To many in the gaming community, football is relegated to games built for the casual masses. The EA monopoly of Madden titles that, despite continuously harsh reviews, prove profitable in the current generation. For people invested enough in football but don’t wish to concede to helping profit continued stagnancy, there are very few options seriously worth exploring, which is truly unfortunate. Thankfully, the indie crowd is hard at work to provide the football fanatics with adequate, even if not fully replicable, alternatives. If not Axis Football, retro lovers can now preview Legend Bowl, which speaks to my adoration for football, pixel artistry, and customization.
One thing I should note is that it’s important to understand what exactly you’re getting into with this title. Legend Bowl is not Madden, and does not incorporate all that the latter does. It is also not a 100% realistic simulation of the game of football, blending arcade and realism together like yin and yang. This actually took me off guard when I booted it up for the first time, expecting something to simulate everything there was to modern football. Over time, it became necessary to shed my prior experience with Madden (even if limited) and take this game for what it was. That, and some very conveniently timed bug fixes, made the experience all the more rewarding.
Legend Bowl is available in Early Access on Steam for your regional pricing.
Story – It’s What You Make of It
One of the standard “arcade” settings present here is the fact that there’s no true story. When open, the game will give you a list of things to do in the main menu, and that’s that. Career, Tournament, Exhibition, etc., you play the game to play the game. Only one’s imagination will fill in the blanks. Personally, I find this much easier to do with a fair amount of customization, which this title does provide amicably. Career is by far the most prosperous mode to do this with, allowing the player to simulate a season and have situations occur at random throughout the 17-week season plus postseason. I like to take mediocre teams and turn them into powerhouses, personally. Legend Bowl lets me do that.
Gameplay – Enjoy Your Pounding
To be upfront, this preview was initially going to very different in tone. My first day playing it, there were a lot of odd bumps and bruises to the game’s body that were very hard to ignore. That didn’t prevent me from playing it for almost five-hours straight, but nonetheless. In my first few hours, the game crashed on me twice, I experienced visual glitches in-game, tons of menus in the Career mode would take me to unrelated screens, and the Tournament mode outright didn’t work. It was borderline nerve-wracking to trust the game to save my progress without crashing, or to allow myself to become immersed enough knowing that it may all be gone in an instant.
And then the developer patched the game over the next couple days, and all of these issues were erased. Lucky me! With those large bugs fixed up, it becomes far easier to recommend Legend Bowl. Though it is not without its share of small criticisms (or nitpicks, if you prefer) that I’ve come to form.
Quarterback? Who Needs ‘Em?
Playing quarterback, for example, is kind of a nightmare. If you do not have the “Zoom” setting above “Low” in the options menu, you will not be able to see past ten yards down the field (or sides) when the ball is snapped to you. Being a quarterback requires, well, seeing if receivers are open. Throwing the ball also requires one to build up a bar by holding down a button to obtain good accuracy, which is incredibly difficult to do on quick passes. The timing with building up the bar is also pretty fickle to adjust to, as it shoots from the bottom to overboard (which reduces accuracy) pretty abruptly. If you want to score, the safest bets are deep throws and screens; all else are essentially 50-50. It’s very common for me to finish games with under 50% completion percentage.
What also plays into this is how much space each player takes up onscreen. Given the 2D, top-down nature of this game, this is almost inevitable, but is no-less unfortunate. Throwing down the middle is almost guaranteed, unless the defense is blitzing, to not work, whether because the windows are too tight or the defensive line will just swat (or outright intercept, which has occurred for me an insane number of times) the ball. I have developed very little confidence in a fair number of plays due to these specific reasons. Playing Legend Bowl is like playing for the Raiders in the ’60s: bombs away!
Odd Gameplay Intricacies
Here are a decent collection of things a team can do in regular football that cannot be done in this game:
- Onside kicks
- 2-point conversions
- Throwing the ball away (that I’m aware of)
- Be penalized (except a few rare exceptions)
- Moving before the snap (on defense)
- Changing a play/player routes at the line of scrimmage (on offense)
- Challenging plays
Some of these are more consequential than others, but it took me off-guard somewhat to know these options weren’t available. I suppose it goes with the “hybrid” tag the developer places this under—retro arcade and realistic playstyle. The first two points actively take away a lot of drama from games, ensuring that a team cannot get the ball back unless the other team turns it over/punts. Regardless, with most of these gone, it assumes (and perhaps encourages) that individual games will be high-scoring. Many of my games definitely are.
I can’t really say if my past Madden experience or overall gaming aptitude helps me or not, but playing on “Normal” difficulty is hysterically easy. Going to “Hard” (which the game was pre-set to, curiously) proved a better option, as the opposing team will now put up a fight. On Normal, I was near-guaranteed to blow out a team, with the biggest affair being something like 60-7. As a slight aside, running the ball in Normal, assuming you swing around the defensive line, is almost always a long run/touchdown. On Hard, I can still blow people out, but there’s just as much a chance the other team will have you staring at a 20-point hole. Running against defense-heavy teams also proves very laborious. Just like real life! So heed my advice, newcomers looking for Madden alternatives: Hard difficulty, Medium zoom in the options menu.
Time is such a valuable thing, and something I would adore to have in Legend Bowl is to have the game time/play clock wind down to a certain point when skipping automated cutscenes. As it stands, even if you skip as fast as you can and quickly select a play, you’re still left with heaps of time at the line of scrimmage, sometimes upwards of 35 seconds. I’ve found myself often just sitting there, doing my hard count, waiting for time to expire just to let my players rest and get a move on with the game. It may make the game shorter, but that’s what the time settings are for. It would be phenomenal to cut out the filler time if it’s not needed.
The Game Within the Game
All right, that’s more than enough about my issues with the game. What about the game itself; is it worth it? The short answer is “absolutely,” but I like to rummage about with my words. There is a definitive magic to this game that makes it appealing to the modern age, obsessed with the retro age. In terms of options and mechanics, it’s not going to scratch the same itch as those used to Madden titles in recent years… yet. Legend Bowl still has a lot of things they could add, as well as things they plan to add. It’s certainly niche in its style, but the very essence of simply playing football and accumulating stats is wonderfully done. How easily it is for me to start this game up and play for multiple hours at a time, just trying to get better at throwing, kicking, and figuring out how to work with the game’s mechanics.
Customization is also a huge plus, allowing players to customize team uniforms, rosters, and even logos through a “backdoor method.” This level of freedom offers an incredible boost of immersion that satiates players who want more control (I am one of them). Being able to invest in a brand new league, team, and what-have-you is nice, but being able to build something for yourself is another level. And some of the default uniforms for these teams were not to my taste, so changing them is a massive blessing. At the moment, most of this is only for visual aesthetic, but future plans could definitely improve with custom playbooks to suit individual teams’/coaches’ personalities.
Performance, aside from the early-game crashes, is also excellent. I’ve faced almost zero slowdown or performance issues within the last few games participated. It tends to slow down some with recording software, but nowhere near unplayable levels. One thing that I can look forward to is knowing the game will work as advertised, which may seem basic, but many indies don’t hammer down the fundamentals. With Legend Bowl simulating a real-life game with tons of intricacy and rules and checks, it’s certainly impressive that it runs and functions as well as it does, especially in Early Access. Really, all it needs is a lot more content and this could be the best football game of the year, if not the last several years.
Graphics & Audio – Fantasy Football
I will forever and always defend pixel artistry as the “master race” of video game aesthetics, so Legend Bowl already has that going for it. A lot of the visual design becomes more impressive with more detail, including the player/coach creator and team customization options. You can even make players be bizarre colors like red and blue and green—reminds me of the bizarre leniency of old-school games featuring character customizers, which is awesome. As an overall, the game looks fairly good, with the MVP being the in-game action and seeing everything move in real-time. Football as a sport is very fast-paced, which the game reflects with some screen-shaking tackles, quick animations, and lots of zoom. Aside from colorful, there are some deceptively great pixel animations present that will go unnoticed to the untrained eye. But I see you, and I appreciate you.
The in-game menus and such aren’t quite as great, but it suits the bill for the general aesthetic modern football is known for. Lots of bold fonts, big lettering, and an almost in-your-face attitude. When you score a touchdown, or get stopped on third down just inches away, it tells you in HUGE LETTERS. Nice for what it is, but doesn’t come off quite as detailed as other aspects. Similar can be said about the team logos, which are incredibly hit-and-miss. Some are pretty nice and aren’t noticeably choppy at the ends, others definitely are. The design choices for logos also all feel distinctly retro, with more realism favored over modern bolded simplicity. Some may find this a little off-putting, but for me, just some touch-ups here and there would go a long way.
Likely the most “meh” aspect of Legend Bowl in my opinion comes with the auditory elements. Like with the visuals, its best implementation comes during games, with all the grunts, POWs, and sound effects that accompany the experience. It’s very home-y to hear that familiar crunch to tackles, and I’ve found the “pass completed” sound clip to be pleasing (perhaps from relief). As for the overall soundtrack, it does its job. Not annoying or grating, though alternatively not ear-catching. Most I could imagine remembering it from repetition, as there isn’t a whole lot of “soundtrack” to begin with. A dressing best served when the food is hot.
Legend Bowl was previewed on PC via Steam. A review key was provided by Level Ready.