Trigger warning: it’s never my goal heading into a review to mercilessly rip something to shreds, but sadly for Bubsy, it’s the only thing I can do for The Woolies Strike Back.
Like a thief in the night, Bubsy reappeared into the gaming world in 2017 after being absent from everyone’s minds. In fact, his last attempt to capture gamers in 1996’s Bubsy 3D sent the bobcat into exile—tail tucked firmly between his legs. Which is why his random return in Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back not only felt like a sad excuse to resurrect a cat who’s clearly lost more than nine lives but also a premature failure to rejoin a competitive world of impressive platformers. Why now? Why this cat?
Returning publisher Accolade and developer Black Forest Games definitely acted as if they had something to contribute to the genre. The early marketing material attempted to make Sonic the Hedgehog look like a sentient pile of diarrhea, but once I was able to play the game, I was left just utterly confused. Playing The Woolies Strike Back is one of those experiences I can only liken to being kidnapped by someone who rips you from your home, immediately drives you to a police station, turns themselves in, gets arrested, but still sits behind bars and laughs maniacally, as if they believe they’ve still won. It leaves you stunned and dumbfounded about why someone would go to all of that trouble to shake up your life for nothing. Poor thing, they really have a problem. Maybe I can help? No. Eventually, you snap out of it and remember your life has been disrupted and it’s time to make them pay the price.
First and foremost, Bubsy’s latest entry throws the player into the game with little explanation. There is a short cinematic that plays before the title screen to explain that Bubsy had a golden spool of yarn stolen from him by aliens, and now he must traverse three lands to get it back, and that’s about it. In defense of the game, I don’t think story is something to harshly criticize for a platformer, but thankfully, there’s a lot more The Woolies Strikes Back offers that I can put on trial.
Starting simply, the game has an absolute dearth of content. There are only 13 stages in the game, with one being a tutorial level and three acting as simple boss fights. In all, a player could easily beat the game in under two hours. Sure, there are reasons to return to levels, which include collecting every Bubsy shirt, wool vault, and beating the level without dying, but there’s no reward for punishing yourself like that. It became increasingly clear to me that completing the game’s supposed checklist meant absolutely nothing for progression or even sheer enjoyment. This got even worse once I realized collecting the sometimes 700 spools of yarn thrown around a level just contributed to a point system that appears on an online leaderboard. In case you wanted to let anyone know how empty your life is, Black Forest Games has you covered.
Another curious aspect of the level completion was a password given to the player to unlock the next level. The password reward system is so pointless it’s almost impossible to explain why it even exists. Once I beat a level, just let me enter the next one. Why this extra step?
When it comes to the core gameplay within the levels of The Woolies Strike Back, Bubsy himself doesn’t fare much better. There are a few skills at his disposal to traverse the game’s 2.5D sidescrolling levels. Players can run, glide, dash, and most importantly, jump through various obstacles with the strange bobcat. I can applaud a game for sticking to simple controls that require the player to strategically navigate well-made platforming areas, but that didn’t happen here. As far as Bubsy’s movement with the d-pad, it’s actually pretty solid, meaning he doesn’t have any issues with walking or running, like sliding around with the slightest movement that can happen in some platformers. However, that’s about as much control as I felt trying to navigate the pretty lackluster level design.
Bubsy’s charge attack, for example, sends him flying forward to hurt enemies and break blocks, but the movement is done in an arc. Instead of having the control of knowing where Bubsy will land after charging, he often flies over his intended target to mistakenly get hurt by an enemy or fall down a hole. In turn, this makes the charge move the wrong choice to take out the alien enemies wandering the levels, leaving a jump-stomp combo attack as the main means. The only problem with jumping on an enemy’s head is the developers designed the Woolies to be the skinniest creatures to ever grace a video game. It’s as if the hit window on the Woolies’ heads is the size of one pixel because most of the time Bubsy will land on their head but will be hurt himself instead. When the game also only offers one hit before dying, or two if he has on a consumable black shirt, the poor hit detection becomes another frustratingly apparent flaw.
Let’s get to what might matter most though, and that’s the jumping. Mario, Sonic, Mega Man, and even more recent heroes like Shovel Knight, have been successful because they do a great job with what platformers need to do a great job with: jump. Bubsy takes the exclamation mark on his shirt too seriously and immediately makes it clear to be cautious when controlling him. Countless times I would jump straight up into the air and expect the same thing to happen every time, but no, it doesn’t. Bubsy is a rebel and likes to do his own thing. Jumping and moving on the d-pad can either make Bubsy move at an appropriate speed in the intended direction or gain the speed of a scared, blind cheetah. The unresponsive and untrustworthy jump mechanic is the most rage-inducing part of the game, so most of the playthrough I stuck to using his glide ability to traverse most pits. Actually, the glide provides a small jump before the flying aspect begins, so it works well as an alternative, but why this cat can fly I don’t know.
The design dressing around Bubsy’s broken movements doesn’t help bolster the playing experience to a passable level either. Within the 13 stages are three “areas” that all ultimately look the same, just with slight differences in the dynamic backgrounds. Apart from backgrounds that say, “Hey! This is outside!” and “Guess what? Now you’re in space!” it’s hard to tell the difference from one level to the next. The different types of land to move on are all pretty much just rocks with grass sprinkled on top, most of which are surrounded by unending borders that make the levels feel empty.
What feels even more soulless is Bubsy himself, who has been touted as a wise-cracking joke machine. When moving around, Bubsy looks like a demon-possessed blow-up doll a majority of the time, with questionably wide eyes on an expressionless face. The cat does throw out quips, but they’re hard to audibly understand most of the time, and never funny when you do. Mix that with the royalty free-inspired soundtrack and The Woolies Strike Back has the uncanny ability to be on par with McDonald’s Treasure Land Adventure for the Sega Genesis.
By the time I made it through the entire adventure and realized I was watching the end credits screen, I was equally upset and relieved to be done. It would be difficult to argue that the frustration comes from seeing wasted potential in Bubsy’s return, but in an age of games like Shovel Knight and Cuphead, new platformers need to come in swinging and I hoped Bubsy would do that. Sadly, from the anger-laden controls to the lack of creative spark in the level design, even as a $30 budget title, Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back is just another stain on the Bubsy name.
What looks like a harmless return to the Bubsy franchise quickly becomes a clear lesson in laziness. Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back takes no time to show how little effort was put into a simple platformer. From the controls to the overall spirit of the game, it’s hard to recommend anyone try it out, even at its “low” price.
Black Forest Games
E – Everyone
|Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back is available on PlayStation 4 and PC. Primary version played was for PS4. Product was provided by Accolade for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.