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Amoebattle - DSiWare Review

Game Info

DSiWare | Grab Games | 1 Player | Out Now (North America) | 500 Nintendo Points
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30th May 2012; By KnucklesSonic8

Thanks to enlightening movies like A Bug's Life, we need not wonder as to the struggles of smaller life forms and how they manage to stay alive. Thus, Amoebattle's depiction of similar survivalist themes within even smaller confines doesn't seem like that much of a stretch; a curious experiment that probes further inspection under the microscope. But in signing up for the program, you'll be given more to do than your usual lab coat-wearing scientist. Complementing the analytical part of that position, you can control how these beings interact and gradually mount a force that is only as stoppable as you make it. Literally exploring the divide and conquer motto within a real-time strategy mold, Grab Games takes players on a fun ride that uses a realistic level of difficulty as a means of selling the presence of real danger and, in so doing, successfully immerses players into an experience that is far from microscopic in scope.

    Amoebattle tells the story of a small world on the verge of an ecological disaster. This is principally done via a fun-loving computer program named AMI who oversees all affairs and occasionally attempts to show off its sense of humor and personality. Strange happenings are leading once benign creatures to act unruly and even attack creatures they wouldn't otherwise have conflict with. Between this, the presence of a reawakened monster, and the need to enlist the help of enemy creatures just to survive, it would be insensitive of us to minimize what these unified organisms have to go through. Really, it's hard not to form an attachment to them. While their attack methods may not be all cute and cuddly, the great sprite work done by the development team has led to a situation where you get close to reaching the same level of personal investment you would expect in a pet simulation game. Unlike other real-time strategy games where you may be less inclined to feel anything for the units you're controlling (especially if they're easily replaceable), Amoebattle's projected atmosphere has players caring about their units and wanting to take care of them as though they were their own creation.

    There are two key features you'll want to make use of throughout if you hope to build up your forces. The first has to do with replication, whereby you can slowly expand the size of your team to up to 25 units. This is accomplished by first building up enough energy and then selecting the unit you'd like to apply the process to. Just as the individual units recover health in slow increments, this energy regenerates on its own. By applying Gather Probes to Mitochondria found in some of the levels, you can regain two or three energy points every second instead of every few seconds. Selecting one of your units for the replication process will leave the original in a completely vulnerable state as it wades out the time in a Cyst (cocoon). In the event that you fail to plan accordingly and stay out of sight, you'll need to rely on any active units to defend the developing organisms from being wiped out completely.

The second mechanic integrated into the game has to do with mutation, which allows you to alter the forms of one or more units to a type that's better suited for certain kinds of danger. Queens, for example, can instantly shave off (close to) half of an enemy's health, and Vipers use their sharp tails to reduce an enemy's agility for a short time. To initiate the process, you'll need enough energy as well as a good helping of FP, gathered by defeating enemies and consuming algae. Once again, mutating will temporarily place the subjects inside Cysts as they wade out the shift to take effect, but employing this technique can be used to provide necessary backup, albeit in a limited sense.

    Earlier I spoke about the Gather Probes, but there are four other probes that become available as time goes on, giving you an upper hand when you need it most. The Purify Probe, for example, can be used to turn an enemy from the dark side over to the good, but doing so will place its cohorts on high alert to destroy the device quick and fast. Also, Poison Probes are especially useful against enemies with defenses that cannot otherwise be penetrated by standard attacks.

    With these main systems in place, Amoebattle is presented as deep strategic affair as early as the second mission. The developers did the best they could by holding your hand at the beginning, but the game is still a bit slow to pick up at first and the digital manual provides zero help as far as understanding gameplay. Having said that, it would be a mistake to assume this won't be a bumpy ride. Things most definitely get rowdy more often than not as you try to carry it all in strides ,so much so that the difficulty level may even surprise you at times. Adding to these aforementioned systems is the presence of pink pools of slime (undergrowth) that can be used as safe zones to hide from enemies not of the carnivore species. There are also yellow pools that can speed up the replication process, as well as green algae buds that can restore HP to units that can manage to sneak a few nibbles without being detected by some of the protective spawn. These and other assorted bacteria-fighting agents will put your units in a better position to hold their own against powerful groups.

    Commandeering a whole swarm of amoeba can be hard, not just in terms of directing, but also keeping tabs on them all due to the way the camera is. As camera control involves using both the D-Pad (or the face buttons) and the stylus, there were definitely times where I caught myself wishing I could view a slightly wider area or have better control of the camera whilst also directing my team. But alas, I had to make do with what was given. I did appreciate that there was an overhead map on the top screen as this becomes especially important when you decide to group your creatures into clumps and send them off in different directions, or have some wait around while others go scouting. On that note, the overall interface is not intrusive, especially since you have the ability to hide all the buttons using L or R. But even still, the amount of buttons that are present can still get in the way of traffic when you do need to pull this menu up. Between buttons designated for mutation, selecting all units, assigning groups, screen flipping, and the five different probes, I found myself fumbling at times when an escape plan was in order or I needed to select some individual units for a specific purpose during an enemy encounter. So yes, it was smart to allocate much of the menu functions to that one button players could toggle, but a few issues still arise pertaining to the level of intuitiveness (or lack thereof) the control systems present in the face of fast-paced situations.

The AI in this game could've used more work, as it became clear to me that much of what I was experiencing was more of a technical thing than a I'm-not-doing-something-right sort of situation. There were multiple cases in my own experience with the game where I would direct a series of amoeba towards a marked spot, but one or two would go off on a separate path (see: the longer way around) instead of sticking with the movements of the collective unit. Even when I targeted the anti-social members of the group, they would still follow the same pattern. It was even stranger when the path they happened to be heading down did not have an entrance leading to the marked area, so the logic behind their disobedient actions was lost there. 

    One thing Amoebattle does especially well is having an entertaining mission structure. Guarding against repetition that could rather easily creep in, the objectives players must set out to accomplish don't feel chore-like at all. Missions are fun, progressive, and they advance the storyline in ways that make you want to go beyond just scratching the surface. One mission entitled Rumble in the Reef was very strategy-based in focus, tasking you with eliminating two teams of enemy creatures -- the Sharks and the Stingrays -- before using your team to eliminate a group of aggressive Rhinos. The eight mission, Death From Above, was very much about taking risks on a regular basis and not getting too comfortable. With your team being targeted not only by some threatening enemies but also by meteors regularly falling from the sky, it is dangerous at nearly every turn. Attempting to grow your forces in this mission makes relying on the yellow pools a must, and even these are located in areas that are heavily guarded by strong Alpha creatures.

    Once again, Amoebattle already does a great job of leaving players feeling very satisfied over the way they control their forces, but getting to do so in missions that are engaging and fun makes the overall experience more memorable as a whole. Plus, the game shows no sign of dragging at all or unintentionally creating a boring place to be a part of. As a matter of fact, I was very surprised by how many hours I sunk into this game.

    In a way, Amoebattle can be compared to someone you're interested in romantically who plays hard to get. As you continue to show personal interest, the walls drop and a relationship can begin in the case of a willing recipient. While I have no intention of dedicating a shrine to the amoeba as an act of love, there was a period where something clicked for me and offering more of a helping hand made a huge difference in the outcome of difficult obstacles. Quite literally, it is the difference between exceeding the quota of enemies you can allow through a barricade versus letting zero through. Seeing the two different results take place in this one particular mission encouraged me to know I was going about it the right way, and I was thus better prepared for future challenges where I had to utilize a similar tactic of individualizing my approach.

This surfaced in the form of such maneuvers as bringing back characters who were ready to replicate or had less HP, and swapping them out for someone who was closer to a clean build of health. I also learned that mutating some of my creatures to long-range attackers proved beneficial when the front lines were blocked and no one else could join the fight. Whether all of this is an indication of driving home a teamwork aesthetic in amongst the core survival-of-the-fittest theme, I can't say for sure. But I can say that to observe this level of progression this game seamlessly affords was quite something, and although it may not have amazed me, it went a long way in making me feel much more engrossed in everything that was going on in future challenges. 

    You can tell a lot of heart went into the making of this game, not only from the strength of the overall gameplay, but also the presentation. The graphics have a great style to them that's explored in three different worlds, each presenting really nice aesthetics that are refreshing even in the tense environment players find themselves in. As much as I love the music for the way it verges on pulling players into the experience, the sounds emitted are muffled and detract from the otherwise strong presence the music would have had on the action at hand. This is true whether you have the music playing from the system's speakers or you insert a set of headphones to listen to it that way.

Despite that, I do commend the developers for attempting to create different songs to reflect abnormal situations. One early "boss fight" had a track that worked really well with the theme of the mission -- as it happens, your goal was to run away and not engage the enemy. In other cases, the soundtrack has an exotic feel to it that matches the environmental settings you are tasked with exploring or defending. All in all, it is pleasant to listen to, but it would've been even more enjoyable had that technical kink been ironed out prior to release. And just one final note on technical flaws, I counted at least two instances where the game froze on me; on both occasions, it was at the completion of a mission. In addition, there are a few places where the framerate dropped and I noticed a little glitch or two, but nothing else beyond that.

    Amoebattle is, overall, creative and engaging, bringing you into the experience using subtleties found in amongst the level of depth explored in its mechanics. If you're looking to take a break from a genre you usually gravitate towards, you'll be surprised how easy it is to motivate yourself to keep playing. While the game doesn't always perform at its best, Amoebattle is very much worth playing and a steal for the price it's listed at.

24/30 - Very Good

Gameplay 8/10 - Replication and mutation the main features, deep mechanics and strategic techniques, AI not always co-operative, layout not intuitive
Presentation 7/10 - Graphics are well done, small glitches, music is good but has technical faults, subtle things here and there add to the impressiveness
Enjoyment 5/5 - Individual care for your units a byproduct of the atmosphere, get attached to the characters, gets difficult later on, satisfying to play
Extra Content 4/5 - Varied mission structure makes it easy to stay motivated, can spend a surprising number of hours with the game

Equivalent to a score of 80% (percentage score is approximate and based solely on the previously stated rating) - Our Rating System

Review by KnucklesSonic8

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