the layout of your team or do anything other than move and activate powerups. It’s quite an addictive setup to begin with but never progresses any further by giving you more to think about or do. Enemies do get progressively more challenging as you make your way across the map but after a point the variety stops and you’re simply handed more constant streams of the exact same foes, which becomes tedious.
It would help if the game had more content to offer, but it doesn’t. The campaign requires you to make it 1500m through a snowy environment then fight the boss at the end, which (when beaten) unlocks ‘endless’ mode… which means running the same environment for as long as you can without a boss at the end.
Presentation-wise, everything is military-themed, in fitting with the title. In general there’s nothing wrong here – although there’s a mobile-esque feel to everything in that all characters are drawn in a very cartoon-y style; there’s an abundance of stars and coins everywhere etc. It’s all very generic there’s no real flair or style to any of it, which detracts from the experience somewhat.
It doesn’t help, either, that there’s a massive lack of environments on show here – there’s only one snowy zone in the campaign that’s repeated in endless mode and that’s all. It really feels like only playing the first chapter in a title, only to be told there’s no more. Music plays a part in this, with the same tune repeated over and over during the campaign – new songs only being revealed after you unlock ‘endless’ mode which thankfully gives some much needed respite.
I can’t say I didn’t enjoy my time with Battalion Commander, as there were moments I got caught up in trying to achieve a new high score or trying out the next upgrade. But the experience was uninspired and brief and despite the low price point, left me expecting a whole lot more.