How can you mess up giant lion robots?
Aside from zombies, the big trend reverberating through mass media these days seems to be “everything old is new again (especially when it's still old)”. Making a game based on a retro animé and adhering to its tone without modernization could make for quite a fun time, and upon booting up Voltron: Defender of the Universe, I was quite amused by the seemingly accurate portrayal of this era of cartoon. Having never watched the show myself (I was more of a Power Rangers/TMNT kid), I could still appreciate the cheesy narration, blaring theme music, and overall '80s atmosphere with a grin.
Three hours later, I was left rather tired and unfulfilled.
Voltron is, unfortunately, painfully repetitive, and riddled with all manner of curiosities in its design. The best parts of the game are probably the ripped-straight-from-the-'80s animé clips in between each stage simply for how awkward and amusing they are. Actually playing the game could potentially be interesting for a group of friends in short bursts, but even so, it'd be more because of the company kept, while mocking the game, and the game's cheese than anything else.
Granted, it's cool to pause the game and hear: “Voltron will be back after these messages,” and consequently, “And now: Back to Voltron!” when returning to gameplay. However, this is but a small glimmer of smart presentation in a pond of mediocre, off-putting dual-stick shooting. How it takes a team of giant robot lions and somehow makes that concept dull will disappoint Voltron fans. At least my youth lucked out with some engaging TMNT beat-'em-ups.
As a dual-stick shooter, Voltron could have been much more engaging. A top-down perspective, rather than a 45-degree angle (and sometimes straight-up horizontal), would've helped. Flat terrain, rather than undetectable hills, would've alleviated inconsistencies in trying to shoot enemies. Far too often, you watch your splattering bullets—which seem to scatter a bit—sail over them on occasion or, in other instances, pass right through them. Being able to melee/pounce on enemies makes sense for lion-robots, but in practice it's clunky and unpredictable and makes you feel more like you're riding a bucking bronto than controlling an animal vehicle. (Why, yes, large lion robot of destruction, that insignificant tree is exactly what I was wanting to leap an inch across the screen to attack.) There is some variety in stats for the lions, and their projectiles will change in style, but no matter which color you choose, the result is still weird, irregular hit detection and loose aiming.
The levels themselves don't help much, either. There are three worlds with three levels in each—which are all practically identical in style and substance—and a boss battle to cap each one off. How do we make huge fusion robot battles more interesting? Make them play as trudging, bland, turn-based back-and-forths that feel devoid of skill. The levels, in turn, involve moving from point A to B, shooting everything in your way, and occasionally protecting a small transport or rescuing prisoners, which doesn't seem to really do much for you other than adding an odd collectable to the mix.
Once or twice, the game will throw a twist at you by tossing together an enemy combo you haven't faced, but the number of enemy types can be counted on one, possibly two, hands, and they are reused throughout the game ad nauseum. Each non-boss level even ends with the same miniboss. Over and over. And, oh my, later on you fight two of the same boss at the same time. Riveting...
There are a couple of top-down space 'schmup' levels, but even these are snail-paced and uninspired. At least in these sequences your aim works the way you'd like, as opposed to sequences where you are expected to shoot at things you can't see because they are behind the camera, backwards, with the camera at a lower angle. It's baffling how such a simple concept as “defend the tower” could be messed up by poor camera placement. The game can be played online, or on higher difficulties where death simply comes easier, but there's really no replayability to be had after the 3-or-so hour experience is done, because the game itself is so bland and slow.
As I stated earlier, the best aspect of Voltron is the amusing animé scenes interspersed between stages, though even these are missed opportunities, since they focus only on the villains and there's really no gameplay dialogue to fully make use of the license. It's tragic, but I'd probably say that if you aren't a fan of Voltron, this surely won't be worth your time, and if you are, you may enjoy it with friends. Either way, you'd be better off just going back and watching the animé instead.