Blissfully subtle, MicroBot transports the player on an unexpected journey through the human body. If Ikaruga is an intense white noise record, where previously unseen patterns slowly materialise through the chaos, then MicroBot is the Ibiza comedown track. This is a story of when science goes wrong.
How far can science go before we begin to play god? No longer is any scientific goal impossible. Microhexon Research has made the next breakthrough in medical technology, the MicroBot. Development of the MicroBot will revolutionise medicine. MicroBots are designed to assist the body’s natural immune system in fighting a range of illnesses and disease. Those fond of Joe Dante’s 1987 film Innerspace will be familiar with certain components of the plot.
Inevitably, due to a serious malfunction, the MicroBots turn hostile towards the host. Absorbing cells and splicing with the host’sDNA, the technology is wreaking havoc on a microscopic level. To stop the biomechanical infestation you’ve been tasked with piloting cutting-edge MicroBot technology. Capable of extensive customisation, you have to battle to the source of the infestation and save the host before it’s too late.
Injected straight into the bloodstream, MicroBot is fundamentally a top-down shooter. The left-stick handles controls with the right-stick firing in any desired direction. Right and left triggers activate auxiliary upgrades such as a harpoon or hydronuke. Navigation is responsive and an onscreen map can be brought up at any time. MicroBot covers the basics well. As you track down the source of the infestation, you’ll explore a number of exotic body areas. Each area has its own theme and colour, split into several sectors. The strong use of colour ties in nicely with the pace of gameplay and ambient score. It looks as good as it sounds; literally.
There are some generally breathtaking moments from beginning to end. Similar to the lucid moments conjured up by Metroid Prime; entering new environments can be a beautiful and comforting experience. Coupled with a fitting ambient soundtrack, it is a pleasure to be washed along with the currents of bodily fluids. Even when the tide turns against you it never becomes frustrating. The backgrounds have depth too; something unusual for shmups. Veins and nerves cut across the screen or disappear into the abyss. Organ walls are translucent, bubbles rise from the depths below, red blood cells float by and white blood cells can be befriended to help wage war on the intruders. The human body resembles the dark unknown depths of the sea. It can be a daunting and friendless void at times.
Terrorised by the malfunctioned MicroBots who will do their best to stop you, you have to fight not only for your own life, but for the hosts. The mechanical infestation has invaded living bacteria, built electronic barriers deep within tissue and a few have evolved into giant mechanical beasts that will chase you like possessed carbine harvesters. To help battle these AI critters you’ll collect atoms to build and strengthen your MicroBot. Supplementary limbs can be scavenged following boss fights and upgrade stations allow you to swap and change parts. In total, there are around twenty additional parts. The only restriction on placement of weapons and motors is the number of joints you’ve installed. Want to have guns and motors on both the front and back? That’s fine. Playing it safe by increasing defence and attaching more motors will allow you to sustain more damage and move faster. Sacrificing movement ability for more weapons will help blast the living atoms from the waves of incoming enemies. Your personally customised MicroBot can be used during the title screen, on any level you’ve unlocked and in the Challenge mode.
To enhance replayability the levels themselves are partly randomised. Elements will remain the same but much is randomly generated. As you’ll struggle to upgrade all the parts and abilities during the first playthrough this is a great way to get people back into the game for a second time. There is also a Challenge mode to test you skills. A common feature in games, you have to survive for as long as you can through various sections and against wave upon wave of the infestation. There is also a co-op mode allowing two players to tackle the man-made infestation. Everyone loves a bit of co-op these days.
The presentation in MicroBot is first-class. At the menu screen you are able to control your MicroBot and fire, all whilst selecting options. The background to the main title screen also varies. Apart from the usual shmup sounds of several weapons, all the compositions and sound effects are well produced and help to create both a soothing and claustrophobic experience. Graphically, it doesn’t instantly stand out of the crowd until you notice the subtle affects. The light from your MicroBot can be seen reflected on walls and cavities around you, veins down below can be seen pumping blood to a steady heartbeat. The attention to detail in this downloadable title is surgically precise. Like the nanobots themselves, MicroBot revels in its tiny features.
However, the biological aspects of the environment are much more interesting than the mechanical. While the early sectors are attractive on the eyes, the latter levels aren’t as unique and strong. There are times when MicroBot’s ambition limits its flow. The opening level, whilst a feast upon the eyes, is slow moving and those used to gaming sessions that consist of drinking cans of Red Bull and performing no-scope headshots online may find the pace too slow. Customising is cumbersome. The dial is unresponsive until the realisation that you need to hold the control stick at the option you want. Nothing is explained regarding strengths of weapons and motors. Much like the MicroBot itself, you’re left alone to try out every possible combination of weapon and motor. It’s a daring move to let go of the players hand as soon as the game beings, leaving them to fully explore the games possibilities. Whilst I commend the developers for this some gamers will be left alone and lost.
Timed electric gates and other pieces of old level design remain. Bundle together to create mazes, coming into contact with the gates/lasers causes huge damage. These sections serve no purpose other than to make the game appear harder than it is. Turok did a similar thing in 1997 and everyone hated it then. When under attack it’s difficult to tell how close to death you are, and how much damage different ‘bots do. A fire fight will be going well and then, bang, you’re dead. Upon death the camera floats back to the last checkpoint and the MicroBot is respawned. With such attention to detail in other sections of the game it would have been nice to see pieces of the MicroBot quickly dart back to the checkpoint and rebuild themselves during the respawn countdown. Discovering a secret is highlighted by that Zelda sound effect, and atom collectors similar to the gnomes in Golden Axe can be shot to release their contents.
MicroBot is both new and old. For every element that works wonderfully there is an archaic piece of design in place that simply slows down progress. By taking a few more risks and adding variation in the later levels this could have been a full-blooded release. Even with a few muscle knots, MicroBot is a thoroughly enjoyable adventure through the human body for any gamer with an ounce of patience.