Between Starfox, a new Nier (yes, really), Scalebound for Microsoft and an impending Transformers game, Platinum Games is bouncing around franchises like a delirious ninja pinball. The Japanese developer made quick work of last year’s Legend of Korra game, a lightweight pummel-fest bridging two seasons of the Nickelodeon show. It came out with a quick turnaround but some serrated edges - and though it lacked polish and a truly faithful treatment of the air-bending protagonist, it still exhibited the style and swiftness of a Platinum game.
That speedy delivery of a licensed game – preferably with sturdy combat and flashy animation – is likely what connected Activision and Platinum once more for Transformers: Devastation, a cartoon-styled robot throwdown with a sprinkling of Bayonetta’s dodge-and-punish combat.
According to producer Robert Conkey, the project awakened a childlike enthusiasm in Platinum and the game’s director, Kenji Saito (who oversaw Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance). If there was any doubt as to the team’s eagerness to work on the robots in disguise, it disintegrated when staff members gathered their Transformers figurines and played with them for a day. We’ve all been there.
Transformers: Devastation is a throwback to the thoroughly ‘80s “Generation 1” universe in both its art direction, which presents a simple yet vibrantly drawn cartoon world flying at 60 frames per second, and in its roster of playable characters. You can play through the game’s Earth-under-siege story as classic Autobots like Optimus Prime, Sideswipe, Bumblebee, Wheeljack or, if you want to make the correct choice, as Grimlock, the robot who is also a stumpy-armed dinosaur.
Grimlock barges down streets like a T-rex toy stomping through a Lego city. The simple textures and boxy geometry draw your eyes to the Transformer in the center of the screen, moving with the bold, primal strides and swipes that you’d expect from a Saturday morning cartoon. He feels lighter than you’d expect, as does the game’s close-up combat against mechanical robo-guys.
The Transformers Twist comes in the form of a momentary flash above your robot’s head, signifying a chance to change into a different form, mid-combo. As Grimlock, for instance, you’ll start with a barrage of fists, tap the right bumper at the right time and continue your assault as a dinosaur. If you can proceed uninterrupted, you can string your combo out far enough to get another transformation in, going from a bitey dinosaur back into a punchy robot man. The reductionist view is that Platinum is just adding a button that links one moveset into another, but the visual change is nevertheless an entertaining and effective form of feedback. And even that sounds a bit clinical - can we just agree that turning into a dinosaur mid-punch is a cool video game thing?
Though it feels nowhere near as complex or expertly choreographed as Bayonetta, Transformers: Devastation also rewards you for playing defensively. As you close the gap between enemy drones and bipedal brutes, you can perform light or heavy slashes in combination, air juggles and a last-minute dodge that drags time to a crawl. It’s not quite witch-time, but it’s close. The action is also rounded out with some weapon pickups and a special attack that can be triggered once its corresponding gauge fills out.
Producer Robert Conkey says this Transformers game has been in development since “early 2014,” which admittedly doesn’t give it the longest runway to land on by October 6. You can’t hype your way around this: Devastation isn’t going to get the time or money to be where contemporary licensed games like Batman and Mad Max are. That doesn’t make it poorly judged – it’s still a Platinum brawler– so much as a game made to fit effortlessly into a Saturday morning.