Review: Cruel Bands Career (Nintendo Switch)

9 mins read

Review by Harvard L.

Over the past few years of Switch ownership I’ve become a kind of a connoisseur of “bewildering” games – games which I enjoy not to play for myself, but to witness the abject confusion and frustration in the eyes of someone else playing it. The easily portable and sharable nature of the Switch has made it perfect for these kinds of games, and it’s an experience which you would rarely get with any other platform. So that impulse was what drew me into Cruel Bands Career – it’s got a simplistic art style reminiscent of Kuukiyomi: Consider It! and Gunma’s Ambition: You and Me are Gunma (two hilarious games to bewilder people with) so I was expecting something just as strange. And while Cruel Bands Career is indeed quite strange, it’s not the jovial, prank-like game that I hoped I was getting into.

You see, Cruel Bands Career is a cruel game. I don’t just mean that as a joke or anything; you feel the cruelty through the controller, through the mechanics.

It’s hard to describe how this game plays; the screenshots don’t do a great job of truly expressing how cruel this game gets. It’s something like a tower-defence-cross-puzzle game – you play as a band with three members, each of which has their own individual health bar. Crowd members approach from three lanes, and when they reach a band member on the left side an effect happens. Some are enemies which will hurt your health-bar, some are “friends” who will heal some health but make the other bandmates so jealous that they lose health. Others inflict status conditions which muddle up the way your characters take or heal damage, to make the game even more confusing.

But unlike a tower defence game, you have no weapons or anything to defend yourself from the enemies. No, the entire game is about letting your enemies hit you. If an individual band member runs out of health, you lose and need to restart the level. But there’s no way to avoid band members getting hit; so the only way to succeed is to rotate your band members around, even out the damage, and prevent any one individual member from dying. Characters have special abilities which do things like eliminate enemies or scatter the field with bonuses, but those abilities need to charge up after receiving five enemies: these are mitigation more than they are any offensive option. The core mechanic of Cruel Bands Career is balancing various sources of incoming, inevitable suffering.

It feels like juggling a hot potato, a sea urchin and a 10kg dumbbell. Not only does each of them hurt you in a minor way, each of them has a slightly different way of hurting you. Your brain is constantly forced to adapt to minor setbacks, and the moments of reprieve are tainted with the knowledge that you’re going to need to clasp your aching fingers around something hot or spiky or heavy once again.

If you’re the kind of person who, when being told that a game is about to hurt you, yells “bring it on”, then Cruel Bands Career might just be for you. It should go without saying that this game is not fun. Usually I’d be all for defending the right of a game to not be pure enjoyment: Kuukiyomi, No Thing and Not Not, which are all curios which I’d compare Cruel Bands Career to, are also decidedly not fun. But Cruel Bands Career takes it a step forward, by actively making the mechanics feel obtuse, confusing and abrasive. There’s not really an underlying thematic point here (except that maybe being in a band sucks) so I’m reluctant to say this design is purposeful. It genuinely just seems awful for the sake of being awful.

What I do like, perhaps just due to it being the least painful part of it, is the inventively surreal artwork which forms the game’s levels. Enemies are grotesque caricatures of various pop culture footnotes: harmful enemies look like zombies, “friendly” enemies are wind-up dolls, facial expressions and gestures are lovingly animated and might elicit a wry chuckle in between your sobs. I particularly liked the visual complexity of the boss monsters; at the end of every few stages there’s a giant enemy which takes up the right side of the screen and warps the level into a unique puzzle requiring its own careful strategy. The inventiveness of these levels pushed me forward to see what else the game had up its sleeve. But that being said, these illustrations too are grotesque, and play into natural fears and revulsions that people tend to have, like brains or spiders.

The music is also quite a bop, too. I did hate how they used the same song for multiple levels, especially since the player is going to be repeating the early ones a lot as they try to handle the game’s twisted logic. The music strikes the balance of being bouncy yet grating, jolly and mischievous. It sounds exactly like what would go through my head during a slow descent into madness. But in a fun way.

For those who decide to stick it out, the game does have its merciful moments. Across levels players can earn coins to buy slightly upgraded effects which randomly appear within the level. It’s something like rogue-lite progression. Although the benefits are small, any relent of cruelty the game has to offer is a welcome change, and these are crucial for the player to advance to the later levels within the game’s six stages.

It’s hard to review Cruel Bands Career without conflating the design’s very intentional dreadfulness with judgements of the game’s quality. It’s clear from just a few moments of play that this game wants to make the player feel bad. That’s the whole schtick. And it is wholly successful in doing so – it’s a fascinating case study for emotionally resonant mechanics and non-traditional game design. And while it’s interesting, it doesn’t have a whole lot to say beyond its cruel exterior. It’s not particularly insightful or rewarding. It’s just a mean-spirited joke at the expense of the player. And even if the joke is well crafted, you’ve got to ask yourself if you really want to be on the receiving end of it.

– Harvard L.

This is the bio under which all legacy articles are published (as in the 12,000-odd, before we moved to the new Website and platform). This is not a member of the DDNet Team. Please see the article's text for byline attribution.

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