Indie Game of the Week 143: Mr. Robot

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Sam Esmail's tense cyber thriller Mr. Robot is back on our screens for its final season this autumn, and what better way to celebrate by playing the official game of the show? In a subtle nod to the hacking drama's prescience of a near-future world in the grip of a corporate dystopia, Mr. Robot The Game had the foresight of being released in 2007: a good eight years before the show itself aired. Instead of following around the skittish genius Elliot and his sinister alter-ego Mr. Robot, we instead have a similarly talented infiltration specialist by the name of Asimov: a mover robot operating on the colony ship Eidolon, which is presently ferrying its cryosleeping passengers to a far off world.

All right, fine, maybe this Mr. Robot is not necessarily related to the TV show Mr. Robot. Maybe. (You can never be too sure, what with A.R.G.s being a popular choice for hacker fiction.) It does have hacking in it though, featured in one of the game's two halves: the first being an isometric action-adventure platformer game - think Solstice or Equinox, or Lumo for an example even fresher than this game - and the second, a cyberware-based RPG. Neither mode is particularly compelling or deep on its own, but having that alternation of the active "outside" jumping and puzzle-solving sequences and the contemplative "inside" turn-based hacking makes for an engaging dichotomy. I'll just address both of these halves separately:

The action-adventure aspect, where you're entering a room and trying to figure out how to get to the other exit, maybe collecting the various hard-to-reach power-ups and currency items along the way, relies a lot on the player's ability to think isometrically. That is to say, it's not always easy to judge jump distances and the proximity of hazards when everything's at an acute angle. I grew up with these games, with the likes of Knight Lore and Head Over Heels being staples of the '80s British gamer's repertoire, so even if it's less of an issue for me there's always a little bit of visual ambiguity that trips you up and reminds you why platforming games in this perspective never really caught on with the rest of the world. Mr. Robot also seems to de-emphasize shadows, increasing their transparency to the point of near invisibility, which is usually the only sure way in this game genre of knowing just how high up you are or where you will land if you happen to be in mid-air. The game can be pretty strict about damage too: you can take about three hits (with a small grace period of invulnerability in-between) before you vaporize and return to the entrance of the room, all progress within reset (besides collectibles). If you lose all three lives - and you sometimes have fewer for reasons unbeknown to me - you instead go back to when you last hit a checkpoint, and all your progress is reset (including collectibles and any party tinkering you may have done). This is especially painful when the game decides to pull its favorite party trick: crashing randomly. It really loves that trick, in particular when it's been some time since you last saved.

Around the mid-section of the game you frequently saw this puzzle type, where you have to direct these little goobers around by pushing crates in their path. To its credit, the game keeps these puzzles fresh with each new area.
Around the mid-section of the game you frequently saw this puzzle type, where you have to direct these little goobers around by pushing crates in their path. To its credit, the game keeps these puzzles fresh with each new area.

The computer hacking has you travelling between nodes on a grid of computer components, any of which could trigger a random encounter with some of the system's security programs. These start small - basic processes that can do nothing but attack - but eventually become more intelligent with more elaborate character models to match. The late-game enemies will frequently heal and buff each other, letting the less sophisticated enemies in front deal (and take) most of the damage. These are all simple turn-based affairs where each character attacks in an order determined on a per-turn basis, and while the player begins with only their own "ghost" - the AI mind inside the robot body - the player will eventually meet their beleaguered robot colleagues and, with one thing leading to another, end up downloading their ghosts for safekeeping. These ghosts, in turn, then join your party while hacking, taking up various roles: repair and maintenance (healing/support), ICE-breaking (melee), high-level security programs (DPS mage), and so on. You can find and buy consumables and equipment, the latter adding more damage and armor and occasionally providing upgrade chips that allow you to siphon energy (health) and power (mana) from enemies. I played the game on normal and found these RPG battles to be extremely easy, so it might be that playing on hard is the way to go. I suspect (but cannot confirm) the stronger enemy types show up sooner and in greater frequency, adding to the mode's strategic challenge and variety.

Here I am with my ghostly chums fighting a few
Here I am with my ghostly chums fighting a few "Adult Scramblers." I think those are what porn channels use to thwart non-subscribers.

In all, it's surprising to see an Indie game this ambitious and robust from as long ago as 2007. This was back before Braid and Spelunky and Minecraft, in that halcyon period where we were just beginning to understand what the Xbox Live Arcade and its influx of new, bite-sized morsels might mean to the game industry moving forward. It's by UK studio Moonpod, who I've met before with their equally ambitious top-down space sim Starscape with which Mr. Robot shares its often dry and sardonic sense of humor (and, unfortunately, a great deal of bugs). I feel like I'm being a little unfair decrying a game like this for its flaws and lack of serious depth when I'm subconsciously comparing it to those twelve years its junior, because that's a hell of a long time in game development terms, but the frequent crashing really clinched it for me. It's not something you'd expect from a game that's had over a decade to find some stability. Still, if you were in the process of forming a long-form article or video on the constantly expanding Indie development scene starting with its earliest pioneers, Mr. Robot may have a few dents and scuffs but has held up well enough. (I'm perhaps just a little irked that the game didn't provide any hints about where the final season might be heading. You win again, Esmail.)

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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