A little beat-‘em-up never hurt anybody.
Spyborgs is one confusing game. The confusion begins with its history; in 2008 at a Capcom press event, the first footage of the title was shown. This footage was met with little excitement, and in response, the game underwent a massive overhaul that transformed it from action/puzzle title into no-nonsense brawler. But many gamers were more interested in the team behind the game (called Bionic Games) than the genre discrepancies: consisting of ex-developers of the Ratchet & Clank and Resistance: Fall of Man games, there was reason to believe that their first project would carry an impact.
And so, here we are. The story is as follows: Earth’s first line of defense is known as the Spyborgs, a group of injured soldiers who were cybernetically-enhanced and sent back out to fight and destroy. But when the operatives begin to disappear suddenly, the public becomes concerned about what precisely is going on behind the scenes. Spyborgs Stinger, Bouncer, and Clandestine are now on a mission to investigate what role their ex-teammate Colt and former leader Jackal have in this catastrophe.
Thusly, you begin your violent robot-spanking romp through roughly 30 futuristic 3-D battlefields in search of some answers and some stress relief (the heavy metal soundtrack contributes its part). Spyborgs is part anime, part comic book, all Saturday Morning Cartoon badassery. It’s designed as a two-player co-op brawler where all the usual rules apply (constant battles, countless—sometimes seemingly infinite—enemies, massive bosses), so you should expect to spend the vast majority of your time running, fighting, running, fighting… but as usual, when you’re playing with a friend, it can be surprisingly entertaining in that Dynasty Warriors sort of way.
You control your character with the Wii-mote and nunchuk in traditional form, and laying the smack down is nothing complex: you’ve got two forms of attack—“light” and “strong”, as the manual refers to them—and both of them are performed by button press (B or C, respectively). Various combinations of these buttons produce different attacks, some which hit multiple enemies at once, and others which can launch them through the air and to their doom. You can also jump with A, but that’s mainly to help you escape groups of enemies and execute one of two airborne attacks (there is absolutely no focus on platforming here). As such, you’ll probably actually find yourself using it more often to unveil cloaked items throughout the levels—a process which requires you to first point at them with the Wii Remote, then hold A and swipe it upward. It works well enough, and if you’re paying attention, you’ll run across a slew of different crates carrying helpful little pellets that can A) restore your health, B) fill your special meter, or C) give you money.
Oh yeah—and you can block, too, though you probably won’t find yourself using it as much as you might expect, mainly thanks to the fact that it’s tough to pay attention to oncoming enemy attacks in the heat of the three-dimensional battle (and when your view is sometimes obstructed by your well-meaning ally). There are five selectable difficulties, however (adjustable at any point throughout the game), and on anything Normal and above, if you don’t apply the blocking maneuver on a regular basis, you’ll find yourself quickly wiped out. When that occurs, by the way, the other character is left to deal with the rest of the current wave of enemies on their own; after that, the ally reappears, low on health.
As you’ve already read, the game is designed to be enjoyed cooperatively, and even if you don’t have another human to play with, it’ll assign a CPU-controlled ally who’s actually surprisingly competent and unobtrusive (and pretty hard to kill, too). Of course, it isn’t nearly as fun this way, but it’s at least playable.
Nothing substitutes for the necessary communication between two humans, however, especially when you’re planning team attacks together. These are performed by filling your special meter (possible via combat and collection of orange pellets from crates) and then pressing Z while swinging the Wii remote to enter a special combo attack sequence. At that point, both players will see a command flash on the screen (either a button or a gesture). If they successfully execute their side of the equation, the attack succeeds. It’s also possible to perform single-player finishers when one character is dead, but those aren’t quite as powerful, of course. These attacks are fun, though—as you might expect—the motion controls can occasionally prove troublesome.
At the end of each level (and, in fact, even accessible from the pause menu), you’ll also find an upgrades shop, where you can use those valuable red pellets (the game calls them “Sparks”) to purchase improvements and new techniques. There isn’t a whole heck of a lot of upgrading to be done, but each category (Health, Damage, Moves, and Special) possesses a few different “rank” levels, providing an element of progressive depth.
On that same note, throughout your battles, the game keeps track of combos as well; as long as you continue to attack steadily, this combo count rises. You’re ranked at the end of each wave of enemies (think Viewtiful Joe) based on your combo performance. After each level, your combos contribute to your Red Sparks currency in the form of a multiplier, making it much easier to score upgrades if you’re playing with some degree of combo-based strategy. And furthermore, later upgrades provide temporary invincibility after each KO, which you can use to keep your combos going (and that’s all the more incentive to do so).
The game’s thirty-something levels vary widely in length—anywhere from just a couple of minutes long to around fifteen or twenty minutes. Each mission starts off with a choice of your character from one of the three available; the upgrades you’ve purchased are attached to the characters themselves, so you’ll have to keep them all pretty consistent if you’re planning on using all three of them.
The most balanced character, Stinger, is fairly quick and moderately powerful. He’s got a machine gun as his strong attack (it also can shoot rockets), so it’s good for range, but not so hot for close combat. Clandestine is quicker and wields a sword to help her slice through the opposition—she happens to be my favorite. And then there’s Bouncer, a massive, lumbering, gorilla-like robot that just loves to pound anything and everything into the ground. He’s a serious killer provided someone with a little speed backs him up to help pick off all the small robots attacking from different angles.
Later missions introduce trickier concepts, such as cloaked enemies, which can be a serious pain in the rear if you aren’t paying attention. And then there are the game’s three bosses, which are simply massive and nothing short of hardcore. Even the first one is a multiple-stage battle, and they’re all pretty clever and unique. You’ll find yourself using your reflexes more than in regular combat, as the game will sometimes pop up commands throughout the battle (buttons and gestures, again) that are necessary to defeat the boss. This works well most of the time, but the gesturing does present issues—as usual—seemingly whenever you need it to work the most. For instance, pulling out the wires and energy core of the first boss shouldn’t be that difficult (as you’ve already whittled his health down to zero), but both players have to quickly and correctly complete their commands to finish him off. On multiple occasions, we did, but the gesture was not read properly and the boss regained some health.
Delightfully challenging, yet unrefined (who’s up for wings?)
For the most part, gameplay is smooth yet challenging. The mostly button-based control schemes get the job done, though three dimensional combat is always a bit of a challenge, especially when the camera is fixed at an angle. There are definite some camera issues when fighting takes place near a bend, or when one player is fighting something off-screen or very far away in the distance. In light of that, it might have been nice to be able to control the view, but by the same token, babysitting a camera and trying to battle cybernetic warriors in three dimensions might have presented more problems than it would solve.
However, there are problems far greater than the camera at work here. Throughout the game, you’re practically guaranteed to encounter a number of bugs which sometimes require restarting a mission; they’re uncomfortably common. Most often this occurs when you’ve defeated all the enemies in a certain area but one, and that last enemy has been thrown over an edge someplace—for instance, through a red barrier which your characters cannot pass. Those barriers are removed when all enemies in the area are killed, but since one of them is beyond it and won’t return, you can’t progress and must instead restart the mission.
There are other reasons for these hang-ups as well, however. One of the most noticeable is Mission 3-8 (which takes place aboard a speeding ship at sea), where we spent at least five minutes walking around in isolation after killing all of the enemies before finally giving up and restarting. The second time, the same thing happened again; but upon combing the wall near the front of the ship, a few little enemies popped right out of nowhere. This wasn’t by design; these enemies were literally stuck in the wall somehow. There were three in total, and it happened on two separate occasions, making this a pretty serious problem. Finally, we encountered some video glitches as well, such as stuck polygons pretty seriously obstructing the view and—again—forcing a restart of the mission.
In spite of the attractive visuals, the entire game honestly feels a bit rushed—not just thanks to the aforementioned glitches and camera issues, but also some aspects of the general presentation. For instance, while the rockin’ heavy metal music fits the bill, it’s also recycled far more often than it ought to be. Heck, the credits theme, a couple of the last levels, and the main menu theme are all precisely the same song. Combine that with the fact that the cut scenes tell a story that, for the most part, makes almost no sense in the end (the ending itself is a major letdown… unless it’s entirely different on the high difficulties), and you’ve got one confusing package.
(On a side note, as interesting as some of the game’s “hidden cassette tape” contents are, do not approach Spyborgs expecting a cohesive and comprehensive storyline, as it will leave you absolutely dazed and confused. I sat for literally fifteen minutes in stupor after completing the game, trying to figure out what the hell had just happened.)
Taken for what it is
But approached properly, Spyborgs can provide entertainment. It’s a standard-fare beat-‘em-up with a fancy visual presentation that can keep a couple of friends busy over a weekend. There are some wise design decisions that support the game’s appeal as a cooperative experience and make it worth playing with some friends if you’re really just looking for something new to distract you on the Wii.
Breaking apart health crates, for instance, automatically distributes the health optimally depending on who needs it most (this eliminates the otherwise inevitable arguments over, for instance, who ate the damned pizza when Leonardo is so obviously on his last leg). It’s also easy for a second player to jump in and out of the gameplay whenever is convenient; when only one person is playing, they can swap between characters at will.
In terms of longevity, the story mode contains around six hours of actual gameplay (on higher difficulties, of course, you have to figure in the amount of time spent losing and retrying… which will be a lot—believe me). There are 37 levels total (including the three boss battles) and the option to continue playing with your upgraded characters after you complete the game. Beating each of the four difficulty modes also unlocks other items as well, such as new modes (Infinite Arena and Boss Rush), a fifth difficulty level, and even cheats. Plus, you’ll find unlockable concept art galleries, 18 hidden movie clips, and hidden tapes throughout each level, each of which provides a short audio clip furthering the story behind the Spyborg project (the voice acting’s really quite good!).
But that’s ignoring one major point: the game’s awfully repetitive. Earlier, Dynasty Warriors was referenced—and that’s no joke. Spyborgs’ combat is definitely satisfying to a degree, but it’s also the same thing over and over up until the very end, no matter how you slice it (or shoot it). Sure, there’s more dodging and some uncloaking required here and there, and the bad guys definitely get tougher, but the same techniques still apply. About the only thing keeping you playing is the fact that you’re able to upgrade your characters and you want to see where the story takes you (which, by the way, in case it hasn’t been made clear, should not be a motivating factor in your playing this game).
On top of that, as you play, the game quickly becomes frustratingly cheap with seemingly no recourse apart from lowering the difficulty. This isn’t Viewtiful Joe where you know you just need to get better; no, it’s genuinely frustrating, no matter your gaming temperament. It’d be different if it was easier to follow the action on the screen, but in conjunction with the problematic camera, combat often devolves into a series of button mashes with attempted dodges and blocks that don’t contribute much when you are being quadruple-teamed. The later missions on the last couple of worlds are positively grueling, and it doesn’t always seem fair. Chances are, you’ll find yourself lowering the difficulty gradually and precipitously until you’re on the lowest setting and you’re just working to get the game over with (that’s what happened to us, and we’re hardly wuss gamers).
So as long as you’ve got a friend to play with, you’re okay with quite a bit of repetition, and you promise not to get all bent out of shape when the story makes no sense, Spyborgs might entertain you for a night or two. Just do me a favor: if anyone actually figures out what the heck is going on in the ending, could you please send me a message? Greatly appreciated.