Stick shooters are another one of those old genres that would seem to be a natural fit for Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, where MicroBot has been released for $10. More importantly the better technology that comes with today’s consoles offers ample room for old genres to improve themselves and showcase potential that might have been hampered on primitive arcade machines. MicroBot grasps some of this potential but get past the excellent presentation and it’s just a sparse shooter with occasional memorable moments buried in repetition.
MicroBot starts off on a high note when a syringe forcefully injects you into the environment, you being a nanite tasked with destroying infectious nanites inside a human body that have gone haywire. The layered backgrounds of human tissue teem with life and the microscopic perspective of the human body is beautifully presented. Fleshy walls and glands intermingle and feel corrupted by the mechanical scourge of the nanites that you are tasked with destroying. Little touches like moving bits in the foreground and background really make this feel like a living organism.
Different segments (levels) of the human body have various backgrounds and appearances including healthy pink and orange hues, quieter blues and grays and one level being a sickly, unpleasant green. Harmless body cells and slinking movements of unknown entities in the background bring environments to life. The environments meld with the quietly ambient soundtrack to make the early sequences of MicroBot truly captivating.
Unfortunately MicroBot suffers the same problem as Alan Wake where it does something good but then does it again several hundred times. The level design reflects the independent origins of MicroBot and the limited budget shows when you repeatedly experience the same scenery, same enemies, same painfully thin puzzles and same sense of levels being needlessly padded. Bosses look very impressive but even this feels drawn out. All you’ll do is pepper them with bullets for several minutes and it quickly gets old because of the obscene amounts of health they have despite not being particularly challenging. You’ll occasionally get a new gameplay mechanic or enemy but it gets repeated enough that any sense of uniqueness is watered down.
There’s a robust upgrades system that lets you customize your nanite by collecting energy sparks throughout levels that function as in-game currency. When you access checkpoints you can enter a menu that lets you outfit the three sticks on your nanite with add-ons for weapons, propulsion, or defense. You initially start with two rapid-fire cannons and a flipper for extra movement but you can opt for heavier micro-seeker homing missiles, particle cannons with scatter shots, or even three movement flippers that maximize your acceleration and turning but leave you helpless against enemies. I wouldn’t say it’s a balanced system; rapid fire cannons are much more efficient than slower cannons that allegedly do more damage. In the time it takes to land a few heavy missiles you can easily shred apart most enemies with faster weapons.
Things get more dynamic after the first segment when you’re upgraded to five sticks as opposed to three, which allows for even deeper customization. While some weapons and movement fins are more or less identical to one another the system is a great way to tailor your nanite to your gameplay style. You only start with three or four add-ons but one of the recurring gameplay elements is collecting, say, 15 sonic detonator particles from downed enemies to unlock the detonator from the upgrade menu. This unfortunately does minimize your flexibility when you realize that you’ll need to have some emphasis on firepower in order to unlock more weapons but it’s a creative system.
Glimpses of really clever moments help underscore that the development team wanted to work beyond what they had. There was a beautifully designed moment in the second segment where I curiously followed a moving spark that looked like an alluring power-up into a rocky groove. When it didn’t do anything, I left the groove moments before it snapped shut like a mouth and I honestly jumped. There’s another extremely memorable moment with a giant snakelike creature in the background that I won’t spoil, but it almost felt like Limbo in terms of making you feel small, insignificant and helpless in a hostile, massive environment.
The game has an inkling of what it wants to do but the occasional sense of wonder and exploration is constantly eclipsed by the repetitive fights with nanites. Corridors and areas may look big and open but the game generally runs you through a strictly linear procession of shooting galleries with very occasional branches leading to more power-ups. There’s not even any real reason to go after those either since you get plenty of these just by shooting your opponents. The game also offers a ‘secret’ collectible in every level, but this boils down to finding the one out-of-the-way branch in the level, solving the threadbare puzzle and grabbing it without any hassle. Everything feels stretched paper-thin; every captivating moment has half a mile of filler space between it.
The game has trouble taking advantage of the freedom that could have been offered in an environment like the human body. There was an achievement for getting through a level using only movement enhancing add-ons, which I thought sounded interesting, so I equipped three flippers. Then less than a minute into the level I was forced to fight off several nanite infections in order to open a gate and continue onwards, meaning I had to die and respawn in order to equip weapons. It leads to this sense of the game lacking direction, as if members of the team didn’t communicate with one another. If the game had embraced the sense of open free roaming exploration that it seemed to want to go for, MicroBot could have been a vastly different experience.
The developers of MicroBot genuinely seemed to be trying to create a thoughtful experience, so I’m inclined to be nice to it. I appreciate the effort I occasionally saw but the repetition, lack of direction, and overall vanilla nature of the game far outweigh the good bits. Its appeal is mostly just a time sink reminiscent of a Flash game you would play online when you have some time to kill or want to procrastinate. If a time sink is all you want then this could at least be worth a demo, but I hope you enjoy the environments because you’ll be seeing a lot of them.
The human body is marvelously brought to life in the atmospheres of MicroBot, but the repetition wears each segment thin
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The stick shooting's only unique feature is the upgrades system, but you'll probably just pick a rapid-fire weapon and stick with it the entire game
The soundtrack is quiet, thoughtful and mixes seamlessly with the levels
The game will last a decent chunk of time for a downloadable title but only because of severe padding, and beyond that there isn't much replay
MicroBot's ambition seems constantly undercut by time or money constraints, leaving it a well-intended but very average game