Cubetractor – What We Think:
The difference between really hard games and hard games that are satisfying to beat (think Dark Souls as the prime example and Volgarr the Viking as another) is that the latter demonstrate a sense of fairness and balance while demanding your perseverance, patience and learning while the former are just unfair and poorly designed.
In this case the developers posit the question in their sales pitch:
“Symmetrical Balance: Why do bad guys always have to be stronger than you? In Cubetractor, the enemy structures are exactly the same as yours, other than they got there first. Defeating them is a matter of thoughtful timing and positioning.”
Cubetractor is a fast-paced, puzzle-like, reverse tower defense action arcade game with handsome retro looks and contemporary ideas. I used an XBOX 360 controller to play it in Steam’s Big Picture mode and found the graphics bold and inviting. I loved the pastel and earth-toned color palette and chunky pixel art, coupled with a chiptune soundtrack that felt like an authentic NAMCO title from the 80’s.
The game begins with a series of training tutorials and then optional side-quests, scaling nicely in complexity and difficulty. I found it immediately engaging and very difficult to put down. I also found it very difficult, full stop. Like, bang-your-head-against-the-wall, throw-your-controller-into-a-pit-fire, kind of difficult. But never unfair. What surprised me was that the timing of pulling blocks made this much more of an action title – almost a twitch title – than the puzzle/platformer I expected.
Often, you have to set your selection bar in one direction and then at either 90 or 180 degrees in a perfectly timed maneuver to cause two blocks to collide at just the right spot on the invisible grid in order to manifest a new power-block which can include a blockade, power grid, or cannon, among other types. Failing to do so can mean that the bad guys demolish your carefully placed blockades and you have to recreate the entire sequence of blocks. Cubes, rather.
It IS still a puzzler at its core, but features towers that shoot at you, and – when powered by generators – that shoot at you twice as fast. In fact the tech tree – that is, both your and the enemy’s tech trees continue to expand as you progress in the game, affording you and your nemesis new ways to do each other in. Mercifully, it isn’t another Roguelike, so your death is of little consequence and offers no decays or penalties beyond having to start a level over again.
The character text in the cutscenes is funny and well written, using a variety of bastardized words from English and l33t to reflect the various personalities of the robots at odds with each other. Somewhere amid all this text dialogue is a story of sorts. It isn’t particularly gripping, but it’s nice that it’s there and feels well integrated, giving a context to the new mechanics introduced with each new level unlock.
There is a lot of content on offer here too, so you can be assured you will get your money’s worth of maddening but balanced levels, if this is your kind of thing. It is definitely not a casual game. I found it much easier to play with a controller than my keyboard and mouse, which surprised me, considering the fast precision that is required.
The Little Tractor That Could
All told, Cubetractor is a resounding success, and even has the makings a legitimate arcade classic. By shifting a few tropes and mechanics around, it actually succeeds in creating a fresh and challenging new gaming experience.
Winner of IGF China’s Best Game award, Cubetractor is made by two people, working off their savings, and a shining example of what the indie development world is capable of producing.