It’s kind of sad that future generations are never going to get to experience the simple pleasure of walking around a video store. Aimlessly browsing through aisles of straight to VHS flicks with flashy covers, chuckling to yourself about the ridiculous plot twists described on their back covers, and then finally passing over all of them and picking out a movie you’ve seen before. Bombshell feels like one of those movies you’d pass up on. It has style for days, featuring well designed baddies, unique weaponry, and visceral combat. The game plays great in short bursts, but Bombshell has grander ambitions. It reaches for a rich narrative, platforming puzzles, and expansive levels filled with side missions, but it can’t quite stick the landing, and many players will lose patience with its flights of fancy long before the credits roll.
In Bombshell, you play as Shelly “Bombshell” Harrison, a former bomb disposal technician who became a gun for hire after losing her arm and replacing it with a multifaceted robotic appendage. She is called into action by the Global Defense Force to rescue the President of the United States (a woman who wears an American flag themed eyepatch) from a mad scientist who has an army of aliens and cybernetic implements at his disposal. The world of Bombshell oozes style in everything from the character and environment designs to the visual skull flourishes that accompany every explosion. The guns pack an audible punch you can feel, especially the wonderfully named MotherFlackker shotgun. The soundtrack is a great backing to the action as well, giving you the type of ripping guitars that promise a tight, action packed experience.
Of course, Bombshell isn’t that type of action game. It’s an Action RPG, and the developers embraced the RPG part of the classification wholeheartedly. Shelly levels up after you achieve enough kills, and each of her weapons have an upgrade path that slowly increases their damage output and clip size. The enemies also ramp up in difficulty right alongside the upgrade path, which makes the whole exercise a bit tedious. You also have a choice between one of two secondary fire modes for each weapon, but the game does a poor job of letting you know which type of weapon you’d prefer. There were several points where I picked the secondary fire option that I thought I’d enjoy, discovered that it didn’t fit my playstyle, and then never used it again. You can’t switch out these options, or test them beforehand, you’re stuck with guessing what sounds better and hoping for the best.
You start every mission by getting your main quest, and these can all be lumped into two groups. First, you’ll most likely come across some terminal or artifact that needs four to six objects to activate, and then you’ll get another quest asking you to either head through the gate you opened or fight the boss at the end. Every mission has a number of sidequests to go along with your main narrative drive, but these are even more by the numbers, and several also boil down to fetch quests to collect even more objects. The majority of missions will have you plodding around huge maps searching for random objects before backtracking to the quest giver for a small experience bonus and a bit of backstory if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky, the objectives will be hidden, and since you can’t move the map around when you pull it up, you’ll end up having to wander around a bit and then checking in again to see if any objective markers show up.
Bafflingly, the combat seems to be a secondary concern to these elaborate exploration sections. There is plenty of action to be had in Bombshell, but there are never any memorable encounters or areas that really test your prowess with your weapons. Instead, enemies just sort of spawn in whenever you hit a checkpoint or complete an objective, serving as an obstacle to your progress rather than a satisfying means to an end. One of the powers you gain over the course of the game is an electric shield that damages opponents when they get too close. Once I acquired a few upgrades, I found that most combat scenarios could be effectively dealt with by activating your shield, throwing out a Bowling Bomb to home in on the first wave of foes, and then bum-rushing through the remainder while firing off a few token rounds to remind yourself that you’re playing a shooter.
Each world ends with a boss encounter, and all three of them are grueling gauntlets filled with cheap deaths and long waits for ammo to respawn. The first encounter, against a giant worm creature, is probably the worst, as it requires that you not only keep up your constant barrage of missiles and minigun fire, but also familiarize yourself with Shelly’s platforming skills. This boss fight and several other areas of the game really make a case for isometric platforming to be in the running right alongside first person platforming as some of the worst jumping you can experience in gaming. You’ll certainly earn your victory cutscene against these foes, but it’s hardly ever worth the frustration.
Speaking of cutscenes, Bombshell also features a lot more narrative than its cheesy premise warrants. You get lengthy dialogue between the characters in fully rendered movies as well as Gears of War-style walk and talk sections, and they all slow the game down to a crawl. During gameplay, Shelly is constantly cracking one liners just like another 3D Realms hero, but there is a tonal shift towards the end where the game really wants to invest players in its emotional moments. It’s a bizarre mixture that just doesn’t work. The game also pulls the Matt Hazard trick of having Shelly make fun of the clichéd storytelling and objectives several times throughout the game. Of course, Bombshell does nothing to subvert these clichés, so instead of laughing along, you’re sighing and wishing you were playing something more clever.
All this makes it clear that Bombshell is not the action fantasy that old fans of 3D Realms might have been hoping for. It has too many side activities you’re forced to sift through, from its attempts at switch puzzles to its painfully standard platforming sections, turret sequences, and fetch quests. When the game is at its best, the shooting really shines through, and the graphics and style undeniably hit the mark. However, every new wrinkle added onto the core gameplay is just another complication that the game didn’t need. Bombshell truly feels unsure of itself, attempting to cater to veteran FPS junkies as well as the players who might have grown up on games like Bastion. Instead of focusing in on one goal, it presents a jumbled mess of mechanics that is a slog to play through. A stylish slog, but a slog nonetheless.
Bombshell was reviewed on Steam with a copy provided by 3D Realms.
This reviewer experienced numerous technical issues while playing through the game, including hard crashes, graphical glitches, audio ignoring volume settings, and collision detection problems. A 1.2 GB Day 1 Patch was released for the game which we were unfortunately unable to test for the purposes of this review. 3D Realms have also released a troubleshooting guide hours before the game’s launch, which means that it’s possible that early players will experience similar issues.
Bombshell sports impressive shooting and a stylish presentation, but the game's takes on exploration and narrative ultimately drag down the experience.