Voltron: Defender of the Universe Review
Xbox 360 | PS3
Voltron: Defender of the Universe Box Art
System: Xbox 360, PS3
Dev: Behaviour Interactive
Pub: THQ
Release: November 30, 2011
Players: 1-2
Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p Fantasy Violence
A Lion Without Teeth
by Shelby Reiches

Voltron is one of those '80s series like Robotech and Battle of the Planets/G-Force that was adapted from a differently titled Japanese production and, in some way, fundamentally altered to be more family friendly and appealing to the masses of Saturday morning cartoon-watching kids in the United States. Today, such an act would be met with the full ire of the internet, the anime fandom shouting their lungs out in horrified and virulent messages on boards and via e-mails across the web, decrying these alterations from the pristine Japanese originals. Back then, though, the shows were fun to watch and developed a dedicated fandom, which holds them aloft today. You rarely hear anyone mention GoLion, no? It's always Voltron, which was popular enough in the West that it not only saw the typical DVD rerelease, but an entirely new series (ongoing) produced by an American studio.

Voltron: Defender of the Universe has nothing to do with this latest addition to the mythology. Maybe it's intended as a primer for kids who are enamored with the new animation but lack a solid background in the original tales that precede it. If such is the case, it fails spectacularly; its twelve short levels tell a fractured and fragmented version of the story in between-level cutscenes (all ripped from the original animation). It all suffers from a complete dearth of context, disjointed transitions, and a lack of explanation as to just what each mission is actually intended to accomplish for the Voltron Force. It's an incomprehensible mess, which leaves players with absolutely no understanding of Voltron's past or investment in the amalgam robot's future journeys. So, it doesn't do well at telling its story, but it's a downloadable title set over only twelve levels, and probably couldn't hope to cover the entirety of the original series effectively. Does it at least play well?

Voltron: Defender of the Universe Screenshot

No. It doesn't play well at all.

Well, that's not entirely true. It has a couple of redeeming gameplay touches, but they're in the vast minority. One of these is the momentum with which the Lions control. This is a twin-stick shooter, but your vehicles are quadrupeds, bounding through their environments. Appropriately, they can't turn on a dime, sudden shifts in direction causing their hindquarters to satisfyingly swing around their planted forelegs as they skid to a halt before bolting off on their new headings. As we've seen in shooters such as Renegade Ops, this fusion of satisfying momentum and hectic, twin-stick action can be employed to extremely positive effect.

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Where Voltron goes wrong, though, is in every other aspect of its core gameplay. One of the keys in Renegade Ops was hectic action, which Voltron lacks early on. The starting levels are dull and lifeless, with most enemies dwarfed by the mecha you control. They go down quickly and easily, rarely presenting any credible threat. Later on, however, it becomes perfectly clear why the developers were reluctant to kick things up a notch; by the end, the game is throwing projectiles at you in bullet-hell densities, but your ungainly vehicles are too busy swinging their hips to dodge between or even around the blasts. It becomes a frustrating task of running in a circle, trying not to be on whichever side of a takes-too-long-to-die enemy this multitude of deadly energy orbs/mines/missiles decides to spawn on.

Voltron: Defender of the Universe Screenshot

This is exacerbated by a game engine that, as low-res and low detail as it appears to be, barely chugs along. At first, I thought the slowdown was intentional, to accurately convey the feel of piloting one of these powerful and massive lion mecha. Then I hit a rare moment of clarity, with no geometry more complex than a flat plain and the lion onscreen. The framerate kicked up and the controls became infinitely more responsive for the only three seconds when it didn't matter. Further, while we're on the look of the game, nothing you destroy ever dies or explodes in any kind of satisfying or visceral way. It feels like tearing through a bunch of papier-mâché, minus the tactile fulfillment. That extends to the fact that the game, despite its annoying mechanics, is pretty easy. Extra lives are only a few star shards away, and survivor mode kicks in if your health is depleted, allowing you a chance to re-enter your lion after it starts back up, assuming you can avoid your foes in the interim.

The second shining star within Voltron's black void is, ironically, space. The game is ostensibly divided into three parts: ground, space, and Voltron combat. Ground combat has already been detailed and Voltron segments are a whole 'nother can of worms, but space sections are actually a good bit of fun. They control like a vertical scrolling shooter, but the player can shoot in any direction. Here, the action flows smoothly, with no slowdown and a better sense of destruction, more interesting enemy patterns, and responsive controls that allow you to actually dodge between projectiles instead of just around them. It's nothing spectacular, but it's a competent effort. In fact, it feels as though this is where the bulk of development went, and only later did the producers realize that not that much of Voltron takes place in space and they'd have to do some stuff on the ground as well. Or they just ran out of ideas.

Voltron: Defender of the Universe Screenshot

I doubt it's the latter, though, because there are only two space levels in the entire game. Two out of twelve. There are also three Voltron levels, which means that over half of the game—a whopping seven levels—is devoted to unsatisfying ground action, fighting the same few enemy designs over and over again, recolored to fit your locale of choice.

Screenshots / Images
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