Finding the right balance for a multiplayer experience is always a challenge for developers. How much emphasis do you place on teamwork? Should you give players the space to operate independently of one another? Teamwork and ‘free-for-all’ methodologies don’t often mix well, but for the studio behind Killer Queen Black, the challenge was finding a formula that brought play styles together without one alientating the other. The solution? Offer more than one way to win…
First launched as an arcade-focused cabinet experience way back in 2013, the original Killer Queen removed the restriction of a single end goal, instead opting for three distinct ways to claim victory. You can go down the Military route (kill the enemy Queen three times), employ an Economic tactic (collect berries and fill all the holes in your own hive) or place your future in the hands of a Snail (yes, a snail, and you’ll need to ride it through your own gate to win). All three of these victory types can end a round, and the first team to three wins is declared the victor.
When a match begins, one player is randomly assigned the role of Queen, while the rest are spawned as Drones. Queens are faster than any other type, and can strike at lightning speed. But those strikes make them unyielding, and it’s all too easy to be caught off guard and killed with a single hit. However, Drones have the power to transform into various forms of Warrior – which possess the ability to fly and wield both ranged and melee weapons depending on their type – but only if a Queen flies past a gate, automatically changing it to your team’s colour. And while a Drone is defenceless, it’s the only class that can collect berries for a slow Economic victory or ride the Snail to an even slower one.
Killer Queen Black reduces the number of players from five per team (as seen in the arcade version) to four, but that slightly adjusted headcount doesn’t make each round any less chaotic; it simply makes this over-the-top multiplayer offering fit the even controller numbers of Nintendo Switch perfectly. Each round has an almost Quidditch-style feel about it, with the threat of a match’s end continually looming from multiple sources. What’s brilliant about Killer Queen Black is just how important it is to balance the desire to be a lone wolf or a team player. You can get preoccupied killing Drones as a Warrior, only to completely forget the enemy team has almost crossed the finish line with the Snail.
It shows how well all three roles play into one another, and how quickly control of a map can shift back and forth, as well as how tactical a match can be. You can’t knock a Drone from the Snail if you’re playing as another Drone, but you can use it as a sacrificial lamb, which forces the mollusc to slow down as you consumes you. Those precious few seconds can be all that’s needed to give your teammates time to swoop over and smash the enemy on the Snail. Or perhaps the enemy Queen will momentarily land on some long grass, which automatically slows their movement, enabling a Warrior or Queen that little extra edge to skewer them and bring you one step closer to victory.
There’s just so much going on, and so many ways to approach each round, that Killer Queen Black's own brand of chaotic strategy can be quite intimidating to new players. This is a game that’s perfectly fine for silly, unpractised couch play sessions where everyone is going for kills, but when you start playing with more strategy in mind, the sheer amount of tactics you can employ and the amount of action you need to track on screen means it can become a more frustrating experience. The learning curve is quite steep, but much like similar twitchy battle arena titles (a la Nidhogg 2) there’s a great deal of satisfaction to be had in really learning the ins and outs of a class. Luckily, there’s a great way to learn Killer Queen Black's own brand of warfare built right into the game.
The Spectate mode offers the perfect means to brush up on how other teams operate, especially when it comes to how short matches unfold (where an enemy Queen is killed off in a couple of minutes) and more even encounters (where clever Drones tactically sneak berries into their own hive for a slow yet steady victory). There’s no real single-player content per se, bar a short but helpful tutorial mode, but the game comes complete with some pretty decent AI – so even if you come across a less-populated room, the game will fill in the gaps with computer-controlled allies and opponents.
The transition to Switch has been a relatively smooth one, but we did find playing in handheld mode was more a challenge as the small pixel art characters can be very hard to make out with so much action unfolding on a small screen. Playing both locally and online was far more enjoyable and easier to track in docked mode, and served as a more enjoyable way to have an eight-player rumble with two Switches and two pairs of split Joy-Cons. The game was built for use on a giant arcade cabinet screen, so Switch’s smaller display was never going to be ideal.
The upgraded art style (which simply makes the pixel art visuals even more detailed and colourful) helps elevate it above the one found in the arcade original, although the lack of diversity in the map designs and a lack of background music during matches does take some of the shine off – especially when the heavy metal flourishes used elsewhere are so damn good. There’s also talk of new maps being introduced post-launch, which should give Killer Queen Black's cross-platform community (with players shared between Switch, Xbox One and PC) a little more arena-based variety.
Killer Queen Black does for Nintendo Switch what TowerFall Ascension did for PS4, offering up a 2D multiplayer extravaganza that’s easy to pick up but devilishly tricky to master. The support for local multiplayer (through split Joy-Cons and/or wireless play) really sells this as a crazy couch play experience, while the inclusion of online play and a Spectate mode gives room for a potentially vibrant competitive scene. The learning curve is steep, and it's chaotic to track when playing on anything other than a massive TV, but with cross-platform support it’s likely to become a cult mainstay for indie multiplayer aficionados.