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Upwards, Lonely Robot (PC) artwork

Upwards, Lonely Robot (PC) review

"It doesn't quite reach the heavens"

Upwards, Lonely Robot (PC) image

Some time in the early '90s, I rented an NES game called Castelian (which was a port of the Amiga title, Nebulus). The game functioned like a side-scrolling platformer, except the platforms jutted out from the side of a tower, thus creating the illusion you were circling the structure. Obstacles and creatures thwarted your ascent, but they weren't the worst of your fears. More than anything, the game's sluggish movement, lack of enthusiasm and clunky play control crushed your quest. After returning it to the video store, I thought it was a shame such a promising concept wasn't utilized more meaningfully, with improved mechanics.

Fast forward twenty-something years, to a future where Steam offers just about anything you can imagine. Many indie developers grew up in the '90s along with me, and they dug many of the same titles I did. Naturally, content inspired by the games of yore began to flood the digital marketplace, thanks to talented devs who channeled scores of 8- and 16-bit oldies. And there, lost in the layers of simple side-scrolling platformers and roguelike mixtures, lay the game I wished for ages ago: Upwards, Lonely Robot.

Upwards is not a straightforward knockoff of Nebulus/Castelian, which allows it to stand on its own. This title features speedier mechanics and crisp animation, which you can appreciate as you ascend a tower composed of arbitrarily placed platforms and traps. You objective is to reach the top, where you find a tree bursting with fruit.

Upwards, Lonely Robot (PC) image

Of course, you meet plenty of resistance along the way. For one thing, you possess a slowly draining energy supply that acts as both a time limit and a health meter. The game doesn't allow you much time to ponder your next move, so you must stay in constant motion. Meanwhile, bees, snails, ladybugs, drops of acid and spikes seek to stymie your progress. Colliding with any of them instantly saps your energy and brings you closer to power failure and a 'game over.' The further you advance into the campaign, the more numerous these constraints become. Eventually, you'll also deal with crumbling platforms, fake floors and a noxious, purple mist that instantly kills you. All of those appear in addition to enemy populations so ramped up that sometimes you can't avoid bouncing into an insect or two.

Upwards starts off pretty simply, allowing you to get your bearings before it attempts to frustrate you with crowded stages. Its mechanics are solid enough that you can learn to execute tricky jumps or curve around obstacles without screaming that the game robbed you. Although I have noticed that the jump button doesn't always respond immediately, the delay never prompted such a setback that I was unable to recover.

For a while, the game is hectic and fast-paced, even addictive. I found myself unable to stop blasting through levels, each of which took me anywhere from forty seconds to a minute and a half to complete. I learned how to angle around platforms and land on floors sitting directly above me, or to vault over long pits and swipe a juicy strawberry, or to stop myself right on the edge of a spike-lined ledge without taking damage. In other words (and not to toot my own horn), I got good at this platformer in a short amount of time.

Upwards, Lonely Robot (PC) image

Unfortunately, that's one of the damning things about Upwards: it's a simple title and even its most difficult levels shouldn't require much time to complete. Thankfully, there are tougher difficulty ratings to select, but even those don't diminish another crushing flaw: the experience is incredibly repetitive.

Upwards offers seventy-five levels, with towers ranging from fifty to one hundred fifty floors. I couldn't tell you which of those was my favorite because none of them present a single standout feature. In every stage, you glimpse the same environs, listen to familiar (albeit exciting) music and engage in similar routines. The awe-inspiring valley behind the tower soon reminds you of a computer's default wallpaper, while the tower's gear-laden innards prove sigh-inducing after you've seen them for more than twenty levels. Every stage also presents you with segments you've completed dozens of times, and the difficulty rating doesn't increase much from one section to another. For instance, the game offers more than a handful of occasions where you climb by leaping up a series of single platforms, all lined up vertically.

Only one stage provides a worrisome enough combination to register in my mind, and that showcased a combination of breakable platforms and the aforementioned killing mist. It was a tough and stressful trial because sometimes you plummeted a floor after smashing a platform, and hoped the murderous cloud wasn't too close. Other times, you had to break a weak piece of the floor above you by leaping into it a couple of times. Doing so slows you down, allowing the vapors to rise while your energy continues to empty.

Upwards, Lonely Robot (PC) image

Most of Upwards's levels feel slapdash, as if they were procedurally generated and not crafted by hand. The campaign would have benefited from more carefully planned set pieces like the one described above. I would have also loved to see more level themes, rather than the same mechanical tower ad nauseam. And while this might sound gimmicky, the occasional unique threat would have been a terrific addition. Look, all I'm saying is that Upwards needed more material to break the repetition, and better structuring to help its individual challenges stand out. The content it offers isn't terrible and easily kills two hours, but it's forgettable and it loses its charm by the time you've advanced most of the way through the campaign.

I suppose the lesson I learned is that good platformers require more than solid mechanics. When I asked for a less clunky version of Castelian, I should've also specified that variety is a key element, too. Granted, it's difficult to offer expansive variety in arcade-style games such as this one, but it's not impossible. In many cases, such variety can be the difference between a stellar game and an average one. Everyone cherishes and remembers the former, and some even draw inspiration from it. The latter may garner some die-hard fans and fierce defenders, but most players will scrub it from their minds after they've had their fill. That's where I sit with Upwards, Lonely Robot.


JoeTheDestroyer's avatar
Staff review by Joseph Shaffer (March 26, 2018)

Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.

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