Cannon Brawl Review: Bombs, Bang, Boom
At first sight, Cannon Brawl’s vivid semblance to Worms mars the budding brand. While both franchises emphasize terrain deformation on a cheeky scale, watching Worms newcomers bristle with rage – just trying to wrap their heads around the archaic controls – forms a stagnant reminder that the series has scorned change for 19 years and counting. When undermining execution, obtuse button configurations are not indicative of a game’s charm, like a boxer would never say taking jabs and hooks to the face is part of boxing’s charm.
It takes mere moments on the analog sticks or arrow keys, however, to deduce what makes Turtle Sandbox’s debut special. Cannon Brawl is a real-time strategy title, yet you only command one unit. It has the trappings of a tower defense game, too, but you engage turrets manually. Cannon Brawl’s 2D squabbles look similar to Worms, though you never sit through someone else's turn waiting to call in airstrikes. The developers upset so many genre fundamentals that Cannon Brawl carves out an extraordinary niche in a crowded indie market.
The story may seem generic in a broad sense, telling of a royal family’s feud for an unnamed kingdom. Nevertheless, it institutes fresh mechanics at an accessible pace. When a princess hears of her father’s defeat from his power-hungry brother, she takes to the skies in an airship to quell her maniacal uncle’s reign. Already hitting the zany notes, I see. The steampunk zeppelins are the champion equivalents from typical MOBAs, responsible for every action you conduct and outfitted with unique abilities (more on them shortly).
Cannon Brawl’s RTS parallels reveal themselves in no time. Victory goes to the combatant that destroys the enemy fort on the opposite side of the map, though the structures do not fall by chance. Battles require pre-planning, active thinking, and rapid responses. Gold deposits pepper the field; dropping a mining camp on top of them amplifies one's income, except players cannot place cannons outside their spheres of influence. Territory balloons expand the blue aura designating where you may and may not build.
The biggest of Cannon Brawl’s faults (and we're still talking minor): conflicts commence in a uniform fashion, with the player and computer rushing to secure a geographic foothold and establish their economies. What happens after those initial minutes, however, fades to skill. As with balloons and mines, docking at your base lets you buy turrets, and every emplacement must be transported into position. Further, you manipulate towers. You choose a cannon turret’s trajectory, you determine the angle at which the shield tower projects a light screen.
Contrary to RTS random number generators, Cannon Brawl allows a player agency in his or her accomplishments. Match-winning shots that toss your rival’s HQ into the briny ocean are your doing. Congratulations! Turtle Sandbox even eschews old-fangled assembly queues, and all artillery operates on a cooldown, so the simpler joys of Cannon Brawl derive from managing build orders while assaulting the rebel castle. Returning to base to purchase an additional turret could give you the edge in firepower, though the enemy might set up a protective shield during those critical seconds.
Building on the responsibility, the pilot you navigate on the battlefield is your decision. The princess lowers the cooldowns of her towers, the minion deal an extra 50 percent damage to terrain, and so on. One airship is not guaranteed automatic triumph, but choosing the prince for his passive healing, for example, might align with more defense-oriented players. Containing 10 heroes at launch, Turtle Sandbox insists one character, at least, will suit everyone's style.
The same thinking applies to the artillery. Advancing through the campaign, you pick up new ordnance to wage war with. Freeze turrets halt the activity of offending towers, locking them in a catatonic state. Missiles separate before impact, sapping health from multiple fortifications. Lasers bore through earth, a potent method for knocking guns off floating islands. The nuke decimates individual edifices and wreaks irreparable harm on antagonist strongholds, even if it takes time to fire.
Each armament can be upgraded to devastating effect, but players can only equip five unit types, no more. Do you opt for the cooldown-reducing accelerator, letting towers bombard targets sooner? Do you select the repair beam, praying it replenishes health faster than what attacking towers dish out. Cannon Brawl builds a foundation on this solid "pick five" system. I lost several matches because I sprung for drills over flame throwers, or when bombs would have netted me the win instead of missiles. Cannon Brawl regularly sent me back to the drawing board, my head full of "what if" scenarios, yearning to test unusual strategies.
It is worth noting, the months spent in Steam Early Access did Cannon Brawl considerable favors. Every weapon has a counter. Shield reflect lasers but cannot stop walking bombs. Banks corrupt other buildings, buying out (i.e. stealing) an opponent’s artillery and making it yours, upgrades included. Lasers and rockets will detonate the nuke before it reaches a valuable structure, and mountain makers, which create hovering landmasses, lose that ground to drills.
The bosses shake things up intermittently, stemming the tides of tedium that have plagued Worms for decades. I had to pinpoint my shots once a battleship went airborne, becoming a massive sky fortress that lanced my exposed towers . In another fight, I elected for an offensive push when an imposing robot started pounding my defenses with its fists. It pays to be proactive rather than reactive sometimes. The core story is hardly a challenge, yet it grades your mission time and actions per minutes. Yes, APMs. Working towards objectives administers credits for rarer units in the armory, like mining camps that mend nearby structures.
Puzzle maps yield money, too, so long as you survive a missile barrage in the vein of Missile Command, or destroy a fort in a certain amount of shots. Though most trials have one solution, they become obvious after a little experimentation. With a clean grasp of the game’s physics, I beat each puzzle without aid, and that is no greater feeling. Well ... besides defeating Nightmare mode. Nightmare mode reuses campaign maps, but the surge in difficulty leads to overly aggressive opponents, who receive pre-placed turrets. Was it pain or pride burning in my fingers upon conquering a level? The latter, I hope.
In the multiplayer space, Cannon Brawl supports online or local struggles, where your prowess really comes into play. Battling people who also choose their starting turrets leads to frenetic match-ups. One of my opponent erected a formidable barricade. Her freeze, shield, and repair towers countered attacks while her banks slowly brainwashed my artillery. Another rival dumped all of his cash into laser beams, unlocking their third and final forms and employing several accelerators to reduce their cooldowns to a couple seconds. Clinging to victory by a thread, watching someone abuses your tactical errors, creates tension unheard of in Worms.
Cannon Brawl melds the RTS and tower defense genres into a narcotic blend whose sum – in this age of derivation – overshadows its parts. The gameplay hooks sink in early, and they sink in deep. With such tasty bait, the hardest part of Cannon Brawl is putting the controller down for a break ... but just for a few minutes.