Guaranteed to blow your mind, anytime.
The metrics by which we judge games are harder for indie multiplayer titles. They don’t just rely on having smooth jump animations, an engrossing soundtrack and a challenge to certain ideological views. They rely on the stars aligning to bring people together from around the world, or, for a better-connected game, from the same continent. A bad matchup can mean you get crushed by the only person you can find online.
Indie titles often don’t have physical releases or huge PR budgets that might guarantee a large install base from day one. So it’s sad to see when imaginative indie multiplayer titles release to only have their star dim after the first week.
If that weren’t difficult enough, the standards for Killer Queen Black are raised because it is an adaptation of an inclusive and community-friendly game, Killer Queen Arcade. Having been operational for around five years, Killer Queen has been taking bars and arcades in American cities by storm.
Teams travel from all around the country for tournaments and are frequently hosted by rival teams. The community that has arisen from the arcade scene has strict self-policing on homophobia, sexism, transphobia or harassment. This has helped create an inclusive scene countering the worst impulses that might arise in other competitive esports environments.
Killer Queen Black – releasing for Nintendo Switch, Steam and Discord – is very much its own game, but it does have a certain legacy to live up to. Will there be transferable players from arcade to online that will keep it alive? Will it have the same kind of inclusive community that the arcade version enjoys?
The closest description we might get for Killer Queen Black is a team-based, RTS platformer. If that description sounds dizzying, well, it matches up with how it can feel to play. Teams are composed of four players: three as worker bees and one as the queen. Workers can collect berries, become warriors and ride a snail to victory, whereas the Queen must focus on area control and is the main offensive threat in a team.
There are three objectives: military, economic and snail. To win a military victory, the opposing Queen must be killed three times. An economic victory requires workers to deliver berries back to their hive. And the snail victory is a tug of war between teams where workers hop and ride towards their side of the level. Each match is a best of five and can be played across six different levels.
It’s a simple game to describe but it enjoys such grand strategic depth which stems from subtle mechanical flourishes. Workers can offer a berry at temples and can choose to upgrade to workers with shields or super speed, or they can upgrade to warriors who can dash attack or might be equipped with laser guns. The subtlety arises in the Queen’s relationship to these temples. When a Queen passes over them the temple changes to their colour, meaning they can only be used by that team.
It’s a simple twist that can deny an entire team the ability to upgrade their workers to have any military defense besides their Queen. It’s twists like this which can turn a whole game on its head.
These strategic moments are revealed to the player after the fact. Everything moves at a speed difficult to comprehend at first. Even spectating a match can be dizzying. It helps to focus on one player at a time but then you can start to lose the overall picture of what’s going on. Because there are three different objectives they can all be advanced incrementally by different players.
Even if you’re just practicing against bots it can be a little difficult at the start to get used to. But it’s a brief moment that flits by where the A.I can offer any real challenge or enjoyment. The meat of this game is in feeling that pressure of going up against more sentient bees.
Every game played against a group of human opponents contains an exciting rush. One player by themselves cannot be on top of everything in a game despite it being one of total information – all the objectives are in plain sight for all to see. It is when you become too focused on chasing one objective that you leave another behind, to then scream in anguish as your opponent carries in the last berry to their hive.
Every player has something to add to each game whether they are a worker or Queen. But the Queen does have added responsibilities and fragilities which can make playing as her a daunting experience. But it is a true joy to embody this role as you have real power to zip around the battlefield with ease.
Each of the six levels comes with a variety of terrain and objective placement that necessarily changes the paths to victory and how strategies unfold. Though countless thousands have sunk hours into the arcade version’s three levels, Killer Queen Black’s six levels add a nice amount of variety to proceedings.
This is a game that has set all the best foundations for itself by just being really enjoyable to play. But it’s important to note that without human players its worth can dry up. The bots don’t cut it with their repetitive movements. That’s okay though, it’s not meant to be a game where you take on the bots.
But that is also where the risk lies. It cannot guarantee a large enough player base to sustain itself in all corners of the world. But the community that is building around it right now provides hope that it could be viable.
Killer Queen Black is a game bursting with possibilities, from strategic to community. Judging its merit based on possibility is tricky but I gladly err on the side of hope for the beacon this game can be for indie multiplayer games going forward.
[Reviewed on PC]
Ryan Young escaped from the PhD basement in 2017 where he worked on the theoretical links between games, play and narrative. He can be frequently found playing any genre of indie game he can get his hands on and yelling at people on the street about how cool ancient board games are.