Broforce is a game that is rooted deep in the arcade shooters of the past. Contra, Commando, The Revenge of Shinobi, all of these games and more were made in a time when John Rambo and John Matrix were the superheroes of the silver screen, and game developers shamelessly translated these characters again and again. Entire genres were created in pursuit of capturing the essence of Rambo in an interactive sense. The developers at Free Lives have perfected this ideal in a way that neither the official Rambo video game or Stallone's own nostalgia trips can. Simply put, Broforce is the ur-action movie game, combining the ridiculous tone of Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon with an attention to detail that can only come with a true love for that strange and ridiculous time when this was the pinnacle of cinema.
Broforce is a side scrolling run 'n gun shooter with pixel graphics and an amazing concept. What if every action hero from the 80s and 90s were on one elite team, with a mission to liberate the world for America. Of course, actually getting these heroes would require a legal team that would make Devolver Digital shudder, so instead the Broforce is composed of dudes and dudettes who are just legally different enough from their movie counterparts. It's a neat trick that allows for Rambo, Robocop, Conan The Barbarian, and MacGyver to team up, and each character feels immensely faithful to the source material in their attacks and animations.
You have thirty characters to play with, each unlocking over time as you rescue prisoners that are scattered across every level. In order to keep the game's blistering pace up, you actually never choose who you're going to play as, with the game randomly giving you a bro and changing it out every time you free a prisoner and gain an extra life. In most cases this is fine, as the combat in Broforce is balanced highly in favor of the player versus the countless cannon fodder enemies. However, this does pose a problem in situations like boss fights, as Indiana Jones' whip is usually no match for a helicopter raining missiles down on you. Having some control over your character, at least in single player, would have been welcome.
In early levels, you'll be facing mooks, masked terrorists who are easily dispatched and fun to throw around with your bullets and melee assaults. As the levels progress, more and more complex enemies appear, from big mini-gun wielding foes to a cave filled with xenomorphs to late game encounters with zombies and the literal devil. Later levels are also filled with a lot of one hit kill death traps, which take speed and patience to dodge. Patience was never really the vibe I got from Broforce, and the juxtaposition of how the game told me to bum-rush ahead and then also carefully avoid the buzz saws rolling my way never quite clicked.
However, Broforce was clearly designed as a game to mess around with in a group, whether with friends or over the Internet. It has four player drop-in co-op support, and features the same type of chaotic rapid fire accidental deaths as New Super Mario Bros. The rescuing prisoners mechanic only really makes sense in this context, allowing you to bring back players who have died rather than racking up spare lives. Playing the game single player isn't broken, but as the levels progress, you'll definitely hit a few encounters that seemed balanced specifically for a team of three or four bros, which can be a bit frustrating.
Often, after throwing yourself at an encounter multiple times, the best way to progress it to move around the enemies. Broforce's levels are highly destructible, to the point that shooting walls continuously allows you to tunnel under anything you don't feel like facing. Every character can break away at the walls, although it does goes painfully slower with characters armed with a pistol. This destructibility also has a minor downside, as I ran into several instances that a combined force of four characters can destroy so much of the level that it makes the game into an unintentional platforming challenge, especially when the level suddenly expects you to go vertically to reach the goal. Levels are slightly randomized, so it's understandable that this happens occasionally, but it's still quite a bummer to have to restart after progressing most of the way through a stage.
On that subject, level design might not be the only reason that Broforce requires a restart of progress. Despite being in Early Access for well over a year, there were still a few technical hiccups that plagued my time with the final version of the game. The level select interface when going into the game's arcade mode never showed up for me, even if I could blindly pick a level based on sounds and how long I held down the joystick. In addition, my regular campaign progress was deleted without my input on at least one occasion, even though my progress unlocking characters stayed in place. The game has been getting countless updates, so it's possible this could just be a launch issue, but it's worth mentioning.
Broforce is at its best when you have fifteen foes lined up and an easy way to dispatch them instantly. The combat is fluid and smooth, and the chaos you can cause from a few wayward shotgun blasts is wonderful. Whenever the game slows down, be it for a cute but unnecessary cutscene, a platforming sequence, or a time-consuming puzzle, everything breaks and you're just tapping your foot waiting for the next burst of action. In adding variety to their game, Free Lives have made their concept muddied, and the game is worse off for it. Rambo and The Terminator are not thinking men, and the player embodying these avatars shouldn't really be either.
Thankfully, the game has robust support for Steam Workshop, and many of the levels I played from the almost two thousand available at launch were of the action packed variety. It also seems that workshop levels can be crafted around a specific character rather than the random nature of the main game, which means that each character's strengths and weaknesses can be put on display. Playing as James Bond in the campaign isn't the best since he is armed only with a pistol and an array of special weapons that are thematically correct but hard to use. However, in a custom level I played based around him, all his weapons and traits were put on display, and I appreciated the character way more in that context. Considering the wealth of bros and enemies to play with here, Broforce's user created stages may completely surpass the game's main campaign in the long run.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_loRDrWCv10
Despite many problems and quirks, Broforce is still worth a strong recommendation. The game fights past its shortcomings with sheer force of will, displaying a passion for these characters that makes everything worth it. Watching Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme characters do slightly different kicks that match better with their movies, even as tiny pixellated sprites, that's the kind of attention to detail that makes Broforce what it is. In quick bursts, Broforce is one of the best run 'n gun games to come out this year, and certainly worth your time if you can overlook a few quirks. Much like the movies that it's based on, Broforce excels at getting by on its overwhelming style instead of its substance, and I wouldn't have it any other way.