That local multiplayer games armed with a high concept and treated with a bit of spit and polish often ride on a pre-release wave of goodwill should come as no surprise. In a medium where most AAA releases tend to immerse players into protracted, solitary quests to save humanity or rush them headlong into never-ending, faceless online battle, it’s a priceless joy to have a quick session with someone who can catch your smirk with a sideways glance as you impale, nuke, or roundhouse-kick them on your way to victory. It’s a matter of stakes more than communication: Being humbled by “l33tgam3r99” from the other side of the globe matters little, but, on the same couch, under identical conditions, and lacking the easy excuse of a laggy connection, losing to one’s spouse or buddy can be deliciously unbearable.
The fact that, barring truly accomplished works like Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, such games fare less successfully when finally reviewed isn’t inexplicable either. All the delight and enthusiasm of their initial reception comes from first encountering them in an ideal environment, one that serves to conceal all their weaknesses: in festivals and expos, competing against similarly unexposed players (hence ensuring a level playing field), and with obvious time restrictions. Load up Mayan Death Robots for the first time to play against a friend for two or three matches and you’re quite likely to think this among your favourites for the year. The impression won’t last the week.
Combining the artillery mechanics of Worms with Erich von Daniken’s kooky theories of alien visitors posing as gods to impressionable Earthlings, the game features massive robots in intergalactically broadcast, turn-based fights. Unlike Worms, these bouts are one-on-one affairs where the objective isn’t necessarily to damage your opponent, but to pierce through the fortifications surrounding their assigned power core and destroy that instead. Both players have to also decide on their action (out of three types: move, reinforce defences, or attack with one of the available weapons) and execute it simultaneously, adding a degree of tactical guesswork to its predecessor’s more rigidly separated turns. Unfolding over a variety of vaguely South American locales, from expansive plateaus to lava-bleeding calderas, these duels embroil the tiny humans carrying out their own conflict silently among the giants’ feet: the indigenous tribes backed up by flame-spewing dragons and the invading conquistadors on their caravels—a dynamic strongly reminiscent of the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Little People.”
Sileni Studios’s latest at least tries to address the inherent shortcomings of a genre built almost exclusively around the multiplayer experience, namely, what to do when your opponent of choice isn’t around. Mayan Death Robots offers a surprisingly lengthy story-based campaign which introduces new mechanics, characters, and all sorts of environmental hazards with every stage, and even includes impromptu boss fights when some Mayan god, miffed at your wanton destruction, comes out to disrupt proceedings and briefly turns the game into a collaborative task. Shockingly lacking an online mode, perhaps it couldn’t afford to do otherwise.
All the more disappointing, then, is that many of these ideas are so poorly executed that, instead of offering strategic depth as a counter to the monotony of the format, they add frustration to its woes by making fights seem arbitrary as your efforts are thwarted by uncontrollable, erratic forces. Ten stages in and your mighty mechanoid feels like a rag doll, bounced around by angry Spaniards with pointy hats and zapped incessantly by randomly striking lightning bolts, all while trying to line up the next shot. The interrupting bosses, on the other hand, while beautifully designed and a potentially intriguing, original concept, prove somewhat meaningless: Unlimited resurrections mean you cannot possibly lose those battles, and your performance in them has no bearing on the duel after the interloper has been dealt with (you just pick up where you left off and keep duking it out).
Certain details in the game testify to the developers’ hard work and genuine care for their product: little visual flourishes, a quirky story of alien robots and ancient gods delivered with zest, and even the sheer range of mechanics introduced throughout, however misconceived these may be. Unfortunately, Sileni Studios, in attempting to present something deeper and more original than your run-of-the-mill artillery title, has painted itself into a corner. Mayan Death Robots ends up too complex and idiosyncratic to be enjoyed as a casual multiplayer experience, while its solo campaign misguidedly seeks replayability in a trajectory of increasingly frustrating disempowerment.