Platform: PC (reviewed)
Endroi is a happy robot with a single aim in life. A Cubetractor by trade, this cheerful automaton aspires to be the best at what he does: pulling cubes around. Players help him in his merry quest by guiding him around some colourful 2D levels from a top-down perspective, pulling a selection of blocks around to fulfil some basic objectives and squash a few helpless foes in the process - all while doing his best to innocently ignore a dangerous hostile invasion. Ah, to be young, naive and cybernetic.
This may sound simple, but Cubetractor's disarmingly uncomplicated premise masks a wealth of devious depth and depraved difficulty that will leave you gnashing your teeth and punching the air.
If you've got the patience of a saint along with the reflexes and tenacity of an urban fox, chances are you'll glean a huge amount of borderline-masochistic pleasure from this imaginative hybrid of puzzles, arcade shooting and tower defence.
The best puzzle games tend to hinge around a single easy-to-understand mechanic that gradually reveals versatile hidden depths over the course of the campaign, encouraging you to discover numerous new uses through experimentation and continued play. As an example, placing Portals is immediately intuitive, yet the number of practical applications is utterly astounding. Cubetractor subscribes to this line of thought with laser-sharp focus, in that Endroi only has a single ability: Cubetracting. He can pull cubes towards him at a distance by lining up with them and activating a tractor beam. And that, as they say, is that.
Simple tutorials introduce you to some basic applications such as pulling boxes into water, smashing cubes into barriers to destroy them or using blocks as makeshift weapons to crush a selection of robotic foes that mill around the levels. Cubes march along their preset tracks until they hit something, dealing damage in the process, meaning that getting out of their way in time is as important as lining them up properly.
As the tutorials continue, you'll discover even more advanced ways to leverage your tractor beam. Some obstacles take several hits to destroy and regenerate health, meaning that you'll need to perfectly time several cubes in quick succession. Cubes can be used as cover when enemies start firing back. When smashed together, some special cubes can transform into defensive towers that start automatically targeting enemy units. What starts out as glorified freight loading turns into both an offensive weapon and defensive shield, not to mention a double-edged sword since every cube you pull moves directly towards you.
You'll ease into all these versatile elements gradually and subtly through gameplay, experimenting with them to nail the timing and beat levels as quickly and efficiently as possible. The cheerful chiptune soundtrack and adorable 16-Bit visuals, not to mention Endroi's effortlessly charming personality, calms and soothes you as the early levels progress. Which is a good thing too, because once the basics are locked down, Cubetractor gleefully wheels round, punches you in the gut and proceeds to beat you mercilessly as you lie panting for breath on the floor.
Enemies quickly learn to fight back, and fight back hard. Bosses flood the screen with more incoming firepower than many bullet hell or 'danmaku' shoot 'em ups, forcing you to weave through the free space while perfectly lining up blocks to take them down or use as cover, ensuring that you can dodge out of their way in time. Foes home in on your position without pause or relief, harrassing you as you work out. Obstacles, environmental puzzles barriers require millisecond-perfect timing to circumvent, even as you take flack from all side. Towers have to be created in the perfect place for maximum effect, meaning that you'll have to pull two blocks directly towards you and avoid getting crushed in the process. It's stressful, vindictive and really rather brilliant.
Boasting the cerebral on-the-fly planning of a top-tier puzzler, while demanding the reflexes and pattern recognition of Deathsmiles or DoDonPachi, Cubetractor demands much from its players and never flinches from upping the odds to an insane degree.
Which is fantastic in the main. A stern challenge is accompanied by genuine satisfaction and a feeling of self-worth as you realise that some stages require a little lateral thinking, or you nail the timing in a particularly tough section. Better yet, though Cubetractor shows no mercy, it's thoughtfully balanced in that enemies have access to exactly the same towers and defences as you do. The playing field is pleasingly level, so long as you have the skills and smarts to win out.
Several stages do dabble in the sadistic, however, especially some of the optional side missions. You'll often feel brutalised and put-upon, sometimes leading to full-blown ragequits, but the knowledge that every level can be beaten if you study them and work hard is usually enough to keep you coming back after sobbing gently into your keyboard tray. Usually. I have no doubt that many players will simply find themselves consigning Cubetractor to their Steam backlog - and the fact that this review is out two days after launch even though I received the review code last week demonstrates that I frequently moistened my keyboard with salty tears of frustrated despair - so be aware that you'll need a stout heart and a will of iron to make the most of it.
Oh, and a waterproof keyboard might help. Or an Xbox 360 controller, which I personally find to be more comfortable, responsive and teardrop-resistant.
You'll net an impressive amount of content for your £6.99, and quality to match, though I do feel that the simple block-based level structure is crying out for a level editor. I personally suspect that Ludochip's level creation toolkit is probably quite user-unfriendly and obtuse as many indie editors often are, but rounding off the rough edges could seriously beef up Cubetractor's longevity going forward.
- Enjoyable blend of cerebral puzzles and moment-to-moment arcade shenanigans
- Easy to play yet hard to master; deceptively versatile and deep
- Attractive visuals, chiptune soundtrack and charming personality
- Staggeringly difficult if rewarding
- Can sometimes feel rage-quittingly unfair, even though it's well-balanced
- Crying out for a level editor
The Short Version: Cubetractor marries thoughtful puzzling with insane arcade gameplay, offering a unique hybrid experience that's tough and rewarding. If you're stoic and determined enough to smash through the difficulty curve, you'll pull an absolute stunner.