Indie Wonderland: Not The Robots

A few hours in

Hey, hello again. How’s it going? I did all the things I said I’d do!

I played an Operation, which was more or less exactly what I imagined: a small mini-campaign, three buildings, a small score multiplier. It didn’t take long, and I didn’t get much out of it. And while there are fourteen more Operations, I couldn’t for the life of me tell you how to unlock any of those. ‘Dip beneath lasers’, 5 reads. ‘Two birds with one Stun’, says 8. And let’s not forget Operation 12, which I already know I need a ‘secret code’ for.

Way to reveal the *secret*, splash tip.

The Challenge I played was a little more interesting, consisting of several floors of heavy traps and hit point limits. And one level where I absolutely had to perfectly stealth it, which is much more difficult than you’d think for reasons I’ll get into.

But getting back to those traps real quick…

And finally, I played a whole bunch of Campaigns. One after the other. Most of them on ‘Normal’, the game’s lowest difficulty setting, although I did have some fun discovering the salty random names that slider has for other levels. ‘Normal’, ‘Bad’, ‘Offensive’. ‘Normal’, ‘Scary’, ‘Terrifying’. ‘Normal’, ‘Mild’, ‘Peppery’. ‘Normal’, ‘Tough’, ‘Tougher’… ‘Medium’.

I like pepper, though! Does that mean I *should* go for this one?

But although I played a whole bunch of campaigns, I didn’t actually get very far into Not The Robots. I almost consistently died in Building Four, over and over. And while that’s not necessarily bad, I found myself more and more reluctant to put more time into Not The Robots with every consecutive death. I wanted to play it less and less.

Now, part of that might well be due to this week. It’s been a good week for my games: my new WiiU grants me access to Splatoon and Kirby And The Rainbow Paintbrush, I’m playing Borderlands 2 and the Pre-Sequel and Dark Souls 2 with various friends, and I’ve been sinking a lot of time into Massive Chalice for reasons that may or may not be related to Jarenth Plays, holy shit, keep an eye on this space, loyal readers. So, you know, all of those might’ve been factors.

But then again, I’ve had weeks like this before. And I’ve been doing this writing stuff for four years now; I like to think, after all this time, I can keep my opinion on a given game apart from external circumstances. And even accounting for everything else, there’s just something about Not The Robots that makes me Not Like It Very Much. But what?

Is it the death floors?

After I first noticed I wasn’t having a lot of fun with Not The Robots, I started soul-searching. Why is it I don’t enjoy this game? Is it because I suck at it? Is it because I keep dying so much? On Building Four, over and over? Wait, why do I die on Building Four so much? What is it about that particular building that kills me? And is that maybe…

And from this, I’ve reached a realization of sorts: Not The Robots is a very two-sided game. Unbalanced, even. Were I feeling fancy, I might even call it dichotomous.

Not The Robots has two faces, and those faces are connected to the building numbers. The general gist of it is this:

The odd-numbered buildings, one and three and five and onward, only ever have traps. Lasers, death floors, force-field walls, you get the idea. And for all intents and purposes, this makes them the ‘easy’ levels: as I’ve outlined on the previous page, it’s relatively easy to avoid this game’s traps with little to no damage to your name. It gets more difficult over time, obviously, and it’s entirely possible to die on these floors: a combination of random level generation and limited human attention can always do you in. But overall, the odd-building levels tend to be pretty straightforward and stress-free.

The even-numbered buildings, on the other hand… these buildings have sentries. You’ve seen them, the little floating-head robots with the scary guns. It’s in these levels that Not The Robots actually starts living up to its ‘procedurally-generated stealth’ moniker, so that’s nice. And ‘eating your own hiding place’ becomes a meaningful trade-off, as well. It’s too bad these levels are so often annoying, frustrating, and just downright unfun.

Woo! Waiting.

The core of the problem is this: sentry robots are unpredictable.

No, I don’t mean they’re hard to predict. I mean they’re downright impossible to predict. The sentries move in such a downright erratic way, their patterns might as well be random. Maybe they are random, I don’t know. They go up and down and all around, moving into rooms and hallways with little rhyme or reason. On several occasions I’ve even seen them double back, entering a room for a few tiles and then immediately turning around. And then again. And again.

The sentries being essentially random means that you can’t really plan for them. Part of the joy in any stealth game comes from outwitting unaware enemies from your place of hidden power, but that’s not possible in Not The Robots. You can’t be smart against these enemies. All you can do is wait. Wait, and hope that they move out of the room you want or need to be in.

Now, part of this is me. In sentry levels, you’re probably intended to be a lot more careful about what furniture you do and do not eat: big pieces of furniture in particular provide excellent hiding spots, that you can often even more past or under. The game is never too consistent on that, but whatever. But even here, particularly in later levels, it’s mostly a waiting game: if you really need to be in a certain room, to hit a particular switch or whatever, there’s really nothing for you to do but wait until all the sentries leave. And this problem is especially noticeable at the beginning of certain sentry levels, when the sentries start out milling about around your entry tube and you can’t even start the game until they’re gone.

There’s no better way to start a high-stakes stealth game than by having to wait, completely invulnerable, for five minutes.

A second, related problem is that I never really know what sentries see. And knowing what your enemies know is so important for stealth gameplay. This element is something that, for instance, Mark of the Ninja is rightfully lauded for, with its sight cones and audio circles and clever use of colour. A good stealth game is never about actually hiding as much as it’s about the fantasy of being super-stealthy. And doing this right requires information: the player needs to know everything their player character would ‘know’ or ‘intuit’ in order to best get through the stealth scene. If nothing else, at least this compensates for the fact that the player can’t actually see and experience the player character’s surroundings.

In Not The Robots, I can never intuit what sentries can and cannot see. I just can’t. I know that it’s based on sight, on some level, and that there’s a whole system in place of sentry sight lines and furniture cover and whatnot. I know this. But in practice, I can’t actually work with it. Instead, what often happens is that sentries ‘suddenly’ spot me, halfway across the map, in a position I thought was safe: one of them suddenly turned around, for no good reason, and drew a perfect bead on my not-as-hidden-as-I-thought robot buddy. And once they see you, it’s on. Sentries start spinning as they move to keep 360-degree awareness, they hunt down your last seen position, and they’ll even occasionally teleport furniture across the room to deny you your hiding spots.

Or, in summary: Not The Robots’ even-numbered levels play host to many completely unpredictable enemies, who often aggro seemingly-randomly. And throughout all of that, you have to eat your own cover just to be able to progress. And then they hunt you. And then they shoot you. And then you lose.

Have fun trying to get out of *this* jam!

Not The Robots’ inherent randomness doesn’t really help with these problems, either. It’s honestly a pretty bad kind of randomness. The kind that causes wild, unpredictable difficulty spikes.

Difficulty spiking is particularly noticeable in the way items are handled. In The Binding Of Isaac, to grab a perennial randomly-generated dungeon-crawling favourite, difficulty is fairly randomized as well… but at the very least, you’ll always be assured of one Major Item Room per level. But Not The Robots doesn’t roll this way: item boxes are entirely randomized, with little detectable rhyme or reason. In one run, I would get two powerful green bonus boxes on level 1. In another run, I wouldn’t get any boxes until two buildings in.

But the randomness also bleeds through into the floors’ danger levels. You can actually save-and-quit before starting a floor, and then reload to get a completely new one… and doing this over and over reveals just how badly the difficulties can change. Three sentries, four sentries, three sentries and a laser… one sentry? One of Not The Robots’ splash screen tips actually warns that if you try to game the system by doing this too much, ‘Scary Thierry’ will come to ‘punish you’. But I tried the save-and-quit reroll ten times in a row once, and nothing.

Then again, some of this game’s splash art tips are pretty weird. How can I know they’re not straight-up lying?

Putting it all together, I reach this conclusion: I don’t like Not The Robots’ core gameplay. Building Four in particular reflects the kind of random, procedural stealth that this game tries to sell you on, and I just don’t like it. And that, in turn, has me wondering… if the core gameplay loop is something I don’t intrinsically enjoy, why would I keep playing?

Not The Robots attempts to draw unconvinced players into repeated plays through its now-common meta-game leveling system. Completing Campaigns and Operations (and completing them well) nets experience points that go towards unlocking new swag. New items, new challenges… I’ve already earned a new ‘teleportation’ power, and an upgraded version of the classic sprint! This, then, seems like the ‘reason’ you’d want to play this game over and over.

(Well, that, and the unlockable audio logs. They’re not great, so far, but some of them are fun enough.)

I particularly enjoyed The Ideal Advert. It’s probably-our-near-future-riffic!

And note also that the experience system doesn’t just make the game easier! Along the unlocks I’ve found are new difficulty levels, new traps, and new enemies. Like the dreaded Double Laser, which… isn’t actually that much more dangerous than normal lasers. But it’s the thought that counts!

“How can we make this laser more dangerous and scary?” “…Put two of them on the same stick?”

But the core gameplay is still not fun to me. And if the core gameplay isn’t fun, then unlocking new things through repeated play feels like… well, like grinding. It feels like I’m grinding a boring game, for neat stuff. Potentially neat stuff.

And, honestly: I could offer more complaints. Like how you can’t see items in boxes, so getting a new box is always this random trial of tossing your old stuff and hoping for the best. Or the weird power levels of some items, where Dig and Teleport so highly outrank other powers that it’s never worth giving those up. And the occasionally-glitchy hitboxing. And…

But this whole review basically boils down to this: I don’t like Not The Robots’ core. Neither elements of it. Sentry-avoiding is frustrating, random non-fun, and trap-avoiding is over-easy busywork. And all this is in service to the repetitive main goal, ‘eat a lot of furniture’, which I’ve honestly seen at this point in time.

And, sure, I know it’s going to be better in the near future. I know what items are coming to help with the sentries, for example: armor plating, stun bombs, a gun. The aforementioned teleport helps. And I know that new traps and items are intended to keep some variety in what’s otherwise a very samey game.

But I have to grind for this. I have to grind in order to get the stuff and items that make the game less boring.

And, honestly: if that previous sentence is in any way a good way to describe your game… why not just make the game’s core ‘less boring’ to begin with?

Final thoughts

After a handful of final tries, I finally made it to Buildings Five and Six. And to be entirely fair to Not The Robots, in those buildings, a new gameplay goal and element was introduced: ‘tagging’ traps and enemies with the close-range Tagger items. This is a good idea: gradually ramping up gameplay intensity over time is a clever way of staving off exactly the sort of ennui I was describing earlier.

Bzzt.

It’s just not good enough. The high difficulty of getting this high — even on the lowest actual difficulty setting! — combined with the unceasing, unchanging grind, meant I was well and truly burnt out by the time I even got to this stage. And while I would probably enjoy the chance to go back to the more difficult levels immediately, the fact that I have to slog through the first set of buildings again, and again — with all the randomly-generated risks of losing that entails — just kills any remaining interest.

Not The Robots isn’t necessarily a bad game. It controls well, it’s an interesting concept, and it looks nice, too. I enjoyed its colourful nature, the humorous names and wall posters, and the decent visual implementation of its level generation. But simultaneously, it’s not a good game either: it’s a two-faced slog, alternatively formulaic and boring or unpredictable and frustrating. It never quite strikes a balance between the experience it wants you to have, and the experience that results from its unbalanced randomness, its unpredictable enemies, and its repetitive focus on eating your own cover. I don’t think I’ll be going back to it in the near future.

Not The Robots is currently ten bucks on Steam. Decent price, all in all, so if your tolerance for stealth-waiting and random-death is higher than mine, don’t refrain from checking it out on my account. Just be sure you know what you’re getting into: hateful floating robot gun heads, a lot of identikit square levels, lasers popping out of nowhere, and more of the background colour grey than any one human should reasonably have to see.

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Jarenth’s not really a furniture connoisseur: just give him two chairs, medium, and a flatscreen monitor to wash it all down. Share furniture recipes on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

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