Trying to explain Rigonauts almost requires some discussion of where it came from. This is a game partially funded by Activision’s Independent Games Competition, managing a second place finish that brought $75,000 of production money, but playing it makes one wonder if Activision might have given the prize to someone else if they’d have had the foresight to play the final product. That may sound harsh, but it’s not an insult to anyone on the development team; rather, it’s an idea that sounds better in theory than it plays in practice. It feels as though it was designed and built exactly how the developers hoped it would be, but the idea of it is sounds far more fun than the execution actually is.
The tagline for this in brainstorming sessions may well have been “Angry Birds in reverse”. The idea is that instead of coming up with ways to tear something down, the real strategy is in building something up that won’t be demolished. As the leader of the Hobs, you need to reinforce a vehicle—the “Rigo”, hence the game’s name—to keep it from being destroyed by the evil Komandants and allow the Hobs to escape impossible odds on their way to freedom.
You do this by outfitting the Rigo with bones, wood, stone, and metal, each of which is strong against certain types of fire and weak against others. What’s helpful here is that the game’s interface offers easy-to-interpret symbols telling you which materials are strong against which attacks, and the attacks that the enemy will be using once you choose to begin the confrontation of Hobs vs. Komandants are transparent, so right off the bat, you know exactly what you’re up against. This is good because many of the Komandants’ vehicles are intricate, showy things, the type of vehicles that would intimidate a player into submission were that player not able to study every bone, joint, and ligament of the thing before it ever gets a chance to fire a single bullet.
As is so common in the smartphone game world, there is a three-star system that is supposed to determine how effective a builder you were, both on the defensive and offensive sides of the coin. Really, though, there is only one element of that equation: the number of parts used. Rigonauts is an exercise in efficency. This is also its worst characteristic.
There’s a real temptation to want to compete with the Komandants, to try and build big nasty structures around the Rigo that will intimidate your enemies the way that they’re obviously trying to intimidate you. And in some cases, you can! You can build big, nasty structures that look like birds, or skulls, or bird skulls, or whatever you’re into. And you can send those big nasty structures into battle, and often, those big nasty structures will even win.
And then you’ll get slapped with one star, presumably because gluttony is one of the seven sins. Rigonauts preaches frugality, only offering the stars needed to progress in the game if you’re willing to try and make odds, sods, and scraps work as building materials.
The disconnect is, of course, that you feel as though a game in which the building is as freeform as it is here should breed creativity. Instead, it discourages it. This is a problem. Either you can disregard the game’s star system, or you can disregard your own instinct to build ridiculous vehicles, LEGO-style. Ideally, you shouldn’t have to choose.
Other than this one issue, this one little bit of dissonance, Rigonauts is actually a charming, challenging little puzzle game. The visual design is beautiful, and the ability to endlessly analyze your opponents before building your ideal machine makes the game feel almost like a tower defense game in which you can meticulously plan every move, rather than frantically respond to the threats as they happen. It allows for a leisurely approach to the game, rather than one that’s pushing you for constant action, which is a neat trick for a game in which the protagonists are trying to escape the antagonists.
Unfortunately, the “scoring” system gets in the way. There is no way to play without running into it, and it’s impossible to enjoy one approach to the game without constantly being reminded of the other. Rigonauts is a fantastic idea, and you can see why a publisher might be eager to fund it. The final product, however, is a game in search of a sequel that rewards creativity rather than stifling it.