While Japan has a long and storied past of shows involving giant robots, there is only one that stands out in America: "Voltron: Defender of the Universe." Adapted from a somewhat-obscure Japanese show called "GoLion," Voltron was a pop culture icon that seemed like it would never fade away. Over 25 years later, Voltron, its signature combination sequence, and its iconic "Blazing Sword" attack are still referenced in television shows and movies. There's even a brand-new television show, "Voltron Force," on the Nicktoons channel. With this much nostalgia, it's surprising that Voltron was never the star of a video game. The only time it has come close was GoLion's appearance in the Japan-only game, Super Robot Wars W. Voltron: Defender of the Universe for PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade finally gives players the chance to control the titular robot. Alas, in doing so, it forgets everything that made Voltron fun and memorable.
Voltron tells the story of the Voltron Force, a group of five dedicated teens who dedicate themselves to battling the evil King Zarkon and his son, Prince Lotor. Their most powerful weapon is five color-coded space lions, powerful animal-shaped robots that can combine into a humanoid robot known as Voltron. Together, the five members of the Voltron Force use their robots to fight Zarkon's Robeasts and bring peace to the universe. Voltron: Defender of the Universe is a loose retelling of the original television show, skipping over most of the plot points in favor of showing off a few iconic sequences from the show. It's very clearly designed for fans of the show and nobody else. If you're not familiar with Voltron, it would be an exercise in futility to try to understand what is going on or what your objectives are.
In Voltron, players take control of one of the five space lions that make up the Voltron robot. Each lion comes equipped with a built-in cannon and close-range melee attacks. The basic gameplay is by-the-book, twin-stick shooter style. You move with the left analog stick and aim with the right. The right bumper lets you perform a melee attack, which does a severe amount of damage to enemies but requires you to be close. The right trigger does a pounce attack, which can hit multiple foes at once or instantly down airborne enemies. The left trigger performs a special attack at the cost of a collectible Star Piece. These special attacks are powerful but limited in number, so it's best to save them for bosses or other powerful foes. Beyond this, it plays pretty much like any other twin-stick shooter.
The only distinctive gimmick in Voltron is in how it handles death. On any of the game's planet-based stages, you don't instantly lose a life if your space lion is destroyed. Instead, the robot is disabled and begins to repair itself. During this time, you end up on foot as the pilot. He or she can move and shoot with a laser pistol, but is otherwise extremely weak. If you survive long enough outside of the lion, it will be repaired and you can hop back in. Die outside of the lion, and death is instant, since your pilots can't breathe in space. If you die, you lose a life and respawn right away. It's interesting but not meaningfully fun. It just sort of slows down combat when you get killed and have to spend 20 seconds running around in circles before you can get back to the fight. If death had more meaningful consequences, it might feel like there was a reason to slow down the game. Instead, it's often tempting to make the pilot die just so you can get back to the game right away.
A good twin-stick shooter lives or dies by its variety, and that is one area where Voltron falls short. In theory, you have five different playable robot lions, each with distinct abilities. In practice, there's little to no difference between the robots. The blue lion does slightly more damage from a distance or the black lion can do a little more damage in melee, but that's about it. This could have been mitigated by some form of leveling or power-up system, but the game has nothing like this. Occasionally, you can find a power-up, but there are only two types and neither is very interesting. Mega Thrusters give you a brief increase in damage, but almost always come at mandated areas where you have to fight a swarm of enemies and run out before you can use the power-up for anything else. There's also an invincibility item, but it isn't interesting, either. The result is that your lions are just boring to play because they're basically interchangeable.
This could have been alleviated by a variety of enemies, but Voltron lacks this as well. The most common enemy, the ground soldiers, is fodder. Due to the distance of the camera, it's often very difficult to see the smaller enemies, let alone consider them a threat. I would often kill entire swarms by accident and never them to be a threat. There are a small variety of enemy vehicles and robots, none of which are significant or interesting to fight, and all of them quickly wear out their welcome. Destroying identical foes over and over again gets dull very quickly, even in the case of short battles. There's little to encourage you to vary your play style or approach enemies in different ways. You can pounce on the occasional flying foe, but that's not really a significant advantage over just shooting them.
To the game's credit, it tries to encourage you to play well with a high score system. Killing enemies in quick succession earns you a multiplier. You also recover health more quickly if you get a high score, allowing you to basically ignore damage if you keep your combat multiplier going. However, there's no real reason to bother going for a high score. The game offers no rewards or encouragement, and the scoring mechanics are not in-depth enough to make it fun. You just have to keep your combo going and pound the melee attack button. A good scoring system could have done a lot for Voltron, but instead, it feels tacked-on and pointless.
By far the biggest disappointment in the game involves the titular robot. Every four levels or so, you get to a boss battle. Part of the boss battle involves fighting the enemy Robeast with your lions, but eventually, it is time to combine into Voltron. This is done by a Quick Time Event (QTE). In fact, everything you do as Voltron is a QTE, so you never have direct control over the robot. You pick one of four attacks, do a short QTE, and watch the success or failure animation. There's not even a strategy in which attack you pick. There's no significant difference between choosing to punch or eye beams, aside from a slightly different animation. If anything sours the game, it is this. Playing as Voltron should be the pinnacle of the experience, and instead, it's a glorified cut scene. The Robeast battles can be summed up by the prompt that appears when finishing off an enemy: "Mash A to Form Blazing Sword."
The campaign lasts about four hours, but the four hours last entirely too long. Despite the short length, the game's lack of variety is a hindrance, and it won't take long for even Voltron fans to get sick of the repetitive gameplay. There just isn't a lot to do in the game, so it's nearly impossible to recommend it over the myriad of better, longer and cheaper twin-stick shooters.
The addition of multiplayer might be worthwhile except for a few flaws. The multiplayer doesn't do much to make the game more fun. It's better to have two lions instead of one, but it can't disguise the game's lack of depth. The QTE-reliant Voltron sequences are even less fun in multiplayer, since only one player gets to be in "control," and the other pilots help "aim" the attacks.
Voltron is hurt further by being such an unpleasant-looking game. The environments are bland and low-texture and are repeated to an egregious level. The camera is pulled out entirely too far, which can make it extremely tough to spot small enemies and distinguish between them. The only reason this isn't a problem is because small enemies are never a threat. If the game were more challenging, this could be a crippling issue instead of simply an annoyance. There is also an overreliance on footage ripped from the show, often used in place of gameplay. For example, the Voltron combination sequence is just a QTE played over the footage of Voltron combining. Because of this, you can't fail at combining, rendering the QTE pretty much worthless. The sound and voice work are well done. Most of the original voice actors either return or are mimicked so closely that I was unable to tell the difference, and much of the original soundtrack is worked into the game.
Ultimately, Voltron: Defender of the Universe is nothing but wasted potential. There are some strong ideas here, but they're buried under some very tepid and uninteresting twin-stick shooter gameplay. The few moments of nostalgia invoked by the occasional animated cut scene or the use of Peter Cullen as the narrator are far outweighed by the boring gameplay. Even huge fans of Voltron will only find tiny specks of enjoyment in the game. Anyone who can't tell Prince Lothor from Cobra Commander would be best off playing any of the other myriad of better twin-stick shooters available on the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360.
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