Insane Robots Review

By Lucy Wood, 4 months ago
While developing Insane Robots, Playniac rejected two common features of card battle games: expansions and deck building. They find them unfair and boring. Instead, everyone uses the same 22-token battle deck with augments that allow adaptation to suit personal play style and add strategic depth. It’s easy to get started with the game, but is it interesting enough to make people want to keep playing?


Insane Robots is set in a universe where legions of robots labour to make a perfect world for humans, under the tyrannical rule of the Kernel. Dysfunctional robots are sent to the Arenas to participate in battle royale-type combat on procedurally generated hex-grids scattered with enemies, cash pick-ups, optional mini-quests, shops and environmental hazards. Arena gameplay is turn-based strategy, interspersed with the card battles which are the core of the game. During card battles, tokens are placed onto Attack, Defence and Boost slots. Players can use various tokens to increase their own offensive and defensive strength or to sabotage their opponent. Boost tokens are special cards which set up unpleasant surprises such as doubling the power of an attack or negating the opponent’s Boost. Tokens can be combined to increase their power or change their type, so a weak hand can always be turned into something more useful.

Survive and hunt down enemies in procedurally generated ArenasSurvive and hunt down enemies in procedurally generated Arenas

Augments have a huge impact on gameplay, giving the game a surprising amount of depth given the simplicity of the core mechanics and battle deck. Each robot has an unchangeable “heart augment” which gives it a characteristic advantage such as stealth or a single respawn after death. During the campaign, additional slots can be purchased and equipped with a wide variety of augments, allowing players to customise their robots to suit situational needs and personal preferences. The other game modes use randomised augments, but a balancing system is in place to ensure both players have augment sets of equivalent power.

Sets of complementary augments give the most powerful results, at a cost of reducing flexibility to adapt strategy in the moment. For example, extreme offensive power can be achieved by combining augments that increase the odds of drawing attack cards, increase the power of attack cards and eliminate the cost of playing attack cards. This sounds overpowered, but it can be countered by a similar grouping of defensive augments or sabotaged mercilessly by an opponent equipped for glitching or hacking.

Campaign mode is a series of solo tournaments, each requiring players to complete 1-3 Arenas. In Tournaments, 1-7 the player controls a single robot, and can use strategies ranging from avoiding enemies until they kill one another off to taking on all comers to maximise earnings. The final tournament is a big leap in difficulty as the player must use all eight of their robots and the enemies are now allied with one another. If the player’s robot survives a tournament it will keep any upgrades and augments acquired while playing, but they will be lost if it is killed. As the campaign progresses it becomes difficult to survive without upgrading the playable robots, but the randomised elements of the game ensure that tournament replays are different every time.

Visit shops for health, upgrades and augmentsVisit shops for health, upgrades and augments

Quick Battle is a solo mode that requires far less time investment than a tournament. It's a series of card duels with AI opponents of increasing strength, and is a useful tool for using and counteracting a variety of augment sets. Both local and online 1v1 multiplayer modes are supported, although the online experience is impacted by a low player population. The best chance of an online game is to play with a friend, but anyone seeking ranked matches should be prepared for long wait times. Playniac is working to build the community via Discord, but there is no indication of this in-game to lead players in that direction.

In some titles, the gameplay serves the story, while in others the story is there to justify the gameplay. Insane Robots falls into the latter category, with a sparse but well-written narrative in a lighthearted style that fits well with the game as a whole. On the surface, it’s a simple tale of good versus evil with an outcome that is telegraphed well in advance. Look a little deeper and there’s a morally ambiguous demonstration of how naivety can be manipulated, subverting the overarching “overcoming the monster” plot archetype to reveal the tragic truth about the robots’ world. Further snippets of story are scattered throughout the Arenas among the many optional mini-quests, some connected to the main storyline while others add a little more depth to the characters and game world.

The game contains more than forty robot characters including the eight playable robots unlocked during the campaign. Each robot has a unique design, with artistic input from multiple artists and stylistic influences ranging from Daft Punk to Star Wars. They also have unique and cheesy trash talk lines which can be used to taunt enemies during battle. The soundtrack has a variety of contributors and styles, but overall leans towards electronic music. While the music tracks are generally enjoyable individually, the transition from one style to another is sometimes enough to distract attention from the gameplay.

Chef robot adds cheese with time to diet tauntChef robot adds cheese with "time to diet" taunt

Initial examination of the menu system suggests that Playniac has neglected to include help resources in the game, but this is not the case. The information a player needs is provided, just not in a centralised way. Contextual guidance is given during gameplay through visual cues and relevant pop-ups, with general gameplay tips provided on loading screens. If the loading screen tips are not needed the player can skip the screens individually or switch to Fast Load mode to opt out of them altogether. During battles, players can bring up a Help overlay, which explains everything on the player’s screen including the augments of both combatants. Unfortunately this feature is unavailable during Arena gameplay, where it would be very useful for evaluating enemy augments before initiating battle with them. While provision of contextual help is generally good, an information section accessible from the menu would support players with a wider variety of learning styles.

The achievement list is long and varied, and it will take considerable time, effort and luck to do everything. Many of the achievements will come through normal gameplay including those for story progress and cumulative gameplay actions. Luck is a factor in many others requiring use of less common tokens or augments, using them in specific ways or with outcomes dictated by chance. Obtaining stars in tournaments takes a different approach than simply beating the story, requiring the player to earn huge amounts of cash but not spend it. For this reason, achievement hunters are likely to end up spending more time replaying tournaments after completing the story. Currently the achievements for ranking up in multiplayer are likely to be the most problematic due to the low player population.

Check out our Best Xbox Turn-Based Combat Games Available in 2018 article for a compilation of other great games in this genre.

Summary

Insane Robots is a deceptively simple card battle game with roguelite turn-based strategy elements that thankfully rejects a pay-to-win model. A refreshing absence of deck building and expansions puts the focus firmly on playing and having fun. Highly accessible gameplay hits a sweet spot where a parent could enjoy riotous duels with their children then move on to more intellectually stimulating gameplay after the kids have gone to bed. The game's greatest weakness is external, as the small player base limits opportunities for online play. It takes a while for the depth of the game to shine through, but it's worth putting in some time and effort to get there.
4 / 5
Insane Robots
Positives
  • Combines accessibility and strategic depth
  • Highly replayable
  • No deck expansions to buy and no deck management
Negatives
  • Contextual help doesn't suit all learning styles
  • Low player population affects online multiplayer
  • Cheesy style will deter some players
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent over 30 hours playing all game modes and gained 55 out of 76 achievements. The publisher provided an Xbox code for the purpose of this review.
Please read our Review and Ethics Statement for more information.
Lucy Wood
Written by Lucy Wood
Lucy wasted her youth in the pursuit of music, art and stories. Eventually she discovered that video games combine all three with shooting and exploding stuff and a gamer was born.