Most of the games I’ve reviewed lately have been describable in terms of other games. Magrunner is similar to Portal, Megabyte Punch to Smash Bros., and Expeditions: Conquistador seems inspired by Oregon Trail. Cubetractor, on the other hand, is an action-puzzler for which a clear precedent doesn’t spring to mind.
The name of the game is to navigate your little, smiley, blue, three-legged robot around levels with various structural hazards and destroy all enemy units and structures onscreen by moving around cubes with different attributes. The core concept is simplicity in action. Cubes can only move by being pulled toward the robot (by some kind of tractor beam?), but once set in motion, they continue on their straight path. If there is an enemy structure in line with some cubes, move so as to put the structure between the robot and the cubes, and then pull the cubes into the structure. It will blow up with a satisfying 8-bit boom that sounds straight out of Contra.
Some pairs of cubes can be pulled into one another to form your own structures, and here’s where the game starts to get puzzley. You can make your own blue versions of most red enemy structures. In later levels, arrangements of enemy structures start resembling fortresses, bristling with turrets behind walls, and the challenge is about finding a weakness, exploiting it, and then following through on the breach you’ve made. Does your own turret get blown up from enemy fire before it can do any damage? Next time, put a wall in front of it first. Does it seem like you just don’t have enough firepower? See if there are some ways to thin the enemy ranks with a few direct cube-pulls before putting up your own stuff.
The difficulty curve takes off in a hurry, so some of the levels start resembling bullet-hell arcade titles of yore, but still demand nimble precision and timing for cube pulls. It can get tricky for your timing to be just right. Although cubes can only move in the four cardinal directions, it can still be tough to nail the pulls in a way that brings two of them together in just the right spot. You will frequently need them to be in just the right spot, but fortunately, you can unspawn your own structures with a push of a button and the cubes themselves respawn in their starting places after only a few seconds. Those few seconds can seem like an eternity when you’re dodging dozens of bullets, but I found it very rewarding when my plans came together and the momentum started to shift my way, even if I had to plant myself in front of a bullet and just eat the damage in order to give my structure a chance.
Such sacrificial behavior is a no-go if attempting to ace the score on each level. You’ll be rated for index of speed, damage taken, and batteries collected – the highest rating requires perfection in all categories. There’s tons of replay value for those so inclined to bash their heads against a major challenge. Simplicity in design, but difficult to master is one of my favorite things for a game to do, and I’ve not experienced the same sort of razor-thin margin for error since Super Meat Boy. Just when you think it’s impossible to shave another three seconds off your time, you’ll make a breakthrough (possibly by accident) to discover you can destroy two towers with one series of cube pulls. With 88 levels, there’s a feast of frustration in store if you find such things satisfying.
My only serious design gripe is the lack of customizable options for graphics and controls. I know the developers are attempting a callback to some bygone 8-bit sentimentality with the look and feel of this game, and that’s great. However, I would like some more options for aspect ratio, please. Also, despite being very right-handed, I have a hard time in any game navigating with right-hand arrow keys. Why can’t I switch to WASD? I solved my problem by plugging in my wired Xbox 360 controller, which is how I recommend playing, particularly if you’re the mastery type.
This is a linguistically awkward thing to say, but I don’t care that I don’t care about Cubetractor‘s story. I meta-don’t care. There’s script and characters saying things, if you want to read them. I love what a story can do for a game, but this one doesn’t need it. The titular robot protagonist Endroi delights in surmounting challenges, an attribute to which a fan of this game would relate, I suppose. He seems oblivious to the destruction his enthusiastic puzzle-solving visits upon his creators, as well as their resultant dismay. It’s cute, but the script didn’t give me too many legit chuckles. I also don’t think it matters; a game like this shouldn’t feel like it has to have an emotionally compelling story. They could have completely deleted it all with no hard feelings in my book, but it’s there, and that’s fine too.
For $9.99 on Steam, Cubetractor is a standout for action-puzzle fans with a bit of a sentimental streak about 8-bit and 16-bit graphics. A unique core mechanic and clever puzzle design should easily provide dedicated players $9.99 worth of play and then some, but you might want to steer clear if you’re quick to be frustrated and feel like you’re wasting time. This game’s got some devilish fangs behind its cute smile.
This review is based on a review copy of the Steam download of Cubetractor, developed by Ludochip.