Voltron: Defender of the Universe Review
Publisher: THQ / Developer: Behaviour Interactive / Price: $9.99 / Played on: PlayStation 3 / ESRB: Everyone 10+ [Fantasy Violence]
I’ve loved the Voltron cartoon literally since I was a baby. It premiered in 1983 and I was born in ’82, so Voltron holds a similar place in my reptilian under-brain as my parents and extended family—I might as well call him Uncle Voltron. While the downloadable game based on my beloved uncle has its flaws, I was surprised to find that it’s a more-than competent twin-stick shooter, and when playing with friends online, the game finally helps me realize my dream of joining Voltron Force and straight up murdering as many purple alien bastards as possible.
The game follows the show’s basic plot, which itself was made up to fit into un-translated Japanese cartoons: the Voltron Force, comprised of five intrepid space explorers, pilot robot lions and fight the evil Drule Empire from Planet Doom. When the Drule King Zarkon sends giant robeast monsters to cause trouble, the five lion robots form up to become Voltron.
Each level features cutscenes culled from the show, both a blessing and a curse. It’s a total trip being reintroduced to these weird cartoons, but since they’re cut down to little chunks, they can only hint at a larger story. We never find out the characters’ names, or why the guy in the black suit is replaced by a girl in a pink suit. In a way, it recreates the experience of trying to remember a show from your childhood: you half-remember what’s happening, but in the end, all you care about is lions shooting lasers and turning into a giant robot. Fortunately, that’s pretty much all this game’s about.
You choose one of five different colored lions, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, like being better at range or melee. The colors also correspond with elemental weapons—the blue lion shoots ice, the red lion shoots fire, etc. When on the battlefield, it’s a typical twin-stick shooter but with an epic scale. You move at a healthy pace in relation to your enemies, which range from skull-topped tanks to comparatively tiny foot-soldiers. While playing, you feel like a powerful threat rather than a vulnerable target simply trying to avoid death.
But the game’s not easy—you’ll die plenty. When your lion’s health runs out, you enter Survival Mode, putting you in control of the lion’s comparatively teeny pilot, who has nothing but a laser pistol to try and defend himself while the lion recharges for ten seconds—and ten seconds seems to take an awfully long time when you’re trying not to get flattened. Survive and re-enter your lion, and you’re rewarded with full health and bonus points.
There are two power-ups you can pick up, each of which boost attacks or defenses for thirty seconds. The other collectible is the star piece, five of which provide an extra life. In addition, using your special attack costs a star piece, so after five special attacks, you lose a life.
And that’s the main flaw with the single-player campaign: it’s too punishing. It’s possible to beat the game on your own, but it’s tough when what seems like hundreds of laser beams and missile blasts are heading only for you—and in Survival Mode, just forget it. But even this would be forgivable if there weren’t so many inexplicable major life-drains. One second I’d have a pretty full health bar, the next I’d be ejected from the lion, trying in vain not to get squished by a tank tread or blown up. This game needs AI-controlled allies to draw enemies’ fire and take advantage of the fact that Voltron’s a team—just one lion is never going to cut it.
Three times in the game you confront a giant robeast monster who can only be defeated after the lions unite into Voltron. These fights are turn-based quick-time events that, in single-player mode, are pretty easy to win. Attacks come down to successfully stopping a red bar at just the right moment, while defense is simply hitting the right button before the time is up. All in all, playing solo is fun, but it’s a shadow of the glory of multiplayer mode.
Voltron offers local and online co-op for up to five players, letting you join strangers or set up a game with friends. Local co-op works admirably, though the camera can pull back a bit too far to compensate for each player’s field position. To help mitigate this, if one player strays too far from the other, the lion that’s left behind is plopped back into view.
But online multiplayer is the game at its best—suddenly the high volume of firing enemies isn’t as daunting, and each lion’s specialty can shine. When you enter Survival Mode, allies cover your back. Adding yet another interesting (and punishing) wrinkle to multiplayer is the fact that you share one pool of extra lives, so teamwork is a must.
Voltron is meant to be played with as many people as possible. Not only that, but talking to your friends while on a headset during combat helps complete the illusion that, yes, you are piloting a giant robo-lion, and yes, you are a member of Voltron Force.
Playing as the formed-up Voltron is also much more satisfying with allies. Each player takes a turn attacking, while non-attacking players aim—both need to succeed for the attack to hit. Defense succeeds with basic QTE, though each player has to hit a different button. All in all, while quick-time events are far from ideal, they’re probably the best way to approximate what it’s like to collectively fight giant monsters while in a robot made up of lion-appendages.
The controls are extremely responsive, and each lion has a slightly different feel on the field of play. As in all twin-stick shooters, the left stick moves, while the right stick fires in the direction you’re aiming. The extra moves your lion can pull off add depth and complexity to the package.
Either shoulder bumper performs a basic melee attack, though melee’s effectiveness is dependent on which lion you choose. The right trigger performs an extremely satisfying pounce attack; holding the button down slows your lion’s pace, it stops firing, and it stalks his prey. Releasing the trigger unleashes your pounce, and locking onto flying enemies lets you grab them in midair and make them explode upon impact with the ground. It’s fantastic.
I must admit, a small part of me wishes they’d found a more innovative and creative way to battle as the Voltron robot than QTEs, but I’d rather have this system that works pretty well rather than the disaster that could’ve been. The game plays it safe in Voltron’s portions, and I believe it’s better to feel like a little guy pushing buttons in a robo-lion-man-head than experience the failure of janky robo-controls.
While the graphics aren’t mind-blowing, they do an admirable job of conveying a sense of action and weird space-fantasy. The characters’ cel-shading adds to the game’s cartoon-aesthetic. Sometimes the screen is choked with small enemies, making it difficult to tell what’s going on, and often I lost track of my lion amid the chaos of battle. While the frame-rate moves at a very smooth clip most of the time, some frenetic moments during online multiplayer can result in major slow-down. All that aside, I got a major kick out of the way the game turns the show’s flat, 2D designs into three-dimensional models that have a bit of realistic heft to them while never losing their animated spirit. And the decision to simply include scenes from the original show instead of animate new cut scenes was wise in terms of fan-service. You just can’t beat the original.
It seems as though the show’s original cast came back to reprise their roles, including the great Peter “Optimus Prime” Cullen as the narrator. Every so often your character will cheer you on when you score a lot of points, or cry out with cartoonish anguish when they run out of health. The game’s barrage of gunfire and explosion sounds all sound solid, but the game’s music is absolutely fantastic. As soon as you boot up the game, you’re greeted with a faithful rendition of the show’s theme song, while variations on the show’s soundtrack plays while you fight. The sound rounds out the whole experience and makes you (me) feel like a kid again.
As a downloadable title, Voltron offers a surprising amount to enjoy. I never thought I’d like this game as much as I do—but it’s difficult to overlook the main flaws of unbalanced difficulty, a lack of levels (there are only about a dozen) and only three chances to play as Voltron. I sincerely hope there might be some downloadable expansion missions for this game down the road, though I’m not holding my breath. If Voltron holds no special place in your heart, then this game may not do anything for you. But if you’re a fan and you’re looking to have your nostalgia buttons get pushed, Voltron: Defender of the Universe is a great way to spend an evening with a few of your online buddies. Megathrusters are go!
8 / 10