Cobalt isn’t the kind of game I expected from the name that brought us Minecraft.
Any attempt to duplicate the success of Minecraft would likely have been futile. With Oxeye Game Studio in charge of development, Mojang has delivered something radically different in Cobalt. Taking an inspired-by approach to the side-scrollers of yesteryear, Oxeye captures the spirit of the ’80s, borrowing the era’s grungy approach to sci-fi. It’s a future where technology is clunky and imposing. The art, from the arcade cabinet menus to the character designs, references the old and new all at once.
The old-school arcade era’s reputation for challenging —€” and often punishing —€” gameplay experiences survives the modern translation as well. Cobalt is a complex side-scroller that rewards you for mastering its mechanics, but doesn’t always put you in the best position to do so, and frustrating design decisions rob the game of a little of its magic.
Slow motion isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card
You play as Cobalt, a wise-cracking, pint-sized robot with a fetish for destruction. He and his AI companion have received a distress beacon from what they believe to be humans, their first contact in 50 years, and it’s Cobalt’s job to investigate. The story doesn’t pull much weight, drawing from a well of popular sci-fi, but it also doesn’t distract from the overall package. There’s a sinister AI, quirky alien foes (or friends!), musings about our existence and interplanetary globetrotting. There are no cutscenes — dialogue plays out in text bubbles, and you can choose dialogue options, but they all lead to the same place.
Cobalt‘s refusal to play up the nostalgia too much with 16-bit graphics and chiptune tracks is refreshing, but its strongest asset sits underneath its retro sheen and second-rate Pixar humor. Combat is broken into three parts: ranged (guns), throwable (grenades & objects) and melee (fists, shovels, etc.). The game’s marquee mechanic is an automatic bullet time. When an enemy fires a potential killing shot, things slow down and a square box appears around the projectile. Subverting the conventional wisdom on avoiding enemy fire, Cobalt encourages you to roll and punch the incoming rounds to send them in the opposite direction.
Using this mechanic to its full potential took some reprogramming. I was instinctively bunny-hopping around the environment trying to evade every round, because that’s how you play these kinds of games, right? Once I let go of that, I was liberated. I was practically charging into gunfire, cackling as my reflected rounds barreled through my enemies.
However, once enemies aimed submachine gun-style weapons at me, I realized slow motion wasn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card. Using the roll maneuver causes longer and longer delays between rolls, leaving you open to fire —€” you might block the first two or three rounds from a burst of shots, but rounds four and five are definitely getting through. Before long, Cobalt was throwing seven or more enemies at me simultaneously, eliminating any hope I had for planning my method of approach.
Cobalt pitches stealth as an option with the addition of active camo upgrades, but its levels and encounters don’t seem designed to support that play style. Instead, it felt like the game wanted me to improvise my way through the environment, which made many encounters feel chaotic and rhythmless. Cobalt wants to be the angel and the devil on your shoulder, whispering in your ear to charge your enemies aggressively, while cautioning you against doing so.
The reality is you never have enough ammo in Cobalt to be especially aggressive. I often found myself at the end of a level facing off against shotgun-toting flying drones, armored foot soldiers and tank-like robots with a shovel, 18 bullets, four grenades and two bird eggs. Soul-crushing death spirals that zapped my desire to play weren’t uncommon. I had to load back out to the ship hub and visit one of the merchant planets to buy more ammo and upgrade my items, which even with short load times felt like a chore, and it doesn’t help that Cobalt‘s currency is hard to come by.
Cobalt‘s approach to its side mechanics is also puzzling. There’s a lengthy tutorial that details everything you need to know about traversal and combat, but it doesn’t hint at the game’s safecracking, lockpicking and hacking sequences. The terminal hacking minigame telegraphs its mechanics well enough, but I had to wrestle with the others to figure them out. Failing these sequences often triggers alarms that bring more enemies to the battlefield. These systems are weirdly obtuse and unnecessary potential roadblocks.
In multiplayer, Cobalt‘s deficiencies are less of an issue. Up to eight players can choose between a vast assortment of robots with varying strengths and weaknesses. Some bots are faster and better at traversal with hovering abilities allowing them to fly around the battlefield, while others are slow-moving, heavily armored and deadly at close range. This kind of on-the-fly versatility would be nice to have in the campaign.
Plug Slam rises above “CTF clone” status due to the game’s nifty physics engine. Cobalt never feels faster than it does here because of the switched emphasis on terrain navigation instead of combat. The same moves you would use to send bullets back at enemies can be used to pass plugs to teammates and score goals. The game’s use of momentum is almost as important here as it is in the speed challenge missions. A well-timed jump at the end of a downward slope can send you soaring across the screen. Oxeye strategically places bounce pads throughout the map to aid this. You can easily roll onto a bounce pad and chuck the plug across the map and into the goal. Bounce pads also help transition the player between different levels of a map, boosting the sense of verticality.