What’s your APM when you play Starcraft?
The interesting metric, action-per-minute, which indicates how quickly one can control units in a typical real-time-strategy game, is making a grand appearance in indie title Cannon Brawl, developed by Turtle Sandbox. Coming out of Steam Early Access, the title is a one-on-one mix of strategy and action set to story-book-like graphics. Far from a typically complex PC RTS, Cannon Brawl is accessible from the get-go while hitting all the “required” strategy game paradigms on the way.
There’s a subtle reference to Mario in the story, in the “but your princess is in another castle!” type, but the tiny nod is subverted from the beginning. The royal family is at odds as the scheming brother of the king gets jealous, and Uncle steals the Prince. The father of the Prince, the King, sends the armor-clad Princess on a rescue mission in campaign mode, where the girl trails the devious Uncle and battles his minions (such as Minion and Minionette). Cannon Brawl keeps it light, making it extremely family-friendly and accessible, without feeding the same “save the princess” adages that everyone’s seen. But the story isn’t that important, as player’s hands are full controlling each and every building placed on the colorful 2D maps.
Starting out with the precious HQ, each player receives an amount of gold per second. Building with each of their territories, defined by light red or blue, gold mines are most likely the first choices. To expand the faction’s range, territory balloons hover around, further and further. Next, cannon towers send off explosive shells, while radar-like shield towers place a 45-degree barrier that negates some shots. The catch? None of this is controlled by the AI or given orders; everything is controlled directly by the players.
Players command airships that commence building at the HQ, then personally place them along the map. Then, in order to fire a cannon or activate a shield, they man the station themselves, prompting about 15 seconds of cooldown post-usage. In the meantime, it’s best to fire off other things or think about expansions, all while under enemy fire. Only when the map fills up with several cannons that all need to be fired manually, does it dawn what Cannon Brawl is truly about.
Setting up the economy as fast as possible means building gold mines first. But as only five buildings get chosen at the beginning of every map, checking out the terrain is imperative. Higher cliffs means placing rockets that spread out could be very effective. Or maybe drills that don’t do a ton of damage, but dig in the ground deep, as falling usually means death for structures. While most people may pick shield towers, cannons that shoot out walking bombs march right through those. It’s surprisingly deep and engaging what kind of combinations and setups Cannon Brawl allows for, from disabling frost towers to more economical bank stratagems that can bribe opponents’ structures to the other side.
Those setups are decisive in combat, but rounds rarely drag on, usually lasting between five to ten minutes. A seemingly impossible opponent can go down next round much more easily. That’s not to say skill isn’t a deciding factor. One of my opponents used lasers in conjunction with a commander ship that freezes buildings when passing by them. Freezing my shield towers first, which normally deflect laser beams quite well, they proceeded to decimate the vulnerable towers. My quick-attack setup next round, which took out their banks before they could bribe my structures, got me a win.
The tactical possibilities are not just multiplied by structures chosen and commanders, but also by APM, terrain, and reactions. Adjusting strategy in the middle and responding to the opponent is just as key as activating machines as soon as they’re ready. Really advanced players can show off with reactive gameplay, for instance by activating shields at the last second or firing missiles at other incoming objects. It’s incredible how easily all those factors come together in an actionable RTS that feels extremely accessible, yet promisingly deep on a competitive level.
Cannon Brawl‘s design flaws really only come out when matches are too even. When a match is going for longer than 15 minutes, the action seems to devolve into a frantic, zombie-like chase to fire cannons and shields as fast as possible, hardly even looking at what the opponent is doing. While some of the commander’s abilities charge over time, the game lacks something like a large power bar that fills overtime to help tilt a stagnant match in a certain favor. Also, the action occasionally gets a little too frenetic. Maybe some general ability to slow down time or have a commander who has a time stop ability on enemies would cover up this playstyle aspect. Those who like a slower, more thoughtful challenge will appreciate the puzzle stages during the campaign mode, which involve taking down the enemy HQ in 2-3 strategic shots.
While the game wants to keep it accessible at every level, the writing is a bit of a missed opportunity. The dialogue has a few clever lines, but it’s overall very basic and somewhat unimaginative. Some punctuation marks were missing in action. Obviously, it plays a very minor part, and the engaging, trumpety soundtrack makes up for it, even if it gets lost a little in the hectic action. There were a few minor bugs, but nothing that affected the actual combat. For instance, after unlocking something by playing a different mode, getting to it in campaign makes the game think like it’s getting unlocked again. The way explosions interact with the terrain could be a bit more visually-clear cut like in Worms for example, where the round bombing sizes made it easy to predict on the terrain. As for controls, there are very few buttons to use, so a keyboard or gamepad works great, preferably an Xbox type. There should be mouse functionality in the menus, though.
Finding faults in Cannon Brawl feels very nitpicky, because the game is simply stellar at what it sets out to do. It’s a lot easier to criticize by finding lacks than attacking its sound structure, because all the gears are tightly wound into a bombastic, deceptively deep experience. It makes real strides in games that pride themselves on being a mix of action and thinking, where it stands out as almost cutting-edge. Looking at the overall product, there may be tiny flaws, but Turtle Sandbox really took quality gameplay to heart, and made it as good as it can possibly be.
Cannon Brawl is out on Steam right now!