Review: Seattle studio Tribetoy brings its space pirate reality show out of VR with ‘Bow to Blood’

Bow to Blood: Last Captain Standing isn’t perfect, but at least it’s really weird. It’s the sophomore release from the Seattle-based studio Tribetoy, and feels as if it was made through some combination of inspired lunacy and pulling random genre buzzwords out of a hat.

It’s a first-person naval-warfare-styled shooter where you play as a competitor in a space-future reality show, up against a quirky array of space pirate captains in a series of procedurally-generated challenges, where you can build alliances and rivalries with your competitors as you go.

On its initial launch last year, Bow to Blood was an exclusive for PlayStation VR, and has now been re-released on other platforms, including a non-VR edition on Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and Steam.

The transition from VR hasn’t been smooth, but it remains a unique, challenging shooter with a lot of style, some good music, and a general feel that isn’t quite like anything else on the market. If you can get over a few strange control decisions and its high initial learning curve, you can get some fun out of it.

Tribetoy’s previous project was Chu’s Dynasty, a 2010 indie fighting game on Xbox Live Arcade. The company was co-founded by Matthew Hosterey, former design director at Microsoft, and Tara Rueping, art director at Wizards of the Coast. The staff also includes Jeff Isselee of Linden Labs, the Seattle-based studio behind Second Life.

Like a lot of virtual reality games, Bow to Blood puts you in the role of a largely silent cipher, surrounded by a big cast of talkative non-player characters. Here, you’re the Freelancer, a newcomer and wildcard to the Arena, home of a competition hosted by the alien Overseers.

You never leave first-person, naturally, and you do all your fighting from the top deck of a ship, using front-facing lasers, side-facing cannon batteries, or one of several more limited weapons, such as nova bombs or homing missiles. It’s got the general feel of a naval warfare game, with ponderously slow movement that occasionally gives way to moments of frantic, destructive combat. Even when you aren’t playing in VR, Bow to Blood takes full advantage of its environment, so enemies can rise up out of the mists below you, drop down from above, or hit you from any direction.

You have two crew members on your ship at first, who you can station at will at one of five seats aboard the ship, adding functionality to your shields, engines, or sensors, or letting you dispatch smart drones to disable enemy ships. In practice, you’ll almost always want someone on the forward weapons turret, which lets them target and destroy enemies in front of you, often before you know they’re there.

In each round of the contest, you’re initially sent into one of two open arenas, to collect as many points as possible along the way to finding the specific warp key that will let you leave. You’ll run into any number of randomly-generated challenges, such as marooned competitors, ambush points, or hidden treasure, any of which can be worth a few extra points for your final total. Once you do warp out, you’re thrown into a second round alongside one of your rival captains, to see who can deliver the final blow to a tough new opponent.

Your points get totaled up at the end of the second bout, along with a hefty bonus for anyone who managed to survive to the end, and the lowest-scoring ships get voted out of the competition “Survivor”-style. The winner is, as the game’s subtitle suggests, the last ship in the Arena.

The opening minutes of Bow to Blood, it should be said, are the weakest part of the game. Even after its lengthy tutorial mission, you’re thrown into the deep end. There’s a lot you have to juggle at once, particularly since your ship handles like a naval vessel, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Early on, it feels like you decided to take on a space fleet in a shopping cart.

You can take a lot of punishment before your shields drop, and they come back up quickly if you’ve got a crew member watching that system, but enemies can come at you from any direction, and occasionally out of nowhere.

You can’t repair hull damage at all while you’re in the field, and any attack that hits you while your shields are down can strip off a surprising amount of your ship’s durability at once. You can sometimes limp through regardless, but Bow to Blood is a game that harshly punishes any early mistakes.

Granted, you don’t really get anything for finishing a round of the competition in good condition. The game seems to be balanced around the fact that you’ll usually limp to the finish line with your ship on fire. It’s testing a different set of skills than the usual VR “bullet hell” shooter does, and the sooner you realize that, the better off you’ll be. You have to focus on using your movement to best advantage, despite how slow it feels, while using your crewmembers, available weapons, and local terrain on the fly to minimize your incoming damage.

Once I got through that initial process of adjustment, the game started to grow on me. It helps that once you’re past the first bout, the character rivalry mechanic starts to kick in, where you can deliberately pursue or avoid making connections with the other competitors. Every incidental decision tends to come with a bit of influence gain or loss with every other captain in the Arena, which can result in advantages, alliances, blackmail attempts, and under-the-table deals. I made a deal with one of them right before the last boss fight, to split the 2,000-point bounty with him regardless of who actually won the challenge, and promptly ended up trailing him by 1,000 points for the next five matches.

I’m generally positive on the game, but I will say that Bow to Blood has a few problems, at least in its non-VR PC edition. A lot of the control elements work poorly if at all with a mouse rather than a controller, particularly the circular menu you use to reassign your crewmembers. It works, but not quickly or efficiently, which is problematic when you need to swap someone into a specific seat in the heat of a fight.

There are a lot of individual parts of Bow to Blood that have some of the typical limitations of modern VR games, like its over-reliance on chatty NPCs to give itself some personality. Your two starting crewmembers in particular could use a few more go-to combat lines between them, as you’ll be pretty sick of them both by the time you get to day three of the first season.

Compared to a lot of VR games I’ve played lately, however, a lot of which feel like tech demos or throwbacks to the ‘90s, Bow to Blood has some depth and charm behind it. The relationship building, the relative complexity of the combat, and the weird game show setting all combine to make something new and interesting.