I first got my hands of Insane Robots at EGX Rezzed back in March 2018. Based on just my short time with the game, I could tell it had that spark of originality. Back then I wrote “Insane Robots carries this bold, colourful, cartoon like art style which hides a wealth of game play depth beneath it” and “if you’re a fan of card gaming, Insane Robots is one to keep an eye on”. 4 months later, we’ve got our grubby mitts on the finished article and I’m pleased to say that this game has certainly fulfilled its potential.
Insane Robots has a pretty simple premise; you play as a charming selection of rag-tag robots that are all a tad faulty. Being unable to complete their designated function, these robots are sent to compete in “The Arenas”, a set of fighting pits run by the nefarious Kernel. In the campaign mode, this premise is joined by a plot about 8 different robots competing in the Arenas who are being assisted by a robot called Spark in order to take down Kernel. It’s a light-hearted if shallow narrative presented in dialogue boxes and cut scenes at the beginning of each of the games 8 Tournaments that does little more than frame the game play mechanics.
It’s here that the game glows like the sparking innards of its protagonists. Each of the games tournaments begins with a top down hex-grid strategy game. Here you move around (the base stats of your chosen machine determining how far) in an area which is also populated by your opponents. There’s environmental factors at play here such as mountains which reduce your movement or pools of water which you can’t cross unless you have the correct augmentation (more on these in a second). There’s also shops which you can visit to heal yourself or buy more augmentations (seriously, we’ll get to them in a second) as well as loot drops which grant you credits to spend in said shops and, my favourite part, blue icons which present you with a “choose-your-own-adventure” style quest. These quests begin with some text which describes a situation – for example, you come across an oil rig which appears abandoned – and then presents you with options to choose – leave the oil alone, nip in an take a drink of the oil or investigate further. Your choices can either hinder or reward you and, in some instances, opens up more quest icons on the map.
Once you’ve moved into a hexagon that’s adjacent to another robot (or they’ve move next to you) you can instigate a battle. The screen transforms from a hex-grid into a side by side screen with boxes surrounding your character and your opponent. Insane Robots is self-described as “Card Battling…HACKED” and this is where the game shows oodles of originality. On the left of each character are 2 green boxes which represent their defence and on the right are 2 red boxes which represent their attack. To activate your characters attack of defence, you must fill both boxes with cards (which each carry a number from 1 to 5 which inicate their power) from your hand which runs along the bottom of the screen. On each turn, you’re granted some energy and a single new card. Drawing more cards, placing an attack card or defence card, combining cards together to form different cards or hacking all cost energy which limit what you can do per turn. The idea here is to deplete your opponents health down to 0 (or lower for an over-kill) by attacking them when your attack cards are active and they’re higher than any defence your opponent has in place. For example, if you have an attack score of 10 because you have 2 x 5 attack cards active and your opponent has a defence of 5 made up of 1 x 2 card and a 1 x 3 card, you’d blast the defence to pieces and do 5 damage to the character. This is a lot like Magic the gathering at times but without the whole tap phase and your creatures are your attack and defence.
This might sound easy but there’s another layer – hacking – which adds a whole other level of complexity to the card play. Aside from the red and green attack and defence cards are purple hack cards. These can be played on your or your opponents cards to have an effect. “Hack” cards increase the power of your cards or reduce the power of your opponents by the number on the card. “Glitch” cards randomly assign a new number to a card with it being more likely to be in your favour with a higher number on the card. “Swap” cards trade your own attack/defence card for that of your opponent. “Lock” cards prevent your opponent from playing any hack on that card. All of these cards have upgraded versions which affect all of your characters/your opponents cards at the same time too. There’s also Blue cards which have 1 time effects like the “Distract” which prevents one attack on you or a card which switches your defence and attack stats if they’re better suited to the situation.
There’s a lot going on under the hood of this game but it’s all presented in a really easy to use way with a simple and intuitive UI. The developers have done a fine job of translating what would have been a complex card game rule set into an enjoyable card battler video game.
It’s the complexities mixed with the ease of use that give Insane Robots this near constant tension. At the start of the game, the enemy AI is forgiving, passing up opportunities to punish your mistakes but as your progress through the tournaments, the malfunctioning machines have more health, less mercy and far more strategic thinking. This comes to a head in the last few Tournaments where the back on fourths are on a knife edge. Hacking a an enemies attack only for them to glitch my defence, forcing me to swap with them, leaving them short which they then stack with their own defence cards. It’s a constant trade of glitches and buffs, trying to find that opening and that the next card dealt will offer that life line or finishing blow. It’s magical at times.
Augmentations then (told you we’d get to them). Outside of combat, in the hex-grid area, you can visit shops. Here you can spend cash earned through battles of from exploring the arenas on healing yourself or purchasing augmentations. More of these are unlocked the further you get in the Campaign mode and they each have an effect that’ll make the game a tad easier as long as you’ve got a spare slot to use it in. The menus here are confusing at first and don’t come with an explanation but once you’ve got the hang of it, you can make yourself invisible to other players on the hexgrid, add +3 attack to every red card you draw, make it so that you don’t have to spend energy to play defence cards and so much more. Buying/Finding and equipping these enable you to earn better ratings in Tournaments as you are able to perform better in all facets of the game.
Another aspect of the game I mentioned in my preview was the cheeky personality but in the final game, this isn’t as prominent as it was in the demo and it’s all the better for it. The game pays homage to some of the biggest sci-fi names like a dog-bot that mildly resembles Darth Vader, another that looks like a Predator crossed with a toaster and there’s a western styled Westworld bot to boot. Insane Robots stops short of relying on this tongue in cheek riffing on classic characters for its humour and this gives the characters the room to have their own personalities. This shines through for some bots and not for others – some just feel a little bland – but I imagine everyone will develop their favourite (mine is K1-TTY the cat bot).
It would be remiss of me not to mention the music which is of top quality throughout, There’s a selection of toe tapping tunes that come with each of the games biomes with a spaghetti western guitar track backing up the desert arenas and a mellow, swaying melody accompanying the deep sea levels. There’s not a single track that comes with this game that I didn’t like and that’s a rarity.
Insane Robots does have local and online multiplayer modes but I’ve only been able to try the local as I’ve been unable to find a match online. The local matches are exactly the same as the gameplay vs the games AI but this times there’s a human in the hot seat. It’s plenty fun in 2 player but being able to see each other’s card deck between turns means that matches can drag on as you become more and more reliant on a new card drawn to give you the upper hand.
There’s only one technical niggle with Insane Robots and it’s a small one; during the hex-grid stages, when it’s the turn of the computer, the camera freezes in place. It’s an insignificant thing but not being able to look around the arena when it wasn’t my turn became more and more irritating as the game went on. Not being able to see the action between your opponents who are also fighting each other felt a little off too.
A few niggles aside, Insane Robots is one of the most original card battle games in recent history. There’s a real strategic depth here that opens up a myriad of options to the player – whether that be to hack, attack or defend – creating a lovely ebb and flow to the more difficult battles. The art style is charming, the music is excellent and despite telegraphing itself from early on, the plot to the campaign is enjoyable. It’s the game play mechanics which really shine here though so if you’re looking for something easy to play while being deceptively deep, Insane Robots should be your next port of call.
Insane Robots is available now for PS4 (reviewed on a standard PS4) Xbox One and PC.
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we received a copy of this game from the publisher. For more information, please see our review policy.