Indie Game of the Week 145: Gato Roboto

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IGotW is entering GOTY mode for the final six entries of 2019, focusing only on games released this year as I desperately try to pad out my top ten. Despite all that, it's still business as usual this time with another quirky explormer, this time with a cat that controls a robot suit. Gato Roboto is a monochrome, 8-bit-styled (though the smooth animations belie its more modern roots) explormer specifically in the Metroid mold: most of the game's combat is focused around guns and missiles, there's the Zero Mission feature of having an armored protagonist and a much weaker version outside of that armor who instead has to rely more on stealth and careful platforming, and Gato Roboto's traversal upgrades even include a screw attack variant.

To get back to that armor/unarmored aspect, the game has you controlling the cat of a spacefaring patrolman, the latter of whom was drawn to an abandoned research station by a mysterious S.O.S. but crash lands en route. As a cat, the player is exceptionally vulnerable to the bizarre creatures prowling around the disused facility, but she can fit herself inside an exosuit at any save point which is far sturdier and has the means to fight back. However, there are times when the cat form is necessary, as only the cat can climb walls and fit into narrow passageways. The game's progression is roughly devised in the fashion of a classic Metroid game, Metroid Fusion most of all, as it requires that the player visit each region of the station to fix its problems before they are allowed to access the core where the end-game awaits. Each of these sections has their own smart gimmick: the aqueducts are flooded with water, which the exosuit cannot go into but the cat can (with some reluctance), and after draining the water the exosuit can then be brought through the now-dry sections. Some, like the steaming heater core, requires you find an exosuit upgrade to get past the lava flumes, in this case a mid-air dash that passes through obstacles. While there is some thought put into each of these scenarios, they're all still riffing on various Metroid zones like Norfair and Brinstar and the game frequently feels like an extended homage happy to simply revisit the Metroid franchise's high points than making the effort to evolve beyond where those games left off like many of its more ambitious contemporaries.

A nice touch is that being outside the suit also removes the HUD elements. Jumping back into the suit brings them all back with a little Windows-style start up jingle.
A nice touch is that being outside the suit also removes the HUD elements. Jumping back into the suit brings them all back with a little Windows-style start up jingle.

I will say that the game is remarkably cute; even its strange alien monsters and hostile robots. The cat is still a regular cat, albeit one with a little more loyalty to her master than any cat I've ever met, and even when she's gallivanting around in power armor she still has bouts of catlike behavior like being resistant to jumping into water or picking fights with mice. She cannot talk, with most of the game's exposition coming from her human master Gary or through consoles scattered around the facility. There's even a little Doom-style face in the corner of the HUD that emotionally reacts to shooting, taking damage, or using the spin jump (the cat really likes spinning around). Add to this the cosy lo-fi presentation of the game and it sort of has this charming Tamagotchi atmosphere to it.

Unfortunately, in addition to being mostly uninspired, I ran into a few other issues. Bosses tend to be dull bullet sponge affairs - each boss's enemy health reserves were presumably bumped up to fit the developer's desired level of challenge, though this has the effect of every boss fight taking four or five minutes as you spend ages chipping away at their health bar only to lose the battle of attrition when your own is extinguished. For such a relatively short game - about three hours on my first playthrough, collecting everything - so much of that time feels spent fighting these boss encounters. Worst of all is that the pre-boss dialogue is always there and can never be skipped; just rapidly buttoned through each time as you impatiently try to get back into the fight. That you can game over in the solo cat sections from a single hit is often a bummer, as the caution with which you need to approach those sections often feels counter to the game's more breezier exosuit traversal, especially when you're zipping around with the spin jumps and air dashes. At one point I left my suit to complete a task as the cat only to come back to find the suit gone, and since all the exits required the suit to open I was forced to run into the nearest spikes and start over from the last checkpoint. Minor quibbles perhaps, but little irritations that can build up into a coalesced ball of teeth-grinding annoyance before so long.

The game has a doofy sense of humor sometimes. I can't count how many times I've seen those five particular digits during Extra Life.
The game has a doofy sense of humor sometimes. I can't count how many times I've seen those five particular digits during Extra Life.

I'll give this game a thumbs up for its presentation, especially the animations, and for the general flow and feel of the controls. Once you have the traversal upgrades and are zooming through areas it feels like a proper explormer should, and there's nothing too awful about closely emulating the Metroid series given they were exceptional enough to have a hand in codifying the entire sub-genre. I just don't think the game has that much of its own character to commend beyond the cute kitty heroine, and half the time I spent with it I was feeling annoyed about one slight or another. I'll be tossing it into the enormous pile of Indie explormer also-rans I've covered in this feature; charming and competent, but not the sort of breakout hit that'll entice anyone who doesn't already zealously play through every single one of these types of game like a certain chump right here.

Rating: 3 out of 5. [Played on Nintendo Switch.]

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