MicroBot Review

MicroBot Review

It’s clear that ‘learning from one’s mistakes’ isn’t something they emphasise at Corporate Future Science Academy. Its revolutionary medical nanobots have gone rogue, threatening the life of their anonymous host, but the company has a simple solution: send in another revolutionary medical nanobot – and this time, make sure it’s player-protagonist blue and not evil-robot red.

As twin-stick shooter premises go, there’s certainly novelty value to MicroBot‘s promise of sticky bodily adventure, even if robot-on-robot action is well-trodden ground for the legion of blasters that breed and multiply in XBLA and PSN’s lower reaches. Unfortunately, MicroBot seems destined to get lost in the mix – far from radical genre surgery, this is a routine procedure at best.

Some high-class presentation makes a strong first impression, from the accomplished soundtrack to the game’s opening, which sees the player thrust from cool laboratory to teeming artery with the aggressive assistance of a hypodermic needle. There’s a clear effort made to differentiate MicroBot from the pin-sharp arcade abstraction of its stablemates – to take the twin-stick shooter and invest it with a touch of fidelity, a mote of organic life. This is a laudable goal, and something that has borne fruit elsewhere; in terms of production values and higher ambitions, developer Naked Sky’s intentions echo Shadow Complex.

The feel of the game reflects the setting well, with dynamic fluid currents and a touch of Newtonian physics granting heft to player and bacterial foe alike. It’s a real shame, then, that heft is exactly what MicroBot doesn’t need. This is a slow game, and the floaty movement and short-ranged weapons render combat an imprecise and often frustrating experience. Enemies and equipment are drawn from deeply familiar twin-stick stock, and it quickly becomes clear that MicroBot‘s organic merits can’t hide the derivative, mechanical experience beneath.

Bafflingly, the game lacks a persistent scoring mechanic, opting instead to judge you on your acquisition of ‘atoms’ – upgrade currency – and the data necessary to assemble new abilities. The former are principally found stashed throughout each stage and the latter drop from specific enemies until the relevant module is attained. The point is quickly reached, therefore, where there’s no incentive to engage in combat at all. Customising your ‘bot becomes a matter of finding the quickest and least fussy means of clearing areas, with more interesting but fiddlier upgrades staying on the bench in favour of a rack of homing missiles and enough propulsion to keep things moving.

The procedural generation of stages promises to pick up the slack, but as MicroBot‘s pretty but alarmingly one-note tilesets start to bleed together, the absence of a human touch is keenly felt. The game gains a bit of life when played cooperatively, but the same feeling of purposelessness that pervades the solo experience means that it’s unlikely to sustain extended play. Challenge mode adds an after-the-fact scoring mechanic and leaderboards, but is dragged down by the game’s insistence on a single life for each player. An unlucky early death can knock a co-op ally out of the game for an entire stage, and few partnerships will survive the ordeal.

MicroBot is a technically accomplished but sterile experience. As the game settles into a rut, its stylistic strengths lose more and more ground to the sluggish combat, uninspiring upgrades and repetitive stages. More-of-the-same challenge modes and uninviting co-op play aren’t enough to rescue it from the missed opportunity of better realising its core concept, and while it’s certainly worth a look for its presentation, it’s hard to recommend for the asking price.