For the sake of candor, I’ll admit that at first, I didn’t have high hopes for Upwards, Lonely Robot. The trailer was mildly interesting at best, and I thought I was in for slow, uninteresting, grinding gameplay. While I wasn’t entirely wrong about the game being a grinder, I found myself pleasantly surprised by just how enjoyable the game was – the mechanics are smooth, the graphics are pleasing to the eye, and the story pulled me in, refusing to let me quit until every tower had been conquered.
The base game itself is straightforward enough – you are a lonely robot, with an insatiable desire to climb every tower you find. These towers are equipped with enemies and defenses that must be avoided, and the only way to continue to move upward is to collect fruit, which powers your “juice” meter. This “juice” meter slowly drains over time, making fruit a necessity to continue climbing the tower. It also drains if an enemy or trap is hit, making skillful navigation your only weapon.
The story mode is short, sweet, and absolutely enthralling. Over the course of 75 levels, you hear narration provided by a man named Matt, one of humanity’s last survivors. He, along with a band of other survivors, is trapped in a tower and running out of food. Humanity has been decimated by the robot hoard. The robots, initially created to live in harmony with their masters, developed a deep sense of hatred that nearly drove the human race to extinction. As Matt narrates, you learn of their continued efforts to quell the robots, along with the struggles that the group faces.
This story is so interesting that, despite the difficulty and annoyance I constantly ran into, I beat the game in one sitting. Using an uncharacteristic amount of profanity, I climbed tower after tower with my tenacity and desire to hear more disallowing me to quit. The voice acting is mediocre, and there are usually only one or two lines of dialogue per level; but what is being said in the game was so engaging that I couldn’t stop. Initially, the dialogue seemed a poorly thrown-together excuse to have a “Story Mode,” but after listening to Matt’s discourse for 30 or so levels, everything began to tie together. Once the story becomes tied to the gameplay, the levels become far more engaging, and I was left breathless by the twists and turns of plot that I could not have predicted.
The scene in which the game is set is beautiful with appropriate graphics that don’t overshadow the idea behind the game. The towers use the same platforms for each level, and the enemies never change, but there is enough variety to keep the game graphically interesting. In the background, vast, snow-capped mountains can be seen surrounding the valley where the towers lie, while their distance noticeably changes as you climb higher. While not necessarily next-gen realistic, the game does a wonderful job of using charm and simplicity to bring it to life.
The controls are simple, well designed, and natural, and perfectly compliment the game style. Enemies range from sluggish, easy to avoid snails, to fast-moving attack mantises that leap at the first sign of movement. In addition to enemies, players must avoid traps set on platforms, like breakable surfaces and spiked floors. There are environmental traps that must be avoided as well, like clouds of nanobots that kill you on impact, or dripping acid that deals harsh damage. The tower puzzle changes every level, adding variety to an otherwise repetitive idea. New combinations of enemies accompany a lack of fruit or the addition of bonus abilities, such as double jump or teleport.
The biggest disappointment in the game is the soundtrack, mostly because it felt like wasted potential. When the game first starts, a haunting, alluring piano solo guides the player to the home screen. The song slowly gains momentum with string and wind accompaniment, leaving you excited to see what other tracks it has to offer. The first level offers another impressive number, urging you upwards with light violins complimented by heavy beats. In the second level, the song begins with light violins, followed by heavy beats. The third level? Light violins ushered on by heavy beats. The music is initially very enjoyable, so it’s easily ignored or tuned out; but after 15 levels or so, it starts to become painfully (and disappointingly) obvious that the game only has one song. That one song is beautiful, and incredibly well pieced, but still… it’s one song to drag you through 75 agonizing levels. To say nothing of how frustrating the game itself can be, that one same song doesn’t exactly help lighten the mood.
The game’s audio as a whole suffers as undistinguished and unimpressive with generic and common sound effects that are used without variety. The lonely robot’s own sound effects add nothing impressive to the game, as the three noises he makes are interchangeable for the pain of being hit by an enemy, and the joy of grabbing a fruit item. The lonely robot is actually the only robot in the game with more than one sound effect, making the game’s audio almost unbearably repetitive. The only variety lies in the difference between the levels, with new combinations of enemies making slightly different combinations of noises. Still, despite their overall bristling, the sound effects are helpful to the gameplay, as they act as the warning sign for each enemy.
To add playability to the game, it offers several different play modes, such as Climber Mode, Duel, and Infinite Mode. The multiplayer capability is a fun, unique idea for a game that wouldn’t necessarily be expected to offer co-op support. Climber Mode is also a great addition; completely customizable with what powers, enemies, and platforms are on a level; the player can choose their own challenge.
Upwards, Lonely Robot is short, sweet, and tons of fun. The addictive idea behind “just one more try,” combined with an honestly good story base makes for at least two hours of fun (which is about how long it took me to beat the story). It is intriguing, enjoyable, lovely and unique, and I would have no hesitation in playing it again, with friends or by myself.
A PC code of Upwards, Lonely Robot was provided by Kalypso Media for the purpose of this review.
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