Monday, 09 July 2018 09:00

Insane Robots Preview

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Insane Robots by Playniac is a rogue-lite, RPG, and a card battle game, all in one. Games are quick matches of a few rounds of combat and if you die you lose your progress on that run. You progress through an overworld between combats, purchasing upgrades and advancing your character. Combat is comprised of turns wherein you and your opponent build up your board state from a batch of semi-random cards to reduce each other’s life points to zero.


The core gameplay loop is the turn-based combat, using energy to play cards to defeat your opponent. While in other card games you can tailor your deck to your play style, Insane Robots offers none of that. Each character draws from the same pool of cards with no variation in play style. The only difference between characters is the upgrade they start with — an upgrade which can be purchased by any other character in the overworld. Worse, these innate upgrades only affect the overworld gameplay, easily the most boring part of the game.


Occasionally, you will get lucky and destroy an opponent in three turns, as it takes three energy to attack and you start at one energy, gaining an additional energy each turn. More often, you will find yourself staring down your opponent, both of you at maximum attack and defense, spending your energy on hacks and glitches, passing your turn because you don’t have enough energy to attack from advantage. Then your opponent fortifies their defenses and lowers your attack. Round and round goes this exchange, until one of you lucks out to be able to surmount the other’s defense.

This back-and-forth also makes attacking more than once a bad idea. Typically, it’s better to alpha-strike your opponent, reducing them to zero health in one attack. If you fail to do this, then you have to build your attack back up, hoping to luck into two-attack cards to complete your attack circuit and finish them off before they can complete their defense circuit and start the stalemate anew. Worse, should you attack with a defensive boost on the field, like Deflect or Inverse, it will use up that boost despite not giving you anything for it. Compounding this issue is the lack of inevitable end state. In other card battle games, like Hearthstone or Magic: the Gathering, you have a deck of limited cards. If you run out of that resource, you start taking progressively more damage, or you lose outright. The only end state in Insane Robots is the aforementioned destruction of one of the participating parties, and so the stalemate continues.


The one interesting feature of Insane Robots is the ability to combine like cards in your hand to form new cards. If you find yourself with too many Defend or Attack cards, you can combine them into a more powerful hybrid that can be played in either slot. If you have too many Hack cards (the only cards that allow you to interact with the attack and defense values of your opponent) you can combine them into other cards, oftentimes Energy, Direct Damage, or Cash cards. With enough ingenuity and energy, you can always have the cards you need at any time.


Overall, there's no way to permanently impact your opponent. When it's your opponent's turn, you can get up, get yourself a drink, and come back when it's your turn again and not have missed anything. Anything you can do to your opponent can easily be undone in the next turn. Anything your opponent does to you can similarly be reversed. There's no tense moment where you counter your opponent's win condition and secure your victory. There's no frantic scramble to regroup as your opponent destroys your defenses and leaves you vulnerable. The game seems to perpetually be in a trinary state: either you've won, you've lost, or you're in a stalemate. There's no position of advantage or disadvantage.


Insane Robots has short blurbs of dialogue between your chosen robot and Spark, your mentor and guide through the story, that are snarky and sarcastic but failed to elicit more than an errant chuckle from me. The art direction is cohesive. The character designs are charming and saccharine, if a bit bland. They boil down to one or two key features, like a cat head or a bowtie, and not much else. The interface is similarly simple. The clean, mobile-inspired menus don't overwhelm you, but lack individuality. When I first started the game, I immediately felt like I had seen this kind of mobile port of a game many times before. However, this is not a mobile port. (It will see a full release on PC, Xbox One, and PS4 on July 10th.)

The sound design straddles the line between pensive, New Age-esque music and blaring, twangy country rock. I actually quite liked the calmer tracks as I prowled the overworld for cash and upgrades. The other end of the spectrum works well for the fights but can also appear in the overworld, creating dissonance between gameplay and action. This can immediately be felt in the main menu, where the intro track roars to life over a static image of the cast.

The Verdict

Insane Robots suffers from a series of poor design decisions that wind up making it exceedingly average. I encountered no real bugs during my playthrough. All the systems appear to work as intended. Unfortunately, what was intended doesn't really stand out meaningfully from the crowd. While I hope Playniac can bolster the core gameplay later with more content via patches and DLC, in its current state it's difficult to recommend.

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John Gerritzen

John Gerritzen is a programmer by education, author by hobby, and game critic by occupation. While he usually favors RPGs, he will play anything that engages him narratively or mechanically. When he's not playing games for fun or profit, he's usually reading or watching anime.


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