From the mind of Vanni del Moral, creator of indie gem The Hive, comes Bad Bots, a game about saving the world from, well, bad robots.
Bad Bots is a 2D platformer/shooter that some are comparing to Contra, though that might not be entirely fair. After all, Contra was always about unforgiving precision gameplay, whereas Bad Bots is about running and gunning. But I think I’m getting a little ahead of myself here.
You play as Sam McRae, a man tasked with saving the world. In true video game fashion, saving the world pretty much involves shooting tons and tons of stuff. While that’s all fine and good, it drastically lowers the impact of the title, as it doesn’t offer a whole lot of complexity or challenge the long-established tropes of the medium, and it never really feels self-aware enough to pull off over-the-top absurdity.
But that’s not saying it doesn’t try. As I mentioned before, it does away with the tough-as-nails approach of many of the other 2D platformers out there to let you simply mow your way through piles and piles of evil robots. It’s almost like a 2D take on the “enemy-packed hallway” approach of Call of Duty titles.
Unfortunately, Bad Bots tends to stumble over a lot of its own design mechanics. For instance, when you give players control over a character who can legitimately take down a group of dozen robots without breaking a sweat, how do you ramp up the difficulty in later portions? Bad Bots’ answer is to throw even more enemies at you. The second half of the game features several Quarantine rooms that you’ll step into, only to have all the exits sealed until you dispose of the swarm of baddies that’s coming at you through doorways and ventilation shafts. You’ll fight bots so numerous that they become impossible to count.
Another of these design flaws is that the final boss simply has too much health. It’s not a difficult fight, per se, as it has a very limited amount of attack patterns that are all fairly easy to anticipate. In order to make the fight harder (to elevate it to the status of “epic boss fight,” I suppose), the boss was given an absurdly long health bar. All this does is make the fight into an endurance race rather than a legitimately strategic or dexterity-heavy encounter. In fact, I think I died more times out of fatigue than anything else, and when I finally took the thing down, I wanted to take a nap more than a victory lap.
Rather than take this approach, Bad Bots would have done well to include some more varied enemy types. Enemies that would try to outthink and out-dodge you, or enemies with interesting ammo types, like homing rockets that explode into multiple projectile patterns. Or something to make combat more interesting than pulling a trigger and watching things explode.
Oh, and make sure you play with a controller. As someone who hates using W to jump, the WASD and mouse setup feels incredibly awkward. To top it off, there is no menu option to adjust the controls, so if you want to, say, assign jump to the space bar, you’re SOL.
One of the game’s charms is its low-bit aesthetic, which works really well with the science-fiction vibe. In fact, most of the robots are superbly designed from a visual standpoint, and the final boss is fantastic to look at, with this bizarre art style that sits somewhere between hand-drawn and pixel art. The human characters, though, tend to appear sort of bland and generic, especially when compared with the robotic enemies you’re constantly making shrapnel of. I’m tempted to coin the term “low-bit lazy” here.
And speaking of lazy, one design choice that I simply can’t wrap my head around is the almost complete lack of music. That’s right, there is almost no music in this game. Sure, there are little themes that play during the boss fights, but the volume is dialed so low that you can barely hear them. The rest of the game is spent in silence that awkwardly contrasts with the environment. The pixel art style just begs for some retro 8-bit music, while the game’s robot theme feels incomplete without some sort of electronic soundscape to tie the whole aesthetic into a nice little bow. Sure, I can understand silence as a thematic choice – something that worked exceptionally well in games like Myst and Dead Space 2 – but it needs to either work toward some sense of ambience (Myst) or serve to emphasize downtime by offsetting the game’s more dramatic moments (Dead Space 2). Bad Bots does neither and, as a result, just feels like it’s missing something.
You can complete this game in three or four hours – or more, depending on how much time you spend on the insufferable final boss. Other than the campaign, there is a challenge mode that offers three difficulties, but this isn’t anything that will extend your playtime by very much unless you’re a complete high score addict.
Bad Bots is simply an incredibly short game that has a lot of potential but never really seems to find its footing. As such, even its $10 price tag seems a bit much. With some more strategic enemy patterns and a killer soundtrack, this could have been a hell of a retro sci-fi romp, but it feels instead like a neat concept that wasn’t entirely realized.