There sure are a lot of puzzle platformers around these days, aren’t there? This was a huge genre back in the 8-bit days, and it’s had a huge resurgence of late, spearheaded by games like Braid and its ilk. There’s certainly a lot of them on iOS, which is sort of an interesting outcome when you think of the precise controls they frequently demand. Not that touch controls aren’t up to the job, mind you, but it seems like when someone whiffs on implementing them correctly, they whiff hard. Great games can be reduced to mediocrity just by having, for example, a virtual directional pad that lacks responsiveness. Stop The Bots (Free) is not a great game, but it is a good one. Unfortunately, a combination of occasionally-spotty controls and a bit too much familiarity bring the game down some.
In Stop The Bots, your goal in each stage is to move all of the different-colored power cells to their respective sockets. Doing this causes a power short that deactivates all the bots on that stage, moving you one step closer to saving the world from evil robot invaders. Your character, a red fellow who looks like a cross between Viewtiful Joe and Master Chief, has no offensive capabilities to speak of. If the bot enemies touch him, he’s dead in a single blow. He can move around, pick up cells, and use various switches and or objects to move himself or the robots around the stage. The robot enemies are incredibly single-minded, and will simply move back and forth on the same level as the hero. If something is in their way, they’ll pick it up, and if the hero goes up or down a ladder, they will try to match him by way of the nearest possible means.
It makes for a fun game of cat and mouse, since the robots are extremely predictable, but still find ways of surprising you anyway. Your character can’t jump or fall off of platforms, so you need to be really careful about where you move lest you be boxed in and facing your slowly marching doom. You’re rarely afforded the luxury of time to think at each stage, so you have to assess the whole sequence you’re going to need to go through before you even make your first move. Things get especially spicy when the game introduces timed switches or one-time use switches. You’ve probably played games like this before, as “moving this item to that place while avoiding these guys" is nearly as old as the sub-genre itself, but this is a decently challenging one with a relatively large batch of well-designed stages. The game even offers the courtesy of a button that shows you the solution to the stage and lets you move on, so you can’t really ever get stuck.
The puzzle designs become very intricate very quickly, but the game also plays most of its cards equally as fast. By the time the first set of 20 levels is completed, you’ll have seen individually just about every trick the game has to offer. After that, the game simply finds new and more devilish ways to combine those tricks. It’s a very classical approach, but when combined with the general lack of visual variety, it’s easy to get burnt out on Stop The Bots well before you’ve plowed through its 90 stages, especially when it starts leaning on having perfect timing. As I mentioned before, you don’t really get a chance to stop and take a breath in most of the levels, so you have to pull off everything just right in one continuous sequence to clear it without getting stuck or killed. The slightest mishap will have you reaching for that reset button.
This is where the problem comes in, however. The control setup is simple enough, with a virtual directional pad for moving your character and a tap anywhere else on the screen serving as an all-purpose action button, but it somehow goes awry. Since your character can’t fall down or jump, he has to be at just the right height to get off of ladders or other similar devices. There’s little margin for error, and it’s already hard to gauge on a small screen, but it’s even harder due to the fussy nature of the directional pad. It’s one of those ones with a weird hitbox that easily mistakes horizontal pushes for diagonal ones, which move you up or down if you’re on a ladder. A slight mistouch can have you scrambling to get on or off a ladder in the split second you have before your whole plan comes crashing down. It’s also pretty easy to tap outside of the pad’s zone and accidentally trigger the action button, which causes anything you’re carrying to be dropped or any switches behind you to be flipped. In the case of one-time switches, this is very, very frustrating. Neither of these things happen often enough to ruin the game, but they do pop up regularly enough to push your buttons.
Stop The Bots has excellent presentation, with attractive and colorful graphics, smooth animations, and a nice UI. The developer made the baffling choice of putting the virtual pad on the right side of the screen by default, but you can go into the options and move it wherever you like, along with changing its size, so no harm done. The music and sound effects are all pretty good, with a kooky sci-fi vibe that fits the visual side of things nicely. Sadly, there’s no Game Center support here, nor is there support for any controllers, which is curious given this game has been out on Ouya for some time now. It feels like it was designed for a controller. The game is free to download and is ad-supported, but allows you full access to the game. If you want to get rid of the ads or just want to pay the nice developers for their hard work, you can choose how much you want to pay from a handful of price levels, with the lowest being $0.99. This is the second game I’ve seen with this kind of payment system recently, and I’d be happy if it became a trend.
Stop The Bots is far from the first puzzler I’ve played with quirky controls that sometimes irritate you by disrupting your plans. It’s almost a genre tradition, in some ways. I think if you’re into these types of games, you’re probably in the same boat as me, so if you’ve been able to tolerate a little nuisance to get at some tasty puzzles in the past, you should be able to do the same here. The game isn’t exciting by any means, but it is a solid, workmanlike effort with a spiffy presentation and some very cunning level designs. Even setting the control issues aside, I think this game is more one for the genre fans than anyone else, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.