Version tested: Xbox 360
Spare Parts finally, spectacularly, irrevocably falls to pieces right on the finish line. After several hours of just about holding itself together over four stages of passable late-nineties platforming and mindless button-mashing, it staggers into a final boss fight so horribly misconceived that I was almost convinced it was an elaborate prank of some sort.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's rewind to the start, when Spare Parts still looked like a promising downloadable jaunt with high production values.
The spare parts of the title refer to chunks of spaceship gadgetry, scattered over the surface of a mysterious planet. The phrase could also refer to the hapless discarded robots that are press-ganged into service by CON-RAD, the ship's computer, to retrieve the important bits so he can escape from a bobble-headed Darth Vader-style enemy who has followed him here to pilfer his cutting-edge systems.
If you were feeling uncharitable, spare parts could also refer to the game's design, which feels cobbled together from old ideas and concepts that are never developed beyond their basics. In construction, it all fits neatly into the classic 3D platform game mould, as if someone was impressed by the first Ratchet & Clank game, decided to make something similar but then got frozen in carbonite and thawed out last year with only a fuzzy memory of what it was they were trying to achieve.
You guide your robot around four predictably themed stages (jungle, caves, mountains, temple), double-jumping and mashing the buttons for all your worth to bash enemies. Do you do a ground slam if you double jump and press X? Yes. Yes you do. It's familiar, even comforting, but hopelessly derivative.
Along the way you're searching for ship parts, as well as new power-ups for your robot. Coins can be beaten out of bad guys or smashed out of the scenery, and later cashed in at the gameplay hub to upgrade your abilities even further.
These abilities form the basis of the game's puzzles, so let's take a closer look. Power arms let you smash or move heavy objects. Magno Boots let you walk up the occasional metal wall, fire off an EMP or power certain pads embedded in the floor. Rocket Boots, surprisingly, let you fly for a short distance and can be used to set fire to things. The Nano Trigger is a vaguely defined gizmo that lets you use control panels late in the game. Finally, the X-Scanners are a set of goggles that highlight useful bits of the level.
The X-Scanners are important because they highlight one of several persistent problems with the gameplay, namely that you even need an option to tell you what can be interacted with and how. This is one of those games where you'll find yourself utterly stuck, having tried everything you can think of to find the way ahead. Then you try the X-Scanners, and discover you can move something. It's usually something you tried before, but the game's fussy precision means that it's entirely possible to stand right next to an essential object with no effect.
Gameplay lurches along in this fashion across the short playing time. Brief formless sections of uninspired platforming and melee combat lead you into big environmental puzzles so irritatingly designed that the game actually has to show you what goes where.
One notable example of this problem comes at the start of final stage, the ancient temple. Hemmed into a small area, clearly you need to do something to move onwards. There are gates that can be moved, and some water wheels that can be pushed under waterfalls, but they all slide back instantly.
I tried every possible combination. Nothing worked. I quit the level, and started it again. This time I got a short cut-scene highlighting the very waterwheels I'd just been banging my head against. Now, freed by the triggering of their magical cut-scene, they locked into place and the puzzle unfolded. Bug? Glitch? Sloppy design? Who knows, but the fact that Spare Parts is a game where you're always aware that it's probably the game at fault, not yourself, doesn't do it any favours.
It's one of those frustrating games that niggles at you in lots of ways, and the cumulative effect is more than the uninspired framework can support. Like the twitchy collision detection that means you can punch right through enemies. Like the slippery platforming that has the potential to make every leap a trial of patience. Like the fact that there's a whole suite of fighting moves, none of which prove essential thanks to the one-note combat.
Or the fact that it's a co-op game with almost no co-operative elements. The only time you'll need another player is to grab some bonus ship parts, vital for getting a 10G Achievement but otherwise pointless. The horrible camera for local multiplayer doesn't help, either.
It's especially disappointing that the game utterly squanders Simon Pegg's voiceover, leaving him high and dry with a bland and largely humourless script. He wrings some fun out of the goofy sci-fi names for the various ship parts, but unless you know it's Pegg at the microphone you probably wouldn't even notice that he was involved.
Indeed, the game as a whole is sorely lacking in personality. The teaser trailer suggests a knockabout romp starring two squabbling slapstick robots. No such hilarity appears in the game. In fact, those aren't even the only robots. You can find and revive loads more, swapping between them for no apparent reason since they all have the same abilities and powers.
And then there's that finale, which takes the mild annoyances that have built up over the game's four-hour-ish playing time and rubs them in your face.
After engaging in a long boss battle against the Diet Darth Vader which involves running around and hitting switches while he shoots at you from a gun tower, you're transplanted back to the start of the temple area. The bad guy now walks around, surrounded by an instant-kill shield. Periodically, his shield vanishes and you can dash in and hit him a few times. He walks slowly and it takes around 17 seconds for his shield to drop again.
On my first try, I spent half an hour following this drab routine to no avail. I'd run in, try and score some hits with my fully upgraded Power Arm bash, the boss would stagger and appear to take damage... and nothing would happen.
Trying again, I used the X-Scanners ability to check that I was, in fact, hitting him with the right thing. Sure enough, the Power Arm icon appeared next to the boss when his shield was down. Except, this time, when I hit him bits of his armour fell off and more enemies spawned.
Yes, it seems that until you use the X-Scanners to confirm that you're actually hitting him, you're not actually hitting him. With that curious loophole closed off, all I had to do was hit him a few more times, beat some more waves of enemies, hit the boss a few more times and then set him on fire. Yay, game over!
Oh, and then I had to go back to the hub and throw some switches. And then go down into the cargo bay to fight the boss a third time. Basically, this game has more endings than The Lord of the Rings, and none of them are fun.
I mention all this not as a spoiler (though it may prove useful to anyone else currently bludgeoning away in that final battle to no avail) but to demonstrate just how clumsy and awkward Spare Parts' construction is. It's not interesting, and it's certainly not challenging – you get infinite lives and the only penalty for death is the loss of some coins that you can only spend on concept art and pointless upgrades. It's a short and rather insipid slog that simply doesn't have the charm or ambition to compensate for its wonkier aspects.
10 years ago, Spare Parts probably would have been a full price game, following in the desperate footsteps of Gex, Croc and other best-forgotten wannabe platform franchises. Progress may mean that it now costs a fraction of the price as a download title in 2011, but the problems at its mechanical heart remain.
4 / 10