Insomniac Games are very well known for their work on the early Spyro games for the original PlayStation, and especially for the PlayStation-exclusive Ratchet & Clank games, as well as recent Xbox One-exclusive sandbox blockbuster, Sunset Overdrive. Being a proud independent developer however, Insomniac has also rediscovered their love of making smaller game projects to go with the big ones recently. While this has amounted to several experimental virtual reality games for Oculus Rift being put into development, along with the recent release of Gamestop-published Song of the Deep, the indie-minded Insomniac initiative actually properly began with a tiny PC game, Slow Down, Bull, which might have the rare distinction of being the least well-known Insomniac-made game.
It’s a shame too, since Slow Down, Bull is a game made in collaboration with the Starlight Childrens’ Foundation, a charity organization full of people that devote themselves to improving the lives of sick, addled and troubled children. A percentage of purchase proceeds for Slow Down, Bull go towards the SCF, and various ads and testimonials for the SCF are also present throughout the game. That, along with Slow Down, Bull’s noble themes of stress management and appreciating one’s own desire for creative and productive progression, certainly make it a game with a pretty big heart.
Is it a good game though? Well, it’s not bad, but it’s also unfortunately dragged down by not being one of Insomniac’s better offerings, which might also explain why it fell through the cracks in Insomniac’s recent catalogue. The fact that the game was released exclusively on Valve’s highly over-crowded PC gaming platform, Steam didn’t help matters, though it does work on PC, Mac and Linux alike, and has microscopic system requirements, so even aged, basic computers can run it easily, at the cost of there not being much in the way of customization for those with more powerful and flexible rigs. At only $2 though, Slow Down, Bull is worth checking out for fans of colourful and unique action games, even if it’s definitely no Ratchet & Clank or Sunset Overdrive.
Slow Down, Bull’s charming storybook aesthetic is immediately eye-catching and adorable, and the visual design emulating the style of a child’s craft project definitely fits with the constant plugs for SCF. The game is clearly quite low-budget, but it’s put together with lots of heart and artistic polish, and that nonetheless makes it a joy to look at, even during its more frustrating sections. The animations are incredibly simple, and barely existent in many places, but even then, it sort of works with the game’s innocent style, especially when the personalities on display are all made so expressive, thanks to how well-drawn they are, even with just a small handful of animation frames to work with.
Like I said however, those who enjoy pushing the limits of their gaming PC’s and really going to town on a bevy of technical options will be disappointed, since Slow Down, Bull doesn’t even bother to give you the most boilerplate of customization options. You get the option to play in either windowed mode or full screen, and that’s about it. There’s no framerate toggles, no resolution toggles, no nothing, which, even for a smaller indie game, is pretty rare on PC. Clearly, the game is designed with ordinary, everyday computers in mind, not specialized gaming rigs. Hell, it doesn’t even seem to render at 1080p resolution, and seems to be more in the neighbourhood of 720p, with no option to change this. It’s the bare minimum here, folks, whether you like it or not. At least Slow Down, Bull is colourful and aesthetically pleasing though, so even with its simplicity, it’s still a win in the artistic department.
Like the visuals, the audio in Slow Down, Bull is pretty simplistic. The game has a handful of pleasant background melodies, including a mellow overworld theme, a main stage theme that has the same composition, but undergoes instrumental changes as you move between the game’s five worlds, and a rowdy theme for when players stress out player character, Esteban, among a couple of other tunes. The main stage theme is kind of fun and catchy, and quite easy to hum along with as you play, though the rest of the soundtrack is pretty rudimentary and doesn’t make much of an impression. It suits the chipper mood though, and definitely isn’t bad or distracting.
Slow Down, Bull is completely devoid of voice acting, which feels borderline criminal for a game developed by the personality masters at Insomniac, but the sound effects still work well enough. Again, they’re very basic, and feel outright stock in many places, but they work, and much like the simple handful of animations, they contribute to the innocent spirit of a child-like indie game. Given more of a budget, the usual punchy, character-filled audio that is normally synonymous with Insomniac might have had more of a chance to permeate the experience, but once again, we’ll have to make do with the bare minimum, even if the bare minimum is effective enough to get the job done.
Slow Down, Bull is a very simple experience, even if you’ve barely touched a video game before. Despite the lack of technical flexibility, you also do get the option of playing with a mouse and/or keyboard, or plugging in an Xbox controller for a more traditional gaming style. Regardless of how you play though, the experience is always simple to learn and accessible, to the point where even young children will easily grasp the fundamentals before long.
In simplest terms, Slow Down, Bull is described as an ‘action-collection’ game, and that’s pretty apt. You control Esteban, an artistically inclined bull who is something of a perfectionist with his creations, and is also incredibly self-critical. The object of the game is to collect as many of a certain object as possible within a time limit, depositing your materials in purple baskets as you play, and working your way up to a red goal basket, which concludes the level. You have to do this within a fairly tight time constraint as well, and that’s before a growing array of obstacles that stand in your path with more frequency as the game goes on.
There’s another wrinkle too, since Esteban’s stress level needs to be monitored as you navigate him around. Normally, Esteban automatically moves forward on a straight path in the direction of wherever he’s facing, though players can steer Esteban by using the mouse buttons, the Left and Right arrow keys on their keyboard, or the left and right triggers on an Xbox controller. Every time you steer Esteban, he gets a little more stressed out, and if you stress him out too much, he’ll eventually go berserk and briefly charge ahead, with the player being unable to control him during these few seconds. This could run Esteban into an obstacle or enemy that forces him to drop all of his hard-won creative objects, and not only that, but beating every stage in the game without stressing out Esteban even once is necessary to earn some of the Steam Achievements associated with Slow Down, Bull.
This idea is interesting, and the theme of examining frustration and perfectionism is certainly one that is palpable throughout Slow Down, Bull. Unfortunately, the steep difficulty curve also ensures that lesser-skilled or impatient players won’t manage to get very far, and even fairly skilled and patient players will have a surprisingly hard time reaching the end of the game, let alone attaining every collectible and Steam Achievement on offer. Despite it being billed as a casual experience, Slow Down, Bull is not an easy game, and children who aren’t well versed in hardcore action gaming already will have an especially tough time with it, which feels counter-productive.
If you master the game’s control demands, playing Slow Down, Bull gets a lot easier, and those with geometry and physics aptitude will also have a slightly better time, since playing ideally involves bouncing Esteban around walls, which nullifies his stress level, changes his direction automatically according to the angle he hits the wall at, and best of all, speeds up his movement, which is crucial in the later stages, where the heavily constrained time limits start to become a pretty big problem. There is a sense of reward when you have the patience and determination to master the game’s stage designs, though the over-abundance of troublesome obstacles and foes in the later stages makes them much more of a slog than they should be.
Adding insult to injury in Slow Down, Bull is that you really can’t be sloppy with gathering Esteban’s creative objects. Whether it’s buttons, seashells, bells or whatever else, Esteban needs a lot of materials for his art, and it’s actually mandatory that players master bonus items and characters that grant multipliers for their objects, or else they won’t have enough to gain the necessary Stamps. Each level gives up to three Stamps for collecting a certain amount of crafting objects, and you need these Stamps in the final couple of worlds especially! If you don’t have most of these Stamps, you’re going to be unable to progress to the following worlds, even if you beat every stage in your current world, which feels excessively demanding.
Perhaps this is an allegory for Esteban’s own cloying OCD, since it emulates a sense of the player being unable to truly move on with a project until they’re sure they’ve left no stone unturned, but it’s still needlessly punishing from a gameplay standpoint. Shoving collectibles and bonus challenges down a player’s throat as the only means of reaching the end of the game is never a good idea! Not only does it kill the replay value, but it will completely turn off any player that doesn’t have the patience of a saint, and the free time to match.
Still, there’s some good creativity in Slow Down, Bull, which is why it’s unfortunate that it can be so heavy-handed with its level design. The game does a good job of introducing gradual new helpings of obstacles and foes as levels proceed on. Early in the game, you’ll simply have to manage knowing where to knock additional materials out, and avoiding foes that can force you to drop any materials that you haven’t deposited if you touch them, though you can boost through at least one variety of enemy by holding and releasing the turning buttons, even if this temporarily spikes Esteban’s stress level. In the early stages, playing Slow Down, Bull achieves the desired effect of mild urgency, but reasonable fun, and this is where the game offers the best balance between entertainment and the need to manage a careful, yet speedy move forward.
Since there’s only five worlds in Slow Down, Bull though, with each only comprising a handful of stages, and one or two ‘Arena’ areas where you simply collect materials in one open area as the timer ticks down, this is probably why the game’s difficulty ramps up so quickly. By the time you hit the third world, things start to become pretty ridiculous. The fourth and fifth worlds are outright merciless as well, introducing demanding multiplier items that force Esteban to stay speedy or temporarily lose control, and throwing in foes such as pursuing net-toting critters that will take a whole ten seconds off of your already tight timer if they catch you, and are surprisingly speedy to boot! You do eventually get the chance to strike back at foes with Mango, Esteban’s cat sister, who can eventually be picked up, and will automatically lunge at and incapacitate foes that are near her, though holding Mango for even a short amount of time will make her angry. When she’s angry, she will, against character, attack Esteban and force him to drop his materials if you don’t find an enemy, deposit her in her basket (which is often necessary to progress), or walk through de-stressing water, which makes Mango automatically leap off of Esteban. Seriously? Some sister she is!
These basic ideas behind the gameplay are fine, but when they’re all thrown together, especially with the rigid, methodical controls and stress mechanics that really aren’t designed to deal with such demanding threats, they become overwhelming very quickly. You will get better at Slow Down, Bull with practice, and the game is a useful stress management tool for those who are willing to stick with it and learn to balance the need to succeed with the need to act carefully and calmly, though its design definitely could have been tighter in many spots. Even for a game that examines frustration, Slow Down, Bull is more frustrating than it should be, clumsily compensating for its short length and straightforward gameplay with an overly harsh difficulty curve, and fussy controls that intentionally cripple the player’s means of responding to the numerous hazards in their way. regardless of your control method.
Thanks to the tiny price tag of $2, and the adorable presentation, you can forgive Slow Down, Bull’s gameplay shortcomings to a point, though it could have been better than it is, if it had perhaps offered adjustable difficulty, or at least expanded the time limits by several minutes, perhaps even scrapping them entirely, or at least giving players the option to disable them. The difficulty curve is what ends up tripping up Slow Down, Bull too much, undermining its noble message, and hurting a nice, minimalist indie game idea. You can push through the frustrations and eventually do well enough to reach the end if you’re very patient, and have a high tolerance for failure, but it’s annoying that, rather than teach the player that stress can be managed with a few simple pointers, the gameplay instead presents the idea that stress is unavoidable, and there’s not much you can do about it. That’s probably not the message that more anxious people playing Slow Down, Bull would hope to find.
Slow Down, Bull may be a lesser Insomniac effort, but it’s still a decent game for those who have the requisite amount of patience to enjoy it. It won’t set you back much cash if you want to give it a try either, and even then, at least half of your money is going to a great charity, so it’s difficult to complain about that as well. The game does fall a bit short of its potential, but the heart is still there, and the idea of designing a game around stress management is a sound one, even if it doesn’t totally succeed at being a good example of how to manage stress.
Among the glut of PC indie games available on Steam, Slow Down, Bull manages to at least elevate itself on its cute look and its noble charity efforts, even if it’s one of the least well-known Insomniac games for a fairly noticeable reason. Insomniac’s larger efforts still seem to comprise their finest work, though this creative experiment still reminds us of the artistic courage of a developer that is quite good at standing out, even when not all of their games manage to turn heads. Indeed, Slow Down, Bull doesn’t make the massive splash of Spyro, Ratchet & Clank or Sunset Overdrive back when they all made their debut, but despite that, it’s great proof of why the success of Insomniac goes beyond any one game. This is a developer that clearly wants to make the world even just a little happier with its craft, and even in a lesser effort, that’s something to be admired.
- Colourful storybook presentation that's a joy to look at
- Creative gameplay and noble themes of stress management
- Very low-priced, and a chunk of proceeds go to a great charity
- Difficulty curve is too steep and frustrating later on
- Controls don't respond well to the demanding hazards
- Basic presentation can't be customized or improved for avid PC gamers