Review: Voltron: Defender of the Universe (XBLA)

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Do these lions come together to form a great game or are they just another Robeast imitator? Hit the break to view our full verdict.

Voltron. The name evokes heavy nostalgia on my part of epic space battles and giant robots. The original cartoon came out in 1984 when I was only 3 years old so I can’t claim childhood memories of watching it during its standard air time. However, I did catch multiple reruns, and my brother had managed to record every episode on VHS. It was the first anime genre I had seen and it was my favorite. My brother had all the metal toys that they released that Voltron formed into, and I remember playing with them for hours.

Recently, Voltron has become a regular at my home because it’s on Netflix and I’ve been showing my son older cartoons. I didn’t imagine he would like it so much; so now we’re well into Season 3 watching every episode together. It’s a little hokier and the voice acting is worse than I remember, but I still can’t help but smile. The idea of the lions forming Voltron is solid and the music as he forms instantly takes me back to childhood.

I tell you that so you will know that, yes; I have a certain attachment to and enjoy the show. It may influence my review a bit and as such I thought you should know up front. However the game was obviously made for fans like me and as such I’m the perfect audience for it.

voltron defender of universe 310001 e1323023118847 Review: Voltron: Defender of the Universe (XBLA)

Pictured: Nostalgia

If you’re not familiar with the series, Voltron is a powerful robot that defends the planet Arus, and indeed the galaxy, from the evil King Zarkon. Five different robot lions could be piloted and combined to form the powerful mech. A team from Earth is sent to Arus to attempt to bring Voltron back since he has been missing from the galaxy. The five pilots end up piloting the powerful Mech and continuously thwart King Zarkon’s evil plans.

Within the game you play as your choice of one of the Voltron lions. All five are represented here and each is a little different in how they play. The majority of the game takes place piloting the lions in a dual-stick shooter. For those unfamiliar with this type of popular XBLA and PSN game-type, you move with the left stick while aiming and firing with the right stick. Usually you strafe and circle targets while firing until they are defeated whilst also dodging incoming barrages. Each lion has a different type of primary fire with the right stick. For example, the black lion has a shotgun type blast that fires a number of projectiles. Up close it’ll take out tanks and armored foes quickly while numerous smaller foes aren’t as easily dispatched, unless they are close as the shot scatters. In contrast the green lion is an agile lion with small homing missiles that don’t do as much damage but makes for a run and gun style of gameplay. The differences, while not massive, are enough that playing each lion feels unique enough to encourage you to play with them all.

Besides primary fire each lion has a melee attack, a pounce attack and a special attack. Special attacks are earned by collecting star points which form the key of Voltron. By pressing the left trigger you’ll fire a powerful attack that differs with the lion. The attacks usually do massive damage and wipe out multiple units. That doesn’t mean you’ll dart around firing off nothing but special attacks. Often you have to judge whether you want or need to use them as saving up five star points will net you an additional life. In multiplayer you share lives and in higher difficulty levels you’ll find yourself questioning if you need that extra life or that extra firepower. It’s a nice little bit of strategy added to what is largely a run and gun affair.

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Blowing stuff up as robot lions? Sign me up.

Unlike most shooters, melee is added to the mix and when using it along with your primary attacks you’ll score higher as well as gain back a little life. A good player will find himself darting around the screen firing, and closing in for a melee kill to finish enemies off. Pounce is an additional ability that I couldn’t help but feel awesome every time I used. While using it on the ground, you’ll leap forward and upon landing unleash a shockwave of whatever element  your lion is attuned to. However, when a flying unit is near you’ll leap into the air and grab him in your teeth, slamming him to the ground. It’s a cool addition and it never failed to make me feel like I was truly in control of this powerful lion robot.

When defeated in the lion stages you’ll be ejected from your lion and forced to fight on foot. These moments, and indeed much of the game, echo Assault Heroes, which is another great dual stick shooter on XBLA. As a timer counts down you have to survive as your pilot with a small pistol. Once the timer reaches zero you can take control of your lion again for a big survivor bonus to your score. If however you are killed while a pilot one of your lives will be gone.

The lion stages are broken up by two different modes that are included in the game. At the beginning of two of the sets of levels you’ll go into space with your lions to fly to another planet to do battle. This is a standard top down shooter where you’ll be taking out baddies and asteroids. Unfortunately, a lot of your lion’s uniqueness is lost here as every lion uses the same standard attack. It’s an odd decision as they could have easily continued with the attacks you have on the ground minus pouncing. Even so I couldn’t help but be pleased on seeing the aura of color around your lion while in space, the same one you can see in the show while transforming.

Boss fights bookend each group of levels. A giant Robeast will be unleashed and as anyone that has watched the show knows it’s time for the robot Voltron to step in. At first you’ll wear the boss down with the lions and then you’ll combine into the powerful Voltron. I have mixed feelings about this part of the game. You don’t actually directly control the giant robot; instead you’ll be picking turn based attacks based on the attacks from the show. Then, you’ll be trying to hit a golf game style meter in the right area for maximum damage.

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Voltron knows Kung Fu

While I would have liked to mix it up while actually physically controlling Voltron I see why the developer, Behaviour Interactive, went with this approach. As the game practically begs to be played with multiple players they had the conundrum of how to include Voltron while also making him controllable for all five available players. After all nobody would want NOT to be Voltron and just sit on the sidelines. When multiple players are included it takes turns letting each player decide the attack and do the timed meter portion while the other players strive to aim the attack. It’s a fair trade to let multiple people control Voltron I feel, even if I am a little disappointed I can’t control the big guy.

Speaking of the multiplayer, I felt that there was no way to review the game without taking it online so that every lion could be controlled with an actual player. I was pleasantly surprised that the game retained all of its playability. Initially I was worried about the impact of particle effects that five separate lions, enemies and multiple explosions would have on the game itself. I’m glad to report my worries were unfounded. In all the times I played online I only hit one spot of lag and it was in a very populated arena area. It’s impressive in a game with this much going on that they were able to keep the FPS steady and not have tons of lag.

The multiplayer is unique in the fact that, as far as I know, there is no other dual stick shooter out there that allows five different players co-op. I don’t know if it’s the way you all control Voltron or the fact that your lives are tied together but there is a great sense of teamwork that is infused in the experience. When I played online if I lost my lion at least one other player was there to help defend me until I got it back. While teamwork is encouraged there’s also a small competitive portion as at the end of each level you’ll be shown your score in comparison to the other players.

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3 Lions = More explosions

The game doesn’t make you stay crammed on one screen either except for in arena style areas where you would defeat a number of enemies before moving on. Other than those times you’re allowed to split off from the group allowing one or two lions to accomplish different goals while the rest of the team accomplishes another.

The only downside I can see with multiplayer is it can be hectic and with so many effects going off on the screen and mayhem happening, sometimes you can lose track of your lion.

Graphically the game performs well and is done in the style of the original cartoon and not the flash like graphics of the recent travesty, Voltron Force (thank goodness). There are tons of different particle effects and special attacks to see and all of them can be going off at one time with little or no drop in performance. The lions themselves look great and the animations are spot on. You never feel like you’re piloting a car or something else while you’re on the ground. Instead you always feel like you’re in control of a robot lion. This is accomplished through melee, pouncing and even the way the lion animates. If you’re running and decide to change direction it isn’t immediate. Instead just like a big cat you’ll skid a moment even as you turn. It’s a nice touch and proves the developers knew what they were doing.

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Voltron: He’s the defender of the Universe. Don’t mess with him.

The most fantastic part of the game though is that it is absolutely dripping with fan service. Original voices are included in the game and Peter Cullen himself features. Cullen, also the voice of Optimus Prime, will lend his pipes whenever you pause the game. Pausing elicits a Saturday morning feel with “Voltron will be back after these messages.”  while unpausing the game results in “And now back to Voltron.” It’s a nice touch and makes good use of the license. Levels are book ended with clips of the original show and when you first boot up the game you’ll see the opening segment of the cartoon.

If you’ve enjoyed Voltron and you don’t get excited to play this game after the opening, check your pulse. Whenever you change to Voltron you’ll also see the original sequence and hear the cue up of the original song. Again, if you don’t feel heroic and ready to bust heads after this something is wrong. They even added a touch to when you’re pressing buttons to get through the opening screens about developer and what not at the opening of any game. Pressing the button to scoot you along will result in a static screen for a split second, the same one you used to get when switching channels back in the day.

Overall the game is a little on the short side. On a higher difficulty level it will take you longer as you have to be more aware of your surroundings and enemies take longer to take down, but on five lion multiplayer you’ll find yourself flying through the game. I didn’t feel it was much of a problem as I played through the game multiple times trying to increase my score and standing on the leaderboards, but if you usually play through a game once you might avoid it as you won’t get a lot of playtime for the asking price.

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No seriously, Peter. Friggin’. Cullen.

The entire experience, from opening credits to finish, is crafted lovingly by a developer that obviously loves the franchise and makes good use of the license. While the game stumbles a little with the Voltron battle, it’s understandable why they made the concession they did. The lions are unique enough that you’ll want to play each at least once and so it’s a little disappointing on space levels when they all pilot the same. Overall this is an instant buy for anyone who loves or even likes Voltron and remembers the show from your youth or has even stumbled into it on Netflix recently. Even as a twin stick shooter it stands firmly on its own with plenty of options and a variety of characters and attacks that isn’t standard feature for the genre. If your a fan of Voltron or solid score heavy twin stick shooters then this is the game for you. Look me up online and let’s tear up some Zarkon flunkies together.

For more information on how we review games check out our criteria here. A copy of this game was provided to The Paranoid Gamer by the publisher for review purposes.