The historic franchise from Team 17 provides some fun turn-based action on the PSP, yet a “seen it all before” feeling overshadows the experience.
World-building & Story
Battle Islands, like so many entries in this series, is extremely light on story providing only some brief scene-setting before diving straight into the action.
The setup is that you’re a new recruit to a platoon of worms and have to lead your squad to victory over various battles, guided slightly by a seasoned veteran of combat. There’s very little here and it’s mostly framing to allow you to dive straight into the action, which I appreciate, although one day I would like to see what Team 17 could do with a comical story with this setting.
Speaking of setting, Worms does slightly better in this regard. As the title suggests, this game sees a focus on the conflict between a number of islands and these are all themed – as are their inhabitants. This means you’ll be fighting Rambo-esque characters in a jungle setting and Eskimo characters in a freezing tundra. It adds a little character to the design and helps and a layer of depth to the world, which is something I appreciated.
And indeed, to introduce each new area the game treats you to a brief cutscene showing the worms in the setting – for example, a nuclear test bunker – before something invariably goes wrong for them. But really, that’s it – storytelling is sparse and far from the focus in this title.
Presentation & Sound
Presented in Worms‘ signature cartoony 2D style, Battle Islands is a fairly pretty game upon first glance, although closer inspection doesn’t quite hold up to scrutiny.
As a strategy game, there’s obviously a large focus on menus and these are functional, nothing more, with an interface that seems more akin to a PC title rather than a handheld release. Still, it’s easy enough to navigate around and menus are often accompanied by illustrated pictures of worms; weapons or buildings showing what you’re reading about at the time.
Beyond this, the graphics are exactly what you’d expect if you’ve played any other title in the series within the past 20 years. Everything is shown on a 2D plane, except for the aforementioned 3D cartoon cutscenes before each set of levels – these are humorous and fun to watch, it’s just a shame they dont last longer as I would have liked to see more of them.
In battle, you can expect the usual mix of different environmental designs (forests; icy peaks; … nuclear test bunkers) stretching across the land with various landmarks and the titular characters on the top of it all firing ridiculous weapons at each other. The landscapes range from quirky to fairly drab, but feature poor quality texture work and repetitive designs which exposes their initial appeal as being rather unique.
Weapon and character designs fare better, with over-the-top animations helping to inject life into the title. Worms has always built character for itself by having the cast speak in a hilarious pitch and strut around the battleground before pulling massive weapons to blow huge chunks out of the environment – this is all present and correct here, and it’s still amusing to witness. This particular game gives the worms themes based on their setting – in the jungle, they’ll don camo gear for example, which I found to be a nice touch. The weapons themselves are standard for the series at this point, but it’s still exciting to call in a napalm strike on unsuspecting foes and watch the stage burn up from the damage.
Sound, as previously mentioned, features some silly voices from the worms and fitting sound effects in tetms of weapon explosions and environmental destruction, but little more. There’s music here, but it’s background noise at best – neither comical to fit the game’s tone nor tense to add suspense to the battles.
One thing that’s worth mentioning with regards to the game’s presentation is performance – there are some lengthy load times here, but a particular issue seems to be tabbing out during play. If I pressed the PS button to return to Vita’s home screen then returned to the title, I was met with yet another load screen – not something I’ve ever encountered on any other game before. It’s not a deal breaker, but it’s frustrating.
Gameplay & Content
Since Team 17 struck gold with the original Worms way back in the 90’s, they’ve done very little to change the formula since – although they have refined it. Battle Islands features a number if quality of life changes that make it enjoyable, but ultimately this is a title that will be doing things you’ve seen before.
After being taken through some brief tutorials upon starting the game, you’re given a number of different game modes to choose. There’s a campaign; challenges and online – although sadly the latter has shut down due to being tied to Gamespy servers, which locks out a large amount of the game’s content due to it’s heavy focus on multiplayer.
Still, there’s plenty of single player content here as you’ll discover when you enter the campaign. The first major change to the series is that – before any battle has begun – you’re given the ability to gain an immediate advantage over the enemy through various technologies you can unlock. These vary from being able to recon the landscape to see enemy positions to actively stealing weapons from them, the catch being that anything you can do to the opposition – they can do to you. This adds a nice extra tactical layer to an already strategic game, although often just degrades to spamming as many abilities as you can within the arbitrary time limit.
Once this is over, it’s into the combat. Worms is a turn-based strategy game played on a 2D field – players get a time limit to move around the zone, choose a weapon and attack before it switches to the enemy, rinse and repeat. The series’ patented environmental destruction is here, allowing you to deform the landscape by blowing huge chunks out of it with each shot; as well as plenty of environmental hazards such as mines and water. Very much in the vein of a tactical RPG with a twist, it’s a tested formula that works well and allows for some very tactical play, although in my opinion there are some glaring issues with the way Battle Island is handled.
For starters – movement. It is fairly easy to get around the battleground, aided by things like parachutes and jetpacks, but for some bizarre reason the developers decided to make jumping a chore. A rather handy backflip exists, but this is activated by pushing the normal jump button twice – leading to many frustrating falls when you’ll mean to leap forward twice in quick succession. It’s an inelegant solution to PSP’s lack of buttons – surely a better solution was available.
Similar, using the arsenal of weapons available to you takes some serious dedication. Your bread-and-butter is the bazooka, a rocket launcher that fires with a trajectory and is affected by external things like wind. While wind direction is shown on screen, the arc of your shot isn’t, meaning it’ll take a lot of trial and error until you’re able to get used to the system and successfully land shots – and even then, at best I was still unreliable at hitting targets. I’m sure much of this comes down to practice, but this doesn’t make Worms a very friendly “play now and again” game when the AI is capable of landing exact shots every time.
That’s not to say the game is overly difficult – I found myself restarting often, but the levels are always conquerable even with the odds stacked against you. If anything the campaign levels play sort of like puzzles, as you have to figure out how to take out the maximum number of foes before they whittle your squad away to nothing. Indeed, once you get a flow going in a level and learn the right angles and weapons to use, the game can be rewarding – it’s just often a frustrating ride to get there.
And at its core, Battle Islands is a fun game. There’s something endearing about the titular characters hurling insults and crazy weapons at each other other (weaponry in particular remains a highlight for the series) that kept me coming back to its title, despite its flaws; but it’s not something I could wholeheartedly recommend to newcomers either.
In terms of what’s actually here, as previously mentioned there is a large focus on online gameplay, meaning a lot of what was available is locked out. Still, the campaign will take a while to complete, plus there are various challenges to undertake as well as a skirmish mode where you can generate your own maps and the ability to create your own weapons too. If you like what’s here, there’s certainly enough of it to keep you occupied.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with Worms: Battle Islands on the PSP. It’s a competent entry in the franchise with plenty of content and some fun gameplay, alongside some nice new touches. Yet a series of little annoyances drag the experience down – it’s definitely worth a try for the price, but it’s not the kind of game that’s going to blow your mind.