US: 25 Sep 2009
The brawler is a genre that strikes a balance between highly repetitive gameplay and variety. Players learn the nuances of a character’s moves, usually quickly if it’s a simple system, and then engages that basic technique in a variety of situations. Epic boss battles, strange puzzles, and QTE sequences are all mixed into the fold to keep a steady pace of brawling with enemies that drives the game forward. Missteps in the genre tend to involve either presenting enemies that don’t have a feasible solution in the game design (there isn’t a way to fight them without getting your ass kicked) or more likely just not mixing things up enough. Spyborgs is an example of a game in the latter category. The graphics may be shiny, but the game just doesn’t have enough going on to keep it interesting.
In terms of design, the game is a relatively slow-paced setup. Attacks take full seconds to complete and often cannot be interrupted once initiated. Enemies do a fairly hefty amount of damage when they strike, and you’re going to die a fair bit if you try to play without blocking. The idea is to make the fighting a more contemplative, strategic affair. It makes the God of War mistake of producing a friendly block at any moment far less than providing something like the experience of Super Smash Brothers Brawl, in which starting an attack means that you’re committed to it. It’s challenging enough and staying patient and timing the attacks carefully is key.
The problem is that there are only five kinds of enemies in the game. There are re-skins in each level, but these enemies use the same animation and the same attack pattern. Little touches like exploding deaths or releasing attack bonuses to enemies mix things up, but basically, they’re exactly the same except thicker. Nor does the game make-up for this by providing a variety of moves and weapons. There are three different characters to learn, but their moves all boil down to the same pattern. Light attack, light attack, heavy attack will be pretty much the combination of choice for the player for the whole game. Making matters worse is the use of Wii-mote waggle for team based attacks, which is still just as unresponsive as ever unless you’re flailing your arms. Damage and health can be upgraded by using points that you gain from a combo system, which creates a somewhat interesting choice between keeping something alive long enough to do a huge combo and just getting on with the game. New moves can be unlocked, but they amount to little more than roll, dash attack, or team attack. There are a few boss battles (though not one per level) that mix things up but always end with a QTE. What’s present in the game isn’t done badly, there just isn’t much there to begin with.
The plot has aspirations to be a self-conscious Saturday Morning Cartoon, but ultimately, there isn’t enough content present to sustain such a serial. A guy with a robotic arm, a sexy lady ninja, and a giant robot that never talks set off on a trip to beat the crap out of hundreds of robots. Hidden tapes throughout each level are there to flesh out the story, but every time that someone is about to make a point or say something, they decide to record the rest of it in the next tape. Cutscenes break things up but only for a few punchy one-liners. This isn’t a genre that’s known for its story-telling but this is incoherent even by those standards.
The one redeeming thing about the game is that it’s co-op. If you’ve got two sets of controllers for the Wii and a willing partner, you can plow through the game together. Shared points means that there will be plenty of debate about who should get what upgrades and the three playable characters can work in tandem in interesting ways. A lot of the levels will require you to hold off on hitting medical crates, for example. So, getting two players to work together is key to winning. When the team attacks come together it is refreshing and deciding when those should be used also adds a degree of team discussion. Death is team friendly; a player respawns as soon as all the enemies are cleared so long as one ally survives. With the lack of variety and repetitive levels though, it’s hard to see the game sustaining much interest for more than a few rounds between two people.
Essentially, by the time that you have beaten the first level of the game you (and hopefully the person that you’re playing with) will have seen everything the game has to offer. There is some blurring effects and the game looks pretty, but that’s hardly a perk when the entire thing takes place in corridors, factories, and rocky landscapes. What little there is works well and requires the player to do a bit more than button mash, but once you’ve seen all of the enemies, there won’t be much left to discover. Still, co-op games like this are tough to find these days, and on a rainy day, they almost always get a lot of use. Spyborgs doesn’t do anything particularly wrong, it just accomplishes this by doing very little in the first place.