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After the slow-paced, thoughtful Star Trek: Judgment Rites, I decided I wanted to play something more action-packed. So I went all out with Broforce, by Free Lives. After all, sometimes you just need a game that’s full of explosions. Broforce is an action platformer homage to 1980s Hollywood action films, and underneath its cacophany of gunfire, airstrikes, and ballooning body count, it’s actually a very smart design.

I admit that the theme made me a bit uncomfortable. Broforce is over the top in its American jingoism, full of star spangled banners, bald eagles, and broad-chested generals muttering about freedom. Enough so that it’s clearly satire, although without much bite. And yet the player still selects levels to play by flying a helicopter over to predominantly East Asian countries with barely disguised names (the first is “Veetman”) before proceeding to kill faceless masked “terrorists”. While it could be read as an indictment of U.S. foreign policy in recent decades — a legacy that has only been brought into sharper relief by current events — it could just as easily be seen as culturally insensitive, to put it mildly. I suspect the developers at Free Lives intended the former, but as with the rest of the game, the satire is light enough that it comes off as mocking the silliness of 1980s action films rather than the very real actions of a global superpower. To be fair to Broforce, however, it does veer in some unexpected directions later in the campaign, and by the end there’s little ambiguity about what the earlier sections represent.

Theme aside, Broforce is great fun to play thanks to two central design ideas. The first is the large roster of playable characters, the titular bros. A reference to American “bro” culture, which typically refers to young, straight white men united through macho pursuits such as sports, fraternities, partying, lifting weights, or some combination of the above, Broforce’s bros lean more towards the muscular gym-head end of the spectrum. Each is a reference to an action film character or star, with names modified to include “bro” in some fashion. For example, players start the game with Rambro, but later gain access to The Brominator, Bro Hard, and Indiana Brones, among others. There are thirty-five bros in all, gradually unlocked when players rescue enough prisoners in the game, and each plays differently. Primary weapons run the gamut from rapid-firing machine guns to slow but powerful explosives to melee weapons and everything in between, and each bro also has a limited-use special attack that really sets them apart. These are impressively imaginative, going far beyond Rambro’s simple hand grenades in directions I don’t want to spoil. Add in the fact that bros can differ in their movement speeds, jump heights, and even their backup melee attacks, and the Free Lives team manages to make every bro feel distinct and cater to a different play style. Despite the “bro” name, there are a few female characters, although they are vastly outnumbered by the male cast. That’s a little disappointing, but it perhaps reflects the gender disparity in action films more than anything. I don’t know if Free Lives intend on adding any more bros at this stage, but it would be nice to see some more female characters, even if it means drawing from some lesser known cultural touchstones.

The real genius of the character roster, however, is the way players keep switching to new bros. On any given level, players start with a randomly selected bro out of those unlocked so far, and if they’re taken out, it’s game over and the level must be restarted from scratch. Any prisoners rescued act as extra lives for the level, letting players restart from the last checkpoint rather than the beginning.
But rescuing a prisoner also forces a switch to a different, random bro. Sometimes that bro may be ill equipped to handle the current opposition, so it’s crucial to plan exactly when to go for prisoners. Skipping them means forgoing an extra life, and since cumulative rescues make progress towards unlocking new bros, players are heavily incentivized to rescue as many as possible. This curtails any tendency to simply stick to a favorite bro, and forces players to adapt to new play styles. Even bros who initially seem difficult reveal themselves to be useful with the appropriate strategies, and the constant switching forces players to learn these and embrace the whole roster. The varied team is the whole point, and the mechanics for rescuing prisoners reinforce this perfectly.

Playing with and collecting these characters is already fun, but what really makes Broforce work is its other great idea: the destructible terrain. Levels are constructed out of blocks, nearly all of which can be destroyed if they take enough damage from weapons or explosions. This leads to glorious chain reactions of chaos, where a destroyed block there drops an explosive barrel down onto that pack of enemies, the explosion hurls them in all directions, and then the bombs strapped to the suicide troops go off, igniting that propane tank which rockets across that pit and explodes, setting off some more explosive barrels which blow up that bridge and drop everyone on it to their deaths, and so on. Triggering these is always a joy, and Broforce revels in asking players to manage the pandemonium.
Somehow, despite all of this destruction, I never found myself unable to navigate a level. Every bro can climb walls, which helps, but the real trick is that the ladders that pepper levels are never destroyed, so even when everything else is gone bros can still get to the end with careful maneuvering. This is evidence of masterful level design from Free Lives.

I was also consistently impressed with the difficulty progression in Broforce. Early levels are simple and reward straighforward blasting and cathartic mayhem, but soon I faced foes who were difficult to attack directly. Instead, the level design cleverly guided me towards destroying the terrain around them instead, which is safer and more effective. I was trained to appraise my surroundings and determine how best to set off those chain reactions to destroy my enemies without endangering my own bro. Such tactics are essential in later levels, when things get unexpectedly difficult and I had to be really careful to keep my bros alive. A single hit is all it takes to kill a bro, and the overwhelming opposition of later levels meant I abandoned any thought of barging in guns blazing, and instead relied on calculated tactical assaults.

I should mention that Broforce also features cooperative play with up to three friends, and makes this quite clear from the start. I only tried playing coop once, a while back on a friend’s Playstation, when I didn’t know what I was doing. It’s not fair to compare that experience to my lengthy solo play with the game now, but I can at least say that I never felt I needed a coop partner (or several!) in order to succeed. In fact, I wonder if coop play might actually be harder. It’s already easy to cause enough turmoil that one’s bro is lost in the chaos, and with more players I’d imagine this would only multiply, although the ability to resurrect fallen allies would mitigate that somewhat. Regardless, Broforce is not a game that only works in coop, so solo players have nothing to fear.

When I finished Broforce’s campaign I hadn’t quite unlocked every bro, so I decided to try the Hard mode while I continued to rescue prisoners. On Hard, Broforce changes once again. The once lethargic enemy soldiers are now much quicker to fire whenever they spot a bro, making frontal attacks suicide. I started to play Broforce like a stealth game, figuring out how to get the drop on enemies to tip the odds in my favor. Surprise attacks, limiting firefights to close quarters areas, and setting off explosions to demolish sections of levels were key to success. I had to get creative and use each bro’s specific abilities to their fullest, especially when things went wrong and I found a whole pack of enemies gunning for me. When I unlocked the final bro midway through the campaign, I surprised myself by soldiering on, even though I’d seen it already on the Normal difficulty setting. By that point, I’d gotten so much better at Broforce that I relished the challenge, which would have seemed unbearably frustrating if I’d tried it from the start.

There’s one more mode that I almost didn’t try: Ironbro mode. It sounded like a permadeath setting which didn’t particularly appeal, but then I read online about how it actually works. Players start the campaign with a single bro randomly chosen from their roster. Each time they rescue a prisoner (who now appear far less often) they get a new bro added to the squad, but each time one dies, they die for good. Players start each new level with an extra life for each bro on their squad, instead of a single life like the regular campaign modes. If all the bros die, the campaign ends and players must start again from the beginning. I tried it out and I really like it. It addresses one of my main issues with the standard campaign, which is that it’s hard to become familiar with the bros unlocked towards the end because they’re joining such a large roster. These are some of the most difficult to learn to play effectively, but by the time they’re available players have already completed most (or all) of the campaign and the odds of them appearing is small. In contrast, the first few bros are played nearly constantly for the early parts of the game. In Ironbro mode, you might start with one of these latter-campaign bros, who will show up often in your small squad.

It’s tempting to say that Ironbro mode is borrowing the permadeath idea from roguelikes, since they’re so much in vogue right now (although I was writing a lot about roguelikes on this blog before they were cool), but that’s actually a poor comparison. Since the levels are hand made rather than procedurally generated, with only small details changing each time, the experience is more about learning level layouts and safe, smart ways to approach them. What it feels like instead is a classic arcade game, where players have a limited set of lives and face a stiff and steadily increasing challenge, with little chance of making it all the way. Where arcade games would allow players to continue after failure by adding more coins or tokens, however, Broforce’s Ironbro mode does not. It can be crushing to lose to a stupid mistake after making a lot of progress, but I always found it hard to resist the urge to try again. Repeating early levels does get a little stale, but the different bros in a squad help alleviate this to some extent. My main criticism of this mode is that the bros who are more complex to use effectively tend to die off, leaving the simpler ones to do most of the dirty work. Oh, and as the game itself warns, trying Ironbro mode on Hard difficulty is not recommended and may not even be possible to win. Stick to Normal if you want to play Ironbro.

There are a few more criticisms I could level at Broforce in general, mostly around unclear mechanics. For example, in my entire first campaign I did not know that I could make my bros run faster (and, crucially, jump farther) by double-tapping a movement direction. This is explained in one of the special “covert missions” which star a specific bro (or subset of bros), but since that bro wasn’t unlocked yet in my first campaign, the covert mission in question never appeared (I found it later when I played the campaign again on Hard difficulty). Also, these covert missions are needed to get a 100% completion listing, which confused me because I couldn’t understand what I’d missed. The problem may lie in balancing how quickly bros are unlocked; rescued prisoners count even if players fail missions, so repeated failures often means unlocking bros earlier in the campaign, whereas players who are uncommonly successful may find themselves finishing with an even smaller set of bros than I had. There are also unexplained quirks to certain bros that make them much more effective. The Brodator, for example, seemed like a decent bro, but I only later learned that he can charge up his attacks (an ability some other bros share as well) to hurl his harpoon a longer distance and pierce multiple enemies. That makes him much more useful, and he quickly became one of my favorite bros. Other special abilities are hidden away in the seldom-used melee attack. General advice: if a bro’s main attack is a melee attack instead of a projectile, check to see what their melee attack button does. Sometimes it’s something unexpected and powerful. Some more general advice: even the standard backup melee attacks are actually quite useful, so don’t ignore them for most of the game like I did.

I also want to mention that, while the exaggerated action movie theme and over the top posturing are straightforward gags, Broforce is genuinely funny at times. The enemies can be a hoot, as the latest cascade of explosions sends them running around wildly, arms flailing. My favorite enemy is the guy with binoculars who stands around keeping watch. If he spots a bro, he starts running around yelling “Broforce!” over and over again in a silly voice, alerting everyone to your presence. And the Saturday morning cartoon style animations grew on me. They mostly appear as hero shots to introduce each new bro (or a new boss enemy), but later in the campaign they pop up at certain story moments and are actually pretty funny. Especially the ending for Hard mode. The announcer / narrator, however, is the best. He screams from the bowels of his lungs in tried and true death metal fashion, announcing each new unlocked bro with such excitement that it’s hard not to smile. And I loved the small details to his outbursts. While he tends to scream the same few generic lines at the start of a mission — “GO GO GO!”, “LET’S GO!”, etc. — his lines change when players are having trouble with a mission and restarting a lot. “YOU CAN DO IT!” he screams with admirable conviction. “ONE MORE TIME!” It sounds silly, but he really did alleviate some of my frustration in the game’s toughest moments.

And so, despite my misgivings about Broforce’s theme, in the end I found its gung-ho attitude genuinely uplifting. Broforce presented a challenge, trained me to get better and better, to approach it in different ways, to experiment and be creative, and cheered me on as I gradually managed to best it. Sometimes that’s exactly what one needs. Maybe that’s the true theme of Broforce: overcoming adversity through perisistence and positivity. And, of course, the catharsis of overcoming said adversity through ridiculous, glorious destruction. Come on, bro! YOU CAN DO IT!

I got Broforce DRM-free from the Humble Store, but it’s also available from Steam, as well as on Playstation 4 and Nintendo Switch.