Rolling around at the speed of… an Armadillo?
A lot of people in games media have lamented the death of what is called the “B-Tier Developer”. B-Tier Developers often did not have the money or the resources that your Rockstars and Bungies have, but they gave it their best shot, often producing a lot of weird, cool games that we would’ve never gotten otherwise. True enough, as games have become increasingly more expensive to develop, these so-called B-Tier Developers haven’t been able to keep up, and the list of studios shuttering their doors grows ever larger each year. Of course, these B-Tier Developers haven’t really gone away, they’ve just been re-branded as a much more friendly term: Indie Developer. Such is the case with Armillo‘s developer, Fuzzy Wuzzy Games. Armillo reminds me of the bygone summers I spent with Playstation Magazine demo discs, and it would feel right at home rubbing elbows with oddities like Shipwreckers and Invasion From Beyond. But while some may romanticize the B-Tier game, it’s also important to remember that a lot of these games were considered B-Tier not simply for budget or scope reasons, but often because they just weren’t as polished or as thought out. It’s at these crossroads that we find Armillo.Armillo follows the story of an alien named (funnily enough) Armillo and his friends in their battle against The Darkbots, which are invading nearby planets and are generally up to no good. As the armadillo-like namesake creature, you primarily roll around small planetoids rescuing your friends from Darkbot containers and avoiding certain death. It almost gives me sort of a Sonic 3D Blast vibe, but instead of the big, boring, empty levels from that game, Armillo is generally a more engaging experience, with frequent trips to toxic parallel dimensions, and side-scrolling bonus worlds. It’s fun and occasionally creative, but I can’t help shake the feeling that it makes the game feel a bit haphazard. Armillo doesn’t seem quite sure it knows what it wants to be. Is it a 3D platformer? A twin-stick shooter? A puzzle game? A 2D platformer? As it turns out, the answer to all four of those questions is “Yes”. There’s also a shop where you can use collected currency to buy upgrades, but most of them feel superfluous, like the sorts of things you don’t necessarily need, or should’ve already had by default (like the ability to start levels holding more 1ups). It all feels like a bunch of stuff that was added not necessarily because they were important to the game, but because they were features the developers thought a game should have, if that makes any sense. The best games, no matter how nonsensical on the surface (e.g. Super Mario Bros.), always seem to have some degree of cohesion to them. I’m all for gameplay diversity, but Armillo doesn’t always feel like it fits together as well as it should.
Part of that is the game’s art direction. I hesitate to say that Armillo is a bad looking game, but it’s certainly not a great looking game, either. Armillo himself looks like a weird cross between Sonic the Hedgehog and Pikachu, and the game’s small supporting cast generally look pretty unmemorable. The visual themes of the levels themselves were so forgettable I had to boot the game back up while writing this review because I was certain that the whole game took place in the same dark, craggy, moon-like environment environment. And it might as well: despite jungles, deserts, planets of ice and technology, they largely feel like window dressing and don’t necessarily contribute a lot to unique level design. That’s not to say it isn’t a creative game, because as previously stated, Armillo feels a bit like its creators threw in the kitchen sink. But I remember less about the look and feel of levels and more about specific gameplay moments contained within. Like a lot of my feelings about Armillo, that’s not really a complaint, it’s just one of the game’s many quirks.There is one area of Armillo that is undeniably, objectively terrible, however: framerate. Fuzzy Wuzzy Games has boasted that Armillo is currently exclusive to the Wii U’s eShop, but despite choosing such an exclusivity agreement, they do not appear to have a very good handle on the console’s hardware. The game constantly stutters and chugs, more often than not struggling to hit the bare minimum of 30fps. Right in the first level, I’ve had the game hang for almost a full second for no apparent reason. Later levels show a clear disregard for optimization as certain gameplay elements generate massive amounts of transparent smoke effects that do nothing but destroy this game’s performance. I’ve seen the framerate hit the low end of single digits, and at that point, the game slows down so much that the controls actually stop responding. I’ve played 15 year old Nintendo 64 games with better, more consistent framerates than Armillo. To give Fuzzy Wuzzy Games the benefit of the doubt, they did leave a message on Armillo‘s Miiverse community stating they’ve submitted a patch to Nintendo that helps with the framerate problems, but as of writing this review (a week after that message was posted), the patch has still not been made available to the public. As such, I can only call it as I see it, and as I see it, Armillo is currently a bit of a slideshow.
It may sound like I’m being a bit harsh, but that’s largely because it’s easier to talk about a game’s negatives. For the five brief worlds it lasted, I did have a moderate amount of fun playing Armillo. It’s just… there are a lot of things that bring the game down little bit by little bit, giving it almost sort of a “student project” feel. There’s nothing especially wrong with student projects, and some really great ideas have come from them, but the fact still stands that there are a lot of areas in which Armillo feels more than a little amateur. Many of its problems could be solved simply by polishing up the game’s visuals, with better character designs and more cohesive levels. On the plus side, it’s only $8, and compared to the $15+ you’re regularly expected to pay for something like this on the Xbox, that’s not such a bad deal. Armillo might have a few rough edges, but the game still feels like it comes from a place of love, which is what’s made writing this review feel so difficult.
Would I recommend Armillo? I don’t feel like there’s a quick, easy answer for that, and ultimately, that’s part of what ended up being the bane of the B-Tier Developer: the “halfsie” recommendation. Not many people are going to buy a game just because a review says “maybe”. You have to look at things a different way: Armillo might not have the prettiest face, and some of its gameplay elements might not always gel together, but what really matters is whether or not it was fun. I had fun with Armillo. It’s just long enough to justify its $8 price tag, has the right amount of challenge, and a great soundtrack. Are there better games out there? Absolutely. But there are many shades of gray between “the best” and “the worst”, and fortunately for Armillo, things look pretty bright.