Although I'm sure I'll get plenty of emails about it, I'm not afraid to admit that I didn't know there was a new Transformers cartoon. As a thirty year old guy, I grew up loving the Autobots and Decepticons, so it doesn't surprise me that an entirely new group of robot-loving kids are getting a chance to watch these Transformers duke it out. Considering the success of the recent live action movie, I guess I shouldn't be shocked by any of this. Still, I couldn't help but be a little shocked at the cover artwork and the fact that I didn't see this cartoon coming.
I'll tell you what does surprise me - the fact that this game isn't all that bad. Had I simply based my opinion on the cover art I can tell you right now that it wouldn't have received a very high score. However, now that I've played through the lengthy single-player campaign, I'm happy to say that there is a solid action game on this small little Nintendo DS card. It may not be the Transformers game fans of the robots have been waiting for, but it's a worthwhile portable game that is a lot better than you might expect judging by the box.
Transformers Animated: The Game tells the story of a nefarious plan by the evil Megatron to use some sort of space bridge to warp to Cybertron and cause havoc. Actually, you know what, the story isn't all that important. Let's face it, all of these Transformers cartoons come down to the good guys (the Autobots) fighting the bad guys (the Decepticons). This is no different here, only this time around you get to control the action. There is a story here, but it's about as simple as a Saturday morning cartoon ... which is appropriate since that's what it's based on.
The game is split up into two completely different types of games, one that of the action/puzzle variety and one that is more of a 3D racing game. The bulk of the game has you switching between three different characters, Bumblebee, Bulkhead and Optimus Prime. Unlike most 2D action games, Transformers Animated has all three of the characters in each level, making you switch between them to successfully complete the stage. Each of the three characters has their own unique abilities, which comes in handy when trying to navigate your way around the different levels. For example, Bumblebee is able to jump and use his electricity to power elevators and doors, Bulkhead is a powerful character that can move heavy objects and punch through doors, and Optimus Prime can use a grappling hook-like device to climb to places the other two can't reach. In order to complete each level you're going to have to cycle through these characters and solve the various puzzles.
Fans of old Blizzard games will probably think that this all sounds very familiar, because the core puzzle solving gameplay is basically a huge rip-off (or, perhaps, homage) to the Lost Viking franchise. Personally I liked it, the puzzle solving aspects really work well in this game and it's great to see that the developers didn't simply reduce the Transformers franchise to something as simple as a 2D shooter or beat-em-up. Still, as cool as these levels are, it's hard not to notice that there's very little actual transforming going on.
That's not to say there isn't any transforming happening, because every so often you'll be thrown into a 3D racing mode starring none other than Prowl. These racing sequences feature Prowl either driving or running down a busy street, all while attacking oncoming enemies. You can transform at will, however most of the time you won't need to. These 3D segments have a lot of potential, but you'll notice after awhile that you're stuck doing the same thing over and over. It definitely feels like more time was put into the puzzle solving levels, while these driving levels were nothing more than an afterthought.
Judging by the box art I was fully prepared to hate the game's graphics, however I am happy to say that the visuals are surprisingly sharp ... especially for a Nintendo DS game. The side-scrolling levels are presented in a strange 2.5D style, so that there's an odd angle as you walk back and forth. Even though the game is a traditional 2D game, the characters and backgrounds are made up of 3D polygons, all of which are full of a surprising amount of detail. Now don't get me wrong, you aren't going to confuse the visuals with a console game or one of the better looking PSP titles, but as a Nintendo DS game based on a kid's cartoon the graphics aren't half bad.
The gameplay is also solid, giving each robot a lot of different actions. While much of the game can be played using nothing more than the D-pad and the face buttons, there are some inspired uses of the touch screen. For example, when playing as Optimus Prime you can direct his powerful battle axe in the direction you want it to go. To do this you click on his character, then drag the stylus all around the level until you have found your target. This allows you to hit objects that would normally be out of reach, something that is crucial to the completion of more than one puzzle. There are other moves that you can do with the stylus, none of which feel tacked on or gimmicky.
One thing I was surprised by was the game's difficulty, which really ramps up towards the end of the game. The puzzles are certainly doable and most of the enemies are push-overs, but at the same time the game has some truly challenging moments. Oddly enough, none of these challenge moments feel unfair. I never had one of those moments where I felt like I didn't want to play again because of the difficulty; each time I lost I went right back in and tried a little harder. Unfortunately there isn't much to do once you've beaten the game's 25 levels, so maybe it's a good thing that the game is a little more challenging than most cartoon-inspired action games.
The truth is that I went in dreading this game, yet by the time I was done with the main story I found myself having a good time. This isn't a completely original experience by any stretch of the imagination, but the Lost Viking-inspired gameplay works well and the puzzles get difficult towards the end of the game. I can't speak to the quality of the animated TV show (though, if this game's cinema scenes are any indication it must be pretty poor), but I can tell you that this is a fun action/puzzle game with some great production values. The graphics are good, the game features voice acting (from the cartoon's cast, no less) and the gameplay is solid. I would have liked to have seen a little more transforming, but this is a good game through and through. Don't let the terrible box art fool you, Transformers Animated: The Game is a lot better than most games inspired by Saturday morning cartoons. Now, won't somebody go back to the 1980s and bring on the real Transformers?