Transformers: Devastation Review: Made of Sterner Stuff
There is, was, and always will be a huge soft spot in the hardened carapace around my heart for the Transformers. Not even the awful live-action films can sap my love for this franchise, and I’ve been waiting impatiently for months to get my hands on Platinum Games’ Transformers: Devastation, a love letter to the original 80s cartoon version of my favorite robots in disguise from one of my favorite video game developers. I was a bit concerned by the lack of fanfare around the title, not to mention the fact that it was being handled by the team behind Metal Gear Rising, which wasn’t my favorite Platinum game. The reduced price didn’t inspire too much confidence, either. Still, the reassuring interview I had with producer Robert Conkey kept my spirits up.
Now that I’ve completed Transformers: Devastation, and then completed it again, and then completed it again, and then played through the Challenge mode, I can say with confidence that it is every bit the game that Conkey promised and more. I haven’t had this much fun with an action game since…well, since Bayonetta 2. As a matter of fact, the fundamental mechanics of the combat combine the best of Platinum’s best into a new and exhilarating paradigm. Basically, the melee combat plays like Bayonetta, except instead of hair attacks at the ends of combos, you can manually activate a vehicle attack where you quickly transform and ram the enemy. Sometimes, this might launch you across the room to another enemy, making it functionally similar to Vanquish’s slide/dropkick, except once you ram into something, you can continue your combo. With practice, a skilled player can become a whirling pinball of destruction, especially with one of the smaller Transformers like Sideswipe or Bumblebee.
Why Sideswipe and Bumblebee specifically, you may ask? Well, like all Platinum games, Transformers: Devastation is layered and layered with obscure gameplay quirks and secret mechanics, and each of the five playable characters has its own set of rules. Larger characters like Optimus Prime typically have single powerful vehicle attacks at their disposal while Bumblebee and Sideswipe can chain vehicle attacks together. Wheeljack’s vehicle attack doesn’t just ram enemies – he fires a volley of missiles first. The focus mechanic (Bayonetta’s Witch Time) is subtly different for each character as well, with smaller characters having longer slow-motion time and wider windows to trigger it, not to mention each character’s unique move and super attack. And Grimlock? He’s a robot t-rex that can do wrestling moves.
I shouldn’t have to tell you anything else about the game – you should already be on your way out the door to buy it if you haven’t already – but just in case you need more than a robot dinosaur doing piledrivers, the game has RPG elements like stats that are cleverly, if unhelpfully, labeled after the tech specs from the original toy line. Does strength affect your melee damage? (It doesn’t). What the hell does fireblast mean? (Not what you think it does). And…courage? (don’t worry about it). No matter how you level up your characters, they retain their unique traits, so that if you maxed out the stats for both Wheeljack and Sideswipe, Wheeljack would still do more ranged damage and Sideswipe would still have a higher top speed in vehicle mode. This gives your characters a sense of progression without compromising the individuality of each Autobot.
There’s also a Final Fantasy’s worth of debuff effects you can add to your weapons: you can weaken, stun, slow, burn, freeze, confuse, and rust your enemies, including almost all bosses. You can beat the entire game multiple times without taking advantage of any of these or other obscure systems in place (trust me, there are far too many to fit into a review), but they exist to reward players that are willing to look below the surface of this bright budget title. Just to crank up the insane variety and gameplay depth even more, the game is packed with tons of different melee and ranged weapons with unique functions and designs (how about wrecking ball fists that trigger instant vehicle attacks, or drill arms that can be charged and fired like missiles?). These are acquired as random drops and the hunt for bigger and better weapons adds a ton of replayability to each (admittedly short and repetitive) level.
Speaking of level design, this game suffers from many of the same issues that corroded Metal Gear Rising, only this time it’s been taken to a new extreme. Remember how one level of MGR was just a retread of a previous level, and then the level after it was just a boss fight? Well, Devastation retreads the same city level three times, with slight variations in objectives, enemy placements, and environmental effects. Another level is repeated twice, and the remaining locations in the game are exclusively used for boss battles or brief setpieces. This is where the shoestring budget really makes its presence known. I can’t find exact numbers for this game’s budget, but clearly it wasn’t much higher than Michael Bay’s average lunch bill. The game masks it well with an incredibly deep combat system, an even deeper loot system, some gorgeous cartoon visuals, and a silky smooth frame rate, but there’s really no excuse for a nearly-full price game that contains two levels and a handful of boss arenas.
The story, while shallow and disjointed (when you only have three or four different environments to work with, you end up with some pretty jarring transitions), is at least one continuous narrative, unlike the multiple unrelated stories in Metal Gear Rising, and Transformers doesn’t exactly have the same narrative pedigree to live up to. All you really have to do is put these robots together, hit their one note personality traits, and give them an excuse to fight each other, which is essentially all they’ve done with this game. It feels like an episode of the cartoon, for better or worse. Where your experience may fall on the better or worse spectrum all depends on your reaction to the line: “In less than one Earth day, there will be no more…Earth days. MWAHAHAHAHA!”
Transformers: Devastation is a Platinum Games title through and through. If you’re a fan of their work, or of action games in general, or of the classic Generation 1 Transformers, or all of the above (guilty), then you absolutely must pick this game up. It’s a flawed gem, certainly, but the flaws are superficial, and the heart of the game is pure diamond. As much as I love the game, it’s still a little frustrating how many (and how blatantly) corners were cut in its design. It hurts to think that this game could have been an all-time masterpiece, and while they have a chance to reach those heights with a sequel, sales will determine that and I’m not sure if the numbers will be enough, given this packed Fall quarter and the game’s minimal advertising campaign. So if you’re on the fence about Transformers: Devastation but you like what you’ve read, then get off the fence and start dropkicking Decepticreeps.