Since its launch back in early March of this year, the library of games available on the Nintendo Switch has, thankfully, seen a dramatic increase of late. Seemingly keen to fill the virtual shelves of the console’s very own eShop, Nintendo have been making a commendable effort to recruit as many Indie developers as possible to release their content onto the hybrid system. QubicGames, one such indie studio, has recently brought their latest title, Robonauts, into the wild – a side-scrolling shoot ‘em up with a strong concept and twist, but one that never truly unlocks its full potential. Unfortunately, while there is still some fun to be had with the game, it can be hard to maintain interest amongst a multitude of baffling design decisions and a core experience that simply isn’t inventive enough.
Placing traditional side-scrolling action at the heart of the experience, Robonauts puts its own unique spin on convention thanks to its planet-hopping mechanic. Set within space and placed within the boots of a heavily-armed robot, each of the game’s 12 levels are linked together by a limp, yet somewhat-charming story spread across multiple planets; each of which are jumped between at will and flip the action (quite literally) on its head. Making your way through each mission to complete your objective, weaving between these planets and running around their surfaces is essential to level traversal and also influences your projectiles, too, defining them by the planet’s gravitational pull. Providing two welcome additions to the high-intensity action, both of these mechanics allows the rather simplistic gameplay foundation to feel more interesting than it otherwise would be.
Framed within bullet-hell style action, the gameplay of Robonauts is distilled down to its most basic form to eliminate needless complication. With enemy presence in abundance throughout, limited controls allows the focus to remain on the action: blasting your way through oncoming waves of enemies, completing each level’s unique objective, and avoiding as much incoming damage as possible. As a result of this, weapon aiming is reduced to an auto-targeting system that, unfortunately, feels unreliable at the best of times. Without a way to clearly dictate the direction of fire, the system’s ability to decide enemy priority can oftentimes become skewed during moments of chaos. Culminating in needless death and frustration that could have otherwise been avoided with true aiming mechanics, it’s a design choice with a meaningful intention behind it, but ultimately one that lacks the required level of precision. Not the only questionable design choice at play here, Robonauts also stumbles in other areas and it’s easy to come away disappointed by the whole experience despite the initial gameplay thrill.
Though each of the game’s mission objectives attempt to be unique and offer an element of variety, the same cannot be said about the level designs which rarely take full advantage of the game’s unique concept. Despite the premise of planet-hopping and the gravity-based action that provides a basis for fun, these elements are rarely expanded upon fully to throw in a much-needed sense of variety between every mission offering. As a result, the action grows stale as the planets struggle to feel anything other than familiar throughout. For a game set within space, it is absolutely criminal to see such a lack of inspiration within the level designs, especially with such rich and infinite possibility available. Aside from one exception, a level that does well to implement the planet-hopping into a memorable puzzle-platforming challenge, interest dwindles over time as the later levels fail to introduce compelling challenges or particularly tricky level traversal. Worsened by a sorely lacking variety of enemy types, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve seen everything that’s to offer only half-way through the game’s limited stages.
Playable across two difficulty settings, the laughably-titled ‘Casual’ mode repeatedly proves itself as anything but as particular levels become extreme tests of patience. Often completely overwhelming, enemy encounters can provide unwelcome gameplay imbalances that serve only to infuriate rather than challenge player ability. Armed with only a low-powered, low-range blaster-rifle and incendiary grenades by standard, these weapons prove themselves as pretty ineffective against tougher enemies with high-damage, long-range attacks, throwing further aggravation into the mix. Though aided by temporary weapon pickups left behind by deceased enemies, you are granted powerful alternatives alongside small health boosters, but these additions still struggle to feel helpful enough at times, failing to tip the odds in the player’s favour. Despite being specifically designed to offer bite-sized challenges that on-average last no longer than a few minutes, constantly repeating missions still develops into an eventual grind that disrupts the enjoyment and flow of the gameplay. Perseverance during these moments is particularly vital if you’re brave enough to attempt the harder difficulty which, as you would expect, ramps up the on-screen action significantly as well as the associated levels of frustration.
Working as a somewhat effective remedy to combat these difficulty spikes, co-operative play is available across the whole campaign and, as a welcome addition, is fully accessible by adopting support for single Joy-Con controllers. Largely overcoming the imbalances found in solo play (at the ‘Casual’ difficulty, at least), an extra helping hand significantly improves the experience and feels like the most enjoyable way to play, but regardless, the action still feels bland after a while. Though only playable through split-screen, the reduced screen-space does little to impact the on-screen action and feels like an ideal fit for the game. Complementing this multiplayer component is also a competitive mode in which players race to complete a series of combat challenges faster than the opposing side. Facing off against an endless onslaught of enemies across differing levels, individual stages do attempt to throw gameplay-altering rules into the mix, but in a direct comparison to the main experience, there just isn’t enough variety or depth to this offering to see lasting interest.
It’s genuinely disappointing to feel this same lack of enthusiasm across the whole experience because, as previously iterated, deep-down within Robonauts is a solid idea filled with untapped potential. There’s a lot that could be done with the idea, and within minutes of playing it’s easy to appreciate the core concept and the game’s strengths: its vibrant art-style, the thumping electronic soundtrack, it’s co-operative offering, and the base foundation which offers a satisfying (albeit repetitive) run-and-gun experience. After no time at all, however, it’s equally as easy to spot the flaws and shortcomings. While on paper the action sounds intense, inventive, and original, only in fleeting moments are these highs ever actually met in-game. It’s an absolute crying shame, too, because it only makes you wonder what this game might have been.
Could the game’s mechanics have been fleshed out to make better use of the core concept? Should the game have been more ambitious with its level design and mission structure? And, perhaps most importantly, would these improvements have resulted in a far superior game?
The answer to all of these questions: Yes, I believe so.