Goodnight Games has made an interesting action game in Malevolent Machines ($1.99). It’s a game with some clever ideas, and a unique art style that looks both a little ugly and yet detailed and stylish in its own way. It’s a game with some bugs and issues, but a lot of good ideas at the heart that shine through the experience. It’s an experience that may be off-putting to some folks, but its unique charms and quirks wormed its way into my heart as an entertaining and unique action game.
Malevolent Machines has you controlling Dr. Leyla Green, a mad scientist of sorts who commands the deadly Juggerbot and a glowing claw. Her creatures have been set free by a mysterious foe that’s her strangely-named assistant, Reginald von Cornballer. That’s not exactly his name, but Leyla keeps messing up his name in a running gag, and I’m being thematically appropriate here. If they win, the world’s done for, and Dr. Green loses her funding, so in the name of science, she’s going to take down her escaped minions. So, through 25 levels and a high-score-chasing survival mode that unlocks once you beat the game, you have to take these foes on in an auto-running action game.
The combat has you controlling both Juggerbot and Leyla. You tap to fire with Juggerbot, and then you can swipe up to jump, down to slide, and right to use Leyla’s attack that both punches and repels objects. the levels increasingly chain together more and more difficult sequences of enemies, and force you to worry not just about the aerial hazards, but also who’s coming after Leyla and how you are supposed to stop them. The early levels really ease you in, but later ones start to live up to the promise of the game. You’ll be managing Juggerbot’s ammo and trying not to overheat, while sliding and punching back projectiles. The boss fights oddly don’t combine the two phases of the game. It sounded like a cool idea when the bosses were discussed, but it feels kind of backwards to the game. The best moments are when you’re balancing everything out, why not have a boss where Juggerbot has to fire down missiles, while Leyla tries to punch back whatever she can?
The art style is rather interesting, as there’s a kind of beautiful ugliness to it. The color palettes are varied, and your Juggerbot has this kind of unique design to it. Some of the art elements look a bit like they’re just low resolution enough for the game, but yet, it all comes together in a pleasing way? I think it’s the commitment to the game. A cheaply-made game would squelch or short-change some art aspects, but Malevolent Machines feels like everything was made for a certain purpose, everything was designed. There’s some ugliness to the finished product, but not in a bad way. It has character. I will say, the game runs on the iPad, but it’s kind of squished. Play this on the iPhone, it looks a lot better in 16:9 aspect ratio and makes the beautiful, well-made art aspects look as they should.
The controls are a little sloppy, where sometimes certain gestures have wound up with me doing the wrong move, but in general, this is a genius idea for a mobile game. Juggerbot’s shot range is one-dimensional, so tapping anywhere on the screen will fire straight from where you tap. Then, you can swipe anywhere to do Leyla’s moves. It’s a combo that works really well on both phone and tablet. You have full control of what you’re doing no matter what is happening on screen. It’s why I’m willing to accept that whatever shortcomings I find with Malevolent Machines are just part of the experience, because the core idea feels really clever.
The story is absolutely nonsensical. I described a bit of it earlier, but that was from sourcing official materials. If you just dive into the game without reading, it seems to involve a woman with some robotic experiments being funded by her university, and some eyepatch dude with a name that starts with an R trying to stop her? But maybe he’s her lowly assistant who gets ignored, and is acting out? I can’t figure out who’s talking in some of the cutscenes. This kind of nonsensicality rises up to the level of absurdity, and so it’s still kind of enjoyable because you don’t know what to expect next! Or it’s just bad enough to cycle back around to being good again.
I am generally a fan of games that feel like good, solidly-constructed products. Ones that combine a strong artistic sense with execution of the creative premise, with as few flaws as possible. But give me a definitive character and creative purpose and I’ll have more fun than I would with a game with generic art that’s made well. I’d much rather play a million Malevolent Machines games rather than another match-3 with a candy art style. But some people enjoy those kinds of games, and might not enjoy this. Follow your bliss, folks.
But the sloppiness does hold Malevolent Machines back, and I could understand if it dissuades you from checking this out. But there’s a lot of really good moments here, and whatever is bad feels like just minor issues. Like, the tutorial not being skippable or causing issues if you quit before starting the first level, these are fixable issues that maybe just didn’t come up in testing. And the art’s weird issues might just be a matter of taste, too: or the artist could see intent of the art as more important than specificity. But perhaps these are dealbreakers for you, and I understand, because shortcomings do exist. But Malevolent Machines has a heart to it that was apparent from whenever I saw the game, and despite whatever lackluster elements there are, there’s a fun experience to be had here. It’s just not the best ‘product’ you’ll ever find on the App Store, that’s for sure.