Bush Hockey League is an arcade style take on the NHL that has a little charm, but unfortunately not much else going for it. In fact, in trying to put my thoughts to screen I am left with a sense of ‘meh’. It’s not awful, but it’s also rather bland. The only analogy I can find is like porridge; passable on its own, but it needs some extra ingredients to really bring it to life. Maybe writing after just having breakfast is not a good idea… Booting the game up you are presented with Exhibition or Story mode, the former what you’d expect and the latter an initially welcome surprise. Of course, I wasn’t expecting something of the calibre of Fifa’s The Story but I certainly was intrigued to see what it was all about.
It’s a rather silly affair, about a team that has fallen on hard times after several key players fall injured, others getting into drunken fights with mall Santa’s and just generally down on their luck, through complete fault of their own. I found the little write ups and graphics quite charming even though there’s not really much flair to them. From the menu, a calendar is presented with future matches shown ahead and newspaper clippings on prior days showing the latest scandal to befall the team. It’s all got a very early 90’s aesthetic to it, which can make it a little unclear where you should be heading at times, but you soon grow accustomed to it. The music supporting this is equally off the wall, ranging from Polka to almost chiptune-esque versions of The Addams Family theme, with snippets of these played in game when fights are won.
On to the gameplay then which is a mix of spongy controls, weak looking tackles and a dodgy fighting system. Getting hold of the puck is easy enough, passing works relatively well and the game moves a fairly slow pace so it’s easy to keep up with the action. A lot of older games, like NHL Blitz for example, sometimes get so fast and hectic you’ll be on the receiving end of a goal without even seeing the puck. This is the polar opposite, with the puck not so much sliding on the ice as crawling and coming to a stop of its own accord very quickly. There’s no dash or sprint button either meaning if a player gets even a slight head start on you, you simply cannot catch him as you all move the same speed. Shooting is passable, hold B to wind up and release to hit. Hold it to long though and you lob the puck up. This caused many times where I’d end up lobbing the puck out of the arena rather than taking shot, so had to restart the slow build up all over. Again, something you get used to (and there are alternate control schemes which mitigate this a little using the sticks instead of buttons) but just another niggle to add.
Tackling is somewhat unpredictable, again using B to swing your stick to hook the puck which had a very small success rate for me. Hold it down however, and your character will hunch over and slide in what ever direction they were going. Run into another player (even your own teammates or the ref) and they will limp over you and be out for a few seconds. It’s just a shame everything runs so slowly that it takes the impact out of it. Do this to enough players and a fight will break out. Here 2 players engage with one move, punch, and a dodge. 3 hits ends the fight, but once down you can pummel your opponent with a few more floor jabs before it’s broken up. Really, these amount to nothing more than hammering the punch button and hoping you hit them before they hit you. Been playing particularly aggressively? Be prepared for up to 5 fights in a row, with almost no variation.
Occasionally players will start apart and have to come together to fight, and on one occasion they used their sticks as weapons but even this lacked excitement as it was one hit and out. Enough losses cause players to become injured, impacting their ability to shoot, tackle and even their already limited speed. What should be a fun and hectic break from the game turns into a boring button mash with the only consequence being to make the main gameplay worse! After a while I tried to avoid fouling altogether, though the AI certainly had no intention of doing the same. Visually its fine, some old looking models coated in a semi cel-shaded look, though some of the faces remind me of Max Payne with stuck, awkward expressions that are at once comical and painful to look at. Animation is basic but gets the job done and if anything, the sparseness of the rink and lack of over the top flair helps keep the game readable.
When in the crux of a game, I can’t deny that I had some fun with Bush Hockey League. Even through the issues, I still found myself leaning forward when trying to score that winning goal or holding them off in the dying moments for the win. The basic function of the game works, but it’s all wrapped up in a package that is lacking in most areas. That said, grab some friends and beer and you’ve probably got a few hours of fun here. Just don’t go fighting any mall Santas!
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.