There are two opposing stylistic schools in indie development at the moment. One favours ambiguity and opacity: games like Dear Esther, laden with deeper meaning, where the titles themselves are part of a larger riddle for the player to unravel. Then there are games like Shoot Many Robots, where bluntness rules the roost, the simple gameplay mechanisms shamelessly showcased in the title - arcade gaming with a side order of irony.
So it comes as no surprise that in Shoot Many Robots you will, indeed, shoot many robots. The robots don't represent a fragmented memory or deliver loverlorn sonnets as they perish under your unending hail of bullets. They're just robots. Evil robots. And you must shoot them.
The 'you' in this scenario is P. Walter Tugnut, the sort of broad redneck stereotype that games were strangely obsessed with in the 1990s. He's been hoarding weaponry in preparation for a robot apocalypse only he believes is coming, and when the local factory starts pumping out waves of metallic monsters, his foresight proves advantageous.
Developer Demiurge has a long history of behind-the-scenes collaboration with larger studios. As well as turning out song packs for various Rock Band incarnations, it handled the PC port of the first Mass Effect and also worked on the Arena mode for Gearbox's Borderlands. It's this last credit that proves most illuminating here, since Shoot Many Robots is nothing if not Borderlands reimagined as a 2D, side-scrolling, run-and-gun arcade game in the Metal Slug vein.
Moment to moment, the gameplay sets a breakneck rhythm and stays there for almost the whole duration. You run, slide and jump through industrial landscapes furnished with rusting girders, crumbling buildings and derelict farms, directing a stream of shots at the dozens of robots thrown in your path. In keeping with the redneck aesthetic, health is refilled with beer, and your supply is restocked at sporadic checkpoints. Defeated robots scatter nuts across the floor, and it's this ad hoc currency that drives the real meat of the game.
Just as in Borderlands, Shoot Many Robots is really a loot-drop RPG masquerading as something else. Tugnut can only carry two weapons at a time - a main weapon with infinite ammo and a secondary heavy-hitter with limited shots - but the arsenal from which you can choose is numbered in the hundreds. Destroying crates or specific enemies in-game unlocks new weapons in the store, which you access in Tugnut's trailer between levels.
It is, perhaps, the most varied and expansive selection of weapons offered in an action game in living memory: a veritable conveyor belt of destruction, offering everything from powerful armour-piercing SMGs to knockback shotguns to one-hit-kill sniper rifles, all backed up with freeze rays, bazookas, homing missiles and more.
This variety is augmented further still with a selection of costume items - hats, backpacks and trousers - that further enhance your abilities. Helmets allow you to perform slam attacks from above. If you want to hover and float, you can choose from jetpacks or fairy wings. Everything tweaks and shunts your statistics in different directions, taking firepower, agility, healing and more and making them as pliable as plasticine, mutating with every act of dress-up.
Certain inventory items can also be unlocked early via sure-to-be-controversial real money micropayments, and you can also top up your balance of nuts via the same in-game purchases.
The downside to this is that it creates a tension between the fuss-free arcade gameplay and the need to balance countless character builds. The classic run-and-gun shooters of old were gracefully orchestrated kindred spirits of the bullet hell shoot-'em-up, where there was always a way to squeak through each wave of attack provided you spotted the patterns. Shoot Many Robots, by comparison, is a blunt instrument where the challenge comes from simply lobbing seven different enemy types into the mix and leaving you to blast your way through by any means available.
This means that when you crunch up against a brick wall of difficulty, it can be hard to tell if it's your skill that's at fault or just that you've got a character combination ill-suited to the task. Trial and error clears the way sooner rather than later, but the sharp edges of this genre mash-up scrape together badly during such moments.
Thankfully, the game gets most other things right where action is concerned. Robots fly to pieces in a satisfyingly cathartic manner, and the primordial pleasure of destroying lots of things very quickly keeps the basics entertaining, even when you're getting wound up by occasional slack checkpoints, scenery obstructions and other annoyances.
This is, however, a game attempting to deliver immediate, violent gratification at the same time as long-term level-grinding goals, and with dozens of levels to slog through, repetition becomes a problem. Some levels are repeated wholesale, but even the others are hard to distinguish as the same enemies and environments are recycled over and over.
The other area where Shoot Many Robots doffs its tatty cowboy hat in the direction of Borderlands is in its emphasis on co-op. Played with friends, the game is a lot more chaotic, but also vastly more entertaining. It's here that the sheer number of character combinations comes into its own, and even amid the carnage, the benefits of specialising and collaborating are clear.
The ability to revive fallen comrades also means you can tag-team your way past the later stages, where solo players are pretty much left to die in an inferno of mayhem. Indeed, the fact that the game becomes virtually unplayable for single players less than a quarter of the way through is perhaps its biggest flaw.
It stumbles and wobbles, but there's still much to enjoy in Shoot Many Robots. Yet in trying to stretch its punchy charms across dozens of near-identical stages, thousands of customisation options and endless weapon combinations, Demiurge has bitten off more than most players will want to chew and sells the inherent appeal of its game short in the process. This is a game structured around a methodical slog even though it's most enjoyable in short intense bursts, leaving the road to completion looking increasingly long and daunting as the difficulty ramps up.
These issues with pacing and balancing are compensated by the manic euphoria of the action, so if you have three reliable friends with a penchant for manic gunplay and surreal RPGs then Shoot Many Robots can be an enjoyably unpretentious distraction. Those who prefer to play solo should steer well clear, however.
7 / 10