I love indie mobile games. Mobile gaming is growing in a big way; new processors bringing more complicated game builds to portable devices, and more developers seeing iOS App Store and Google Play Store as legitimate business platforms for hosting their content. All of this has led to some of the most innovative titles being available in my pocket at all times. For me, they are the best way to relax on a long train ride home after a day at the office. It’s no secret that I’m continuously pouring through the ever growing library of mobile games on the App store, looking for a new zen experience.
I stumbled across Malevolent Machines, a “steampunk shoot ‘em up meets endless runner” by Goodnight Games LLC at a new york indie games play crafting event. It looked good: nice graphics, decent gameplay, and an interesting hook.
The game starts off with a tutorial, and we learn that your machine friend who looks like he’s got a soul trapped in there is permanently affixed to the rear plane and can shoot floating monsters/robots with three different weapon styles. He’s your buddy and protects against background attackers. We’re put through the paces of making sure we understand that we should shoot down any incoming piece of hardware or die. Got it.
Next we meet Leyla, the woman who looks a lot like Amy Lee from Evanescence but with a flaming blue arm who defends the foreground against the coming wave of enemies. The controls for Leyla are pretty straight forward: Green stuff on the ground means Jump over it, Red stuff means slide under it, and blue things mean attack it head on with a forward-swipe. Pretty standard, and very handy to have the whole world color coordinate itself around your attack style. The tutorial also identifies where your landing zone is to better time your jumps and slides, and indicates the attack wall space where your damage will be played out when you attack, but this doesn’t persist into the main levels thankfully.
We come to level one, where basically re-hashing of the tutorial plays out in terms of difficulty and we have no trouble getting through the level. Shoot down some drones, jump over some pits, slide under some stuff and blast that guy in the face with a frosty freeze ray (or superheated flame arm – unclear). We shortly find ourselves in level two.
Typically I don’t give a progression level to level like this, but it’s important I do so because it’s critical to my experience of the game, and in this case, level two was strikingly irritating. Level two starts out the same as level one, seemingly a rapid play out again and I was starting to get worried that the game would be too easy and not a challenge. No sooner had this thought crossed my mind when a pop up indicated that a new enemy type had appeared! The enemy was a green thing and a small dialogue underneath indicated I should jump to overcome this new obstacle. I had to press continue to continue and dismiss the dialogue box. I was confused, was I still in the tutorial level?
No sooner had I defeated the first new monster when the game froze a SECOND TIME to introduce a SECOND new monster. This one was a bright Red, and sure enough, I needed to slide under to defeat it. I’m glad I was told this again, I have the memory of a gerbil.
Once again, though I sort of expected it this time, a THIRD pop up blocked my progress. Are they gonna ask me to pay to unlock the “not-a-baby” mode that takes away these tool-tips? No. It’s a floating grenade this time that I have to shoot to destroy. This one sort of irritated me more than the first two pop ups, mostly because the entire game so far has focused on Leyla taking care of ground enemies, and Juggerbot shooting down flying things in the background. Pretty cool concept. But literally it’s the only thing Juggerbot can do: shoot down stuff in the background. So, to instruct me that “hey there’s a new floating thing, defeat it by doing the same thing you’ve been doing to every other floating thing” felt really grating. I even wrote it down initially in all caps: WHY.
Without warning, (which was a surprise based on past level experience), I was thrust into a battle with a giant elephant hurling meteors at Juggerbot. Finally! A challenge! I quickly learned after being struck a few times that shooting down the meteors is good, and after a few volleys the shield around the elephant drops and you’re able to land a few good hits on it before the shield comes back up. I discovered here that If you rapid-fire your fingers you can shoot pretty much your whole supply of ammo in under 3 seconds and take down the elephant’s health by 2/3rd. It’s a pretty great strategy, and there’s no downside to doing this. This part was really fun – in fact, WAY MORE fun than the learning cycle of level 1 and 2.
HALT! I am the Elephant man.
World 2 and beyond get much better, if only in the sense that they start to throw so many enemies at you that you have to actually focus to get them all, and it is a much better experience from that point forward. There are 5 worlds, multiple levels on each world and interspersed boss battles. On level 2 of each world, more fresh enemies are explained, and the game somewhat suffers from a need to hand-hold you through the experience that doesn’t need hand holding. Once you’ve learned the basic combat styles and play, you can (and will) figure out how to string them together. (ducking under the red bullet before blasting the guy outlined in blue). (Jumping over the green boomerang and then sliding under the red boomerang and blasting the guy in the face, outlined in blue). I look forward to the patch that allows me to disable hints in the options menu, I expect I’d have much more fun getting lost in the zen of destroying enemies that way.
The second boss battle followed mostly the same as the first, excepting that this time was a giant skeleton that had a tank pop out. (usually it’s the opposite, so that was nice). The boss battles are by far my favorite parts of this game. They don’t hold your hand, you figure out the attack styles and you press forward and do your best to survive. If every level was a boss level, I’d be happy.
It’s worth noting that there’s no sense of a health bar or meter for enemies. The indicator you get is if Leyla is taking too much damage a bloody film around the edge of the display grows in, and if juggerbot is hurt he starts to smoke. (Smoking kills). But, it’s pretty easy to die because you aren’t aware of how much more damage you can take. Git gud I guess.
Monocle pops out in anger
Final thought: Why doesn’t Leyla leave Juggerbot at home? He seems to draw a whole bunch of additional fire that doesn’t affect Leyla in any way. Just sorta gets in the way (though it is fun to destroy the bosses with missiles). None of the floaty things can attack her, so protecting the other is sort of a moot point. In fact, the only bad-guy in the game that could attack both her and Juggerbot was the boss levels. Why not just avoid those guy on your trip to the supermarket or library that’s in hell or whatever?
The $1.99 price point is not unreasonable for what you’re getting. The music is pretty well done and the experience is much better in world 2 and onwards (though one might argue that the difficulty scaling is exponential and soon will overwhelm just based on sheer numbers alone). This is a cool concept, it’s a nice twist on an old classic runner style game, and it’s actually something that I can see being really good, after some additional updates.