Platform: PC (£3.99, £3.19 launch discount)
Developer: Digital Tuna
The picturesque Swedish isle of Gotland plays host to a game design campus of international renown, with alumni working throughout the biggest triple-A studios and exciting indie upstarts. Having encountered them several years ago at Gamescom and subsequently visiting the university last year as a judge at their annual conference, I've never failed to be profoundly impressed by the polished quality, reckless innovation and unbridled creativity that their students bring to the table.
CoBots started life as a project from a team of first-year students that blossomed into a full game, which is now available to buy from their official site and Desura. Two adorable repair robots are tasked with patching up a massive starship, floating through its corridors and maintenance tunnels as they navigate through churning gears, tight passages, air conditioning fans and malfunctioning subsystems. As they do so, two players huddle around a single keyboard, bouncing plans, advice and the occasional insult off each other.
Built around true cooperation, CoBots manages to deliver some smart 2.5D puzzling for a bargain price; an astonishing achievement from humble beginnings.
The green and purple robots are each controlled by WASD and arrow keys respectively (or an Xbox 360 controller if you don't want to squash up next to your co-op partner), gracefully floating around the 2D levels on their anti-gravity motors. Between them and their eventual goal of repairing the starship lies a range of puzzles, hazards and traps, hinging both around perfect timing and logical deduction. Without any hand-holding or even the tiniest shred of tutorial text, CoBots gradually eases its players into the swing of things, rewarding experimentation with generous checkpointing and clearly picking out interactive objects like levers and buttons.
Sometimes both players will need to time simultaneous dashes across the screen to avoid being crushed under gears and grinders, or stagger their movements to take full advantage of buttons and levers that unlock a path for their chum. Often a minute's planning and trial & error is necessary to work out exactly how to push a selection of linked buttons against the clock, or circumnavigate a particularly tricky section without being sliced up by a fan. Though there's often a little downtime when one player has to sit holding a lever or switch while the other does the dirty work, it's pleasingly-paced to give both participants something to do throughout the campaign, containing both execution challenges and more cerebral solutions.
Our mechanical heroes are connected by a light beam that's both a leash and a lifeline. On a fundamental level, it tethers both players together and stops them from straying too far, but it's also capable of lifting power cores and guiding them through the stages. Better yet, it's effectively a safety rope that allows one player to dish out slack as the other desperately tries to avoid being blown into an electrified grate by a powerful fan. 'Close cooperation' is literally the aim of the game, and it's an absolute blast to coordinate with your partner and complete each puzzle as a single well-oiled unit.
It's possible to complete the campaign solo, controlling both robots simultaneously with both hands. Possible, but not ideal. It's all too easy to lose track of which hand is controlling which character, and more to the point, you'll miss out of the fun of bouncing ideas off a fellow player. The lack of online multiplayer is also not an issue; the fun stems from having a pal right there in the same room.
Though solid in the main, CoBots' puzzles do suffer from some undeniable repetition, which is largely down to the characters' lack of abilities beyond pushing things with their faces. A few too many solutions simply involve pressing buttons in a particular order, working out exactly how to press a particular button against the clock or reaching a button while facing an environmental hazard... buttons. A lot of buttons (and perhaps a few too many menacing red fan blades too). Some extra variety and imagination would have been very welcome indeed, especially considering that the short campaign takes some time to finally offer up its tougher challenges. I'd have liked to have seen more puzzles based specifically around the light beam tether and its uses as an improvised bungee cord.
Even CoBots' harder obstacles are, at best, a little on the easy side - not limited to the climactic solutions that could have been longer, or sustained more of a challenge. CoBots often feels like it's holding back, occasionally betraying its roots as a vertical slice or gameplay concept demo.
"Occasionally" is the operative word though, because CoBots exhibits an astonishing level of polish in both the gameplay and graphical departments. The handsome abstract visuals have received a recent update to iron out some jagged edges and juddery movement, resulting in an attractive minimalist experience that's clutter-free, yet presents some intriguing backdrops that make us question who the ship's crew were, where they've gone and what the vessel was intended to do. A simple unobtrusive storyline is conveyed exclusively through environmental details, while the unnerving lack of human life continually provides food for thought. Soothing ambient electronic grooves accompany the action, perfectly playing off the Sci-Fi setting. It's deeply impressive for any boutique title, let along a student project.
CoBots isn't the longest game you'll every play, with replay value at a premium, but it's priced appropriately and provides an enjoyable experience while it lasts. If you fancy a fun little jaunt with a friend in tow, it's tough not to recommend this budget slice of cooperative puzzling. Digital Tuna should be fiercely proud of their achievement, and frankly, we expect great things from the team whether they stick together or forge different paths into the industry.
- Enjoyable cooperative puzzling on a budget
- Neat mix of execution challenges and logical puzzles
- Handsome Unity-powered visuals and crisp, cohesive art direction
- Some more puzzle variation beyond pushing buttons would have been welcome
- A little on the easy side, takes a while to get up to speed
- Short runtime and nil replay value (though priced accordingly!)
The Short Version: CoBots is a smart, attractive and enjoyable puzzler that rewards close cooperation and communication. A sterling effort from Digital Tuna that foretells great things from its student developers over the coming years.
If you're a fan of local co-op and gentle puzzle solving, this will be £3.99 well spent.