After reviewing the absolutely horrid Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark on Wii U, it would be hard to get our hopes up for the 3DS iteration if it weren't for the name on the back of the box. Unlike every other version of the game, Rise of the Dark Spark on 3DS was produced by the handheld experts at WayForward Technologies, of Shantae and Mighty Switch Force! fame. Rather than present us with a vanilla third-person shooter like all the other consoles received, Rise of the Dark Spark on 3DS is an entirely different beast: a tactical RPG in the vein of Fire Emblem, or more similarly, the Japan-only Super Robot Wars franchise.
It's immediately apparent that Transformers on 3DS did not get nearly the same budget as its home console brethren, with minimalist menus and little in the way of fancy cutscenes or extras. But make no mistake: this is by far the best version of the game. Rise of the Dark Spark on 3DS consists of a meaty 32 missions alternating between Autobots, Decepticons and mercenaries, as well as a basic training mode to learn the ins and outs of gameplay. If you've played Fire Emblem or Advance Wars then you'll feel right at home here: combatants take turns moving their characters around a battlefield grid, defeating enemies, claiming territory and picking up items. It's much more simplified than something as overwhelmingly deep as Fire Emblem: Awakening, but fans of turn-based strategy will still find plenty to enjoy.
Rise of the Dark Spark mixes up the combat of standard tactical games; rather than simply using stats to determine who damages who, as soon as you enter combat you're brought into a traditional RPG-style battle consisting of three rounds. In each round you choose from a handful of moves to use – of course, there's a rock-paper-scissors mechanic for unit types and move types, so you won't want to just blindly attack. Instead of a PP system, the more powerful moves take a certain number of rounds to charge up before you can use them again; there's also a quicktime event for each attack that makes it deal more damage if you time it correctly — like you'd see in Mario & Luigi. Sometimes this in-depth combat system can drag out and feel repetitive (there's no auto-battle option), but it distinguishes Rise of the Dark Spark from other tactical RPGs nicely.
Rise of the Dark Spark features a mix of generic, standard units and "hero units" from the films and TV show. Hero units like Lockdown and Bumblebee are much more powerful than the regular grunts, and unlike in Fire Emblem, they fully recover after each battle. Rather than levelling up, hero units can be equipped with special weapons and bonuses you earn by completing objectives or finding them strewn around the maps. To make use of the eponymous ability of Transformers, hero units can travel farther by transforming into their vehicle forms and reaching faraway areas – the trade-off being that transformed units can't perform any other actions after they've moved until the next turn.
Rise of the Dark Spark on 3DS isn't all hunky dory, unfortunately. There's no multiplayer whatsoever, and the already cliché plot takes even more of a backseat due to the low-budget presentation that tosses you straight into battle with minimal storytelling. The map designs are bland for the most part, and there's no way to save your progress mid-battle to come back to it later – you'll have to start the entire level over again. Enemy AI can be as dumb as bricks and mission objectives can often be unclear; the pause menu tells you what to do, but you shouldn't have to resort to pausing the action to learn what the game is asking of you. These aren't major complaints, but the bar for tactical RPGs on 3DS has been set fairly high by Fire Emblem and Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars.
As a lower-budget release, Rise of the Dark Spark doesn't look nearly as beautiful as Fire Emblem, but the 2D sprite work used in the main battlefield maps is still colourful and pleasingly animated. Where the graphics falter is the 3D character models used for battle sequences and dialogue – as we lamented in our Wii U review, the characters sport the unfortunate "Bayformers" look from the movies which makes them muddy, overcomplicated and largely indistinguishable from one another. The 3D models are also used in the talking-head dialogue sequences, which makes their bland designs stand out even more – most RPGs use beautiful 2D artwork for each character in these text dialogue scenes, and it would've been the perfect opportunity to use some classic Transformers cartoon visuals. The simpler, more colourful "Generation 1" designs would've been a perfect fit for the lower horsepower of a handheld console, but instead we get Optimus Prime with lips.
Rise of the Dark Spark uses the same forgettable soundtrack as the Wii U version, but luckily it also uses much of the same voice over work for some fully-voiced sequences that bring an otherwise text-heavy game to life. We mentioned in our GEOM review a while back that many low-budget third-party games neglect to include any sort of sound effects in the menu screens, and a simple "whoosh" or "click" goes a long way towards making a game feel complete – thankfully, Rise of the Dark Spark on 3DS puts the whooshing and clicking menu sounds on overload in the most satisfying possible way. It seems like a minor detail, but for all the hundreds of times you select menu options in any given game, this minor detail adds up to a more engaging experience. WayForward gets all the little things right; while many third-party offerings on 3DS seem to play at a permanently low volume, Rise of the Dark Spark blasts you in the face with a Soundwave (pun intended) of audio. The game's controls also include full touch screen and standard button support, another common oversight in third-party titles on 3DS.
Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark doesn't reinvent the tactical RPG wheel. If this is your first foray into the genre on 3DS, Intelligent Systems' masterful Fire Emblem: Awakening is a superior choice, but WayForward's new Transformers title will be a pleasant surprise to veterans looking for something new. After the embarrassment that was the home console version of Rise of the Dark Spark, this 3DS iteration stands head and shoulders above the others – rather than awkwardly shoehorning a home console game into a portable system, Activision wisely chose to take an entirely different approach with Transformers on 3DS. If you like turn-based strategy and you love Robots in Disguise, this will be a welcome addition to your collection. Besides, it might be the closest we ever get to a Western release of Super Robot Wars.