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Review: Ultratron

2013-03-28_00005What is Ultratron? Is it some kind of unholy, Voltron-esque melding of Ultraman and Megatron…? A giant, robotic beast, destined to rule over the entirety of humankind? And if it is – should you be worried? Should you prepare yourself to fight back against this improbable foe? Or should we submit to the monster, allowing it to rule over us, on fear of death? …no. Because Ultratron is a videogame available on PC, Mac, and Linux, idiot.

Ultratron (PC)
Developed and published by Puppy Games

It’s a well-known fact that robots have no emotions – or, rather, they have an emotion. That emotion is hate. Hatred for mankind. This is why robots are bad, and must be destroyed. If I learned anything from the documentary, Terminator 2, it is that robots will eventually enslave the entirety of humanity and we have to stop them before they do. Well, Ultratron only fuels my hatred for sentient machines, painting a grim picture indeed… of a future in which all humans are dead!

Taking liberal cues from Robotron: 2084, Ultratron is an isometric arena shooter in which you shoot at robots. You are the last “humanoid battle robot” – a human brain, implanted into a battle chassis – and it is your job to avenge the lost human race. That is literally the extent of the plot. Ultratron concerns itself not with narratives – although it does have an astonishing degree of character for such a wafer thin story.

2013-03-28_00003An omnipresent robotic voice mocks you from above, as you assault his facility. He fancies himself a bit of a Shodan type, likely, but you can tell he’s a lame-ass try-hard. He barks commands like “destroy all humanoids,” and he says stuff like “humanoid detected,” and occasionally he cries “all humanoids must die.” With the shrill, synthetic voice of a rejected Doctor Who villain, and the personality of an utter asshole, he’s the kind of guy you’ll love to hate. He is your sworn enemy during your playtime of Ultratron, and it is against his minions you must fight to avenge the entirety of humanity – exciting stuff!

Gameplay is simple. It’s a twin-stick arena shooter – you move in directions with one stick and shoot at stuff with the other. This being the case, you might want to bring a gamepad – though I played the whole game with mouse and keyboard and did just fine. It owes a lot to its arcade roots, though, and a more arcade-style setup will do you well. With mouse aim, you can freely target anywhere on the screen, which makes strafing far easier, but I often lost my targeting reticle amid the chaos of battle.

The game starts off deceptively easy. Single waves of robots pile in, walking slow like in Robotron (even moving with jagged, single-frame animations like in Robotron – a very nice touch). You shoot them and they all die. Also, this being a universe in which killer death robots apparently carry their spare change on them, they drop coins. The coins give you cash which you can spend on upgrades, between levels.

You can upgrade things like your shield (read: life bar) and smart bombs (read: smart bombs), but more cool is that you can upgrade the power of your primary weapon, the distance at which you slurp up coins, and other such neat tricks. You can also employ the services of cute little “pet” robots, equipped with machine guns, lasers, and rockets. They’re painfully adorable little bastards, they are, and you can level them up, too. You won’t be able to upgrade everything in one playthrough (before you reach the final boss, anyway), so there’s a degree of replayability in mixing and matching different upgrades on different runs.

2013-04-05_00005There are also power-ups, which you pick up from a certain kind of enemy (think the motherships from Space Invaders). Upon picking them up, they are active for a short period of time – you can pick up several at once, though, so oftentimes I ran into a scenario where I had (for example) triple shot and rapid fire and ricochet bullets switched on, all at once. It was devastating to the enemy! They showed up in waves like “hello I would like to wreck your shit” and I was like “YOU AIN’T GONNA WRECK MY SHIT SON I AM GONNA WRECK YOUR SHIT” and they were like “OH NOO”. It was delightfully simple in a very therapeutic kind of way. Mowing down robot scum? I can think of worse ways of spending an afternoon.

Then something happened.

The game got harder.

Then it kept getting harder.

Soon it reached a point where the robots would say “hello I would like to wreck your shit” and I was like “YOU AIN’T GONNA WRECK MY SH oh I’m dead.” It was terribly embarrassing, I tell you that much. …I guess my point is that the game has a difficulty curve that veers straight upwards almost immediately, with little warning. It just got to a certain level and… bam, I’m getting my ass kicked by the same robots that moments ago were little more than cannon fodder.

You might think I’d be bitter about it, but I’m really not. With forty levels and a focus on high-scoring perfection, Ultratron is very much an old-school arcade classic through and through. Part of that is that it is balls-hard, and I respect that. It takes less than an hour to reach the final boss, anyway, and the game does provide you with checkpoints at key spots, so it’s not unfair by any stretch. Perfection is rewarded, though, and incompetence is punished – and if you want to ramp up your score multiplier you’ll be facing a harder challenge than if you just wanted to get to the end. Hell, even then, you’ll be faced with one helluva challenge – of the forty levels, there are checkpoints every ten.

2013-03-29_00008Perhaps Ultratron’s greatest accomplishment is its presentation. To the untrained eye, the game is a retro-styled pixel-based nostalgia-fishing indie title – one of the hundreds. That may be true; it certainly does have so few pixels you can count them, and it certainly is fishing for nostalgia… though in that aspect, it is more of a loving homage to classics like Robotron and Smash TV. However, there’s an implied ugliness to the application of the term “retro-style” … which is unfair because Ultratron is one of the most visually impressive games I have ever played.

Puppy Games call it “retro chic” – I’d prefer to call it an “apocalyptic rave.” With a fantastic soundtrack pulsing in the background that sounds like the best of Super Meat Boy crossed with the best of Hotline Miami (yes), consistent video scan lines on-screen, and a glowing neon particle effects-infused aesthetic, Ultratron is like stepping onto a hellish, robot-infested dance floor. While the characters are made out of pixelated sprites and are animated to an… acceptable standard – it is the colour schemes, the bursting of lasers, the 3D video effects and the sheer bombardment of things that make Ultratron look as fantastically pretty does. Puppy Games have had this aesthetic nailed since Revenge of the Titans and it just keeps getting better. Colours clash and explode, lights pulse and glow, the pixels have a sheen and polish to them quite unlike anything I can recall. It is “futuristic retro,” and it creates a tantalizing fireworks display, one not even the magical BIT.TRIP series could ever manage to replicate.

Unfortunately, the visual sheen is part of Ultratron’s major downfall. With the difficulty curve so steep an upward slope: the lasers ricocheting and glowing against the walls, the analogue lights spewing a neon rainbow right into your brain… it is really hard to pinpoint what part of the screen needs your attention. There’s just too much information. You need to pay attention to enemy bullets, dodging and weaving like a Japanese SHMUP – but you also need to pay close eye on your own position, on where you’re aiming, on the enemy positions, on the enemies where they’re spawning in, on explosion radius, on how much energy your power-ups have left, on your health, on… ahh. Ahhh! This would be fine if it was all easily readable, but the immaculately beautiful visual stylings prevent that.

2013-04-06_00001It does assist the game in its endeavor to recreate the harsh environments of the 80s arcade cabinets it’s aiming to emulate, but it causes a degree of confusion and bewilderment that quite disarmed me. The health bar, remaining smart bombs, and other such information is doled out to the upper right-hand corner of the screen, but the bars telling you how much time is remaining on your power-ups surround your character itself. It’s made worse when you add one of the adorable pet robots to the mix – when they’re hit by enemy fire, your multiplier is deactivated. It can be rather frustrating when you’ve perfectly dodged every last bullet, but because little Squeaky was falling behind he bit it and lost you a chunk of score. I also often lost my own character buried under the lights, lasers, explosions and the myriad of particle effects. Lost my own character. Eek.

It doesn’t matter, though, all said and done. The sheen of the presentation extends to creativity of the designs – some enemies are ripped straight from Robotron, eerily marching silently towards you one frame at a time (before being torn, several frames at a time). But others are compellingly original – from glowing “nerfdroids” which lay down tiny skulls that disable all your power-ups, to creepy-crawly spidroids, and to giant skull heads that float around the map with a flashing cranium. The bosses in particular are a ton of fun to look at – hulking, Smash TV-esque monstrosities that take up a good quarter of the screen and throw more missiles than the entirety of China at every possible pixel around your current location. One boss in particular actually goes so far as to quote Sinistar – “beware, corward, I live” – though he did kill me while I was being impressed by that. Which is cheating, surely.

I also love that the ally pet rocket robot jumps perpetually up and down with gleeful excitement. He’s just so freaking happy to be apart of the team! He’s like “I’M READY BOSS! I’MMA BLAST ROCKETS! KABOOM! HEY DIDYA SEE ME BOSS??” It’s so goddamn cute! In a way, this “style over substance” (though not to imply Ultratron has no substance as a score attack game) mentality walks Ultratron away with nothing but praise. It may only take an hour to “finish” – give or take, depending on how many times you die horribly – but afterwards, it loops through the levels in a New Game+ mode. It just loops forever, presumably, allowing you to play until you die – earning your place, and rightly so, at the top of the charts. The high score boards are to be admired, and the tracking of the high scores is almost as impressive.

Ultratron may be the epitome of style over substance, but the style is so damn well-executed – and so damn pretty – that it doesn’t matter. It is a game which is fundamentally satisfying, and if you like what you see – and why wouldn’t you – I definitely wouldn’t hesitate to lay down the tenner Puppy Games is asking for it. It’s fast, fun, frantic, but above all it is an utterly charming visual feast – much like the rest of Puppy Games’ catalogue. A stellar game from a stellar studio – what more could you ask for? (Besides a more readable HUD, I mean.)

Final Score: 7.5/10

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