Spareware Review (Xbox One)

Spareware, courtesy of developer Rusto Games, is not your typical twin-stick shooter. At first glance you might assume you just try to survive as long as possible against hordes of enemies. While you wouldn’t be completely wrong, you’d be overlooking the surprising amount of depth to the game. There are some light RPG mechanics with player leveling and skill trees, as well as a unique cell management system that stresses player efficiency. With support for up to 4 players locally, will Spareware be a hit at your next gaming get-together?

There’s quite a convoluted backstory in the world of Spareware according to the developer website. The game gives you a quick rundown at the beginning but you will probably find yourself skipping through it to get to the action. The basics are these: it’s the future, year 2186 to be exact. The environment has turned destructive and humans now live in protective city domes. The robots are rebelling against the humans and that’s really all you need to know. Gain new abilities and destroy any human that stands in your way. This is definitely not an epic narrative, but it doesn’t need to be.

Before every level the player can equip new gear in five categories: head, torso, left arm, right arm, and feet. At the beginning of the game you won’t have many choices as most of the gear is locked. You can collect new gear in specific levels but if you get a game over you will lose everything. Unlocking gear permanently is tied to earning achievements, a decision by the developers that I found refreshing. For most players it will become a priority to earn these achievements to unlock gear permanently. Each piece of gear will increase your stats in some way, whether it be speed, strength, magazine capacity, etc.

Every level has objectives such as: collect an item, destroy an electric barrier, or simply just reach the level exit. Standing in your path are hordes of human enemies wielding guns, bats and riot shields that would love to turn you into scrap metal. Leveling up earns ability points that you can use to upgrade your robot. There are passive abilities such as extra health and faster movement; or you can spend on active abilities such as mines, invincibility, and my personal favorite, saw-shaped drones that circle the player and turn enemies into deli meat! Active perks also have a cooldown meter to limit any spamming.

In addition to the obvious objectives listed above, you’re going to need to collect cells in each level. In some ways this is more important than anything else. See all that cool gear you collected requires cells to equip, with typically the better gear and weapons requiring more cells. Cells are earned typically by destroying cars and picking up the blue cell item drop and also completing fuel plant levels. You also are credited the cell value of your any gear not destroyed at the end of the level. As you take damage you will slowly break down, piece by piece starting with the head. If your guns are destroyed you can pick up new ones laying around. If all hell breaks loose you may find yourself rushing to the exit as just a pair of legs! Ideally you want to complete the level without losing any body pieces.

This design choice means that you are going to have to think about which gear to equip, it can only a few deaths to dwindle your cells down to single digits. You are able to play levels without spending any cells, but you will be very slow and weak. The weapons are fun to use for the most part and range from spear guns, shotgun types, and my favorite, a fire whip. Knowing when to equip pricey gear and when to risk playing with weak gear is key to succeeding in the campaign.

The graphics, sound and music are definitely not the highlights of the game. Like most twin stick shooters, you play from a top-down perspective. Spareware has cel-shaded graphics that aren’t overtly cartoony, but not very detailed either. Every level I played took place in the same city environment, a game this repetitive would greatly benefit from changes in scenery. The music is as generic a rock soundtrack as you can imagine, and it tends to repeat itself quickly. Thankfully there is an option to turn it off and you may find yourself doing that right away. The sound effects are nothing spectacular but they get the job done.

The controls work fine and I found them to be responsive and well laid out. You control your character with the left stick and aim with the right stick. Shooting with your right and left hands is mapped to the right and left triggers respectively. Manual reloading is performed with the left and right bumpers respectively as well. Active perks such as bombs or drones can be mapped to the X, Y or B buttons. There is also a transparent map that can be called up and kept on screen using the D-pad.

I also feel the game suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. Robots with customizable parts and cool weapons seems very appealing to children, yet the game is rated teen. When you kill human enemies there is blood and chunks but I don’t think its edgy enough to appeal to teens. My five year old son and I tried some co-op and he quickly lost interest. In the end I think this game is meant for older gamers, the blood and the amount of efficiency needed to be successful seems too complicated for anyone under 13. It would also be nice to have an option to turn off the blood so parents can play with their younger children.

This brings me to my biggest gripe of the game, friendly fire! I can’t believe a 4-player co-op shooter has mandatory friendly fire. Imagine you and 3 buddies trying to play the game with dozens of enemies swarming you, and you have to watch out for each other’s weapons. There’s no way to turn off friendly fire and I found it to make the game more frustrating rather than more engaging. You can revive fallen enemies but at least give me the option to turn friendly fire off.

Final thoughts:

The more time I spent playing Spareware, the more I liked it. It took some time to accept that I would lose my skills if I got a game over and that I couldn’t just rush through each level. When you begin to master some of these nuances the game becomes pretty rewarding. It’s hard to fully recommend this game because the co-op mode is so unsatisfying when it’s supposed to be Spareware’s biggest strength. If these design choices don’t bother you, then you may find yourself a hidden couch co-op gem.

+ Unique weapons

+ RPG aspects combined with twin stick shooting

– Mandatory friendly fire

– Repetitive level design and music

Final Score: 5/10

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