In a derelict space station on Europa - one of Jupiter's moons - two AIs have activated, unaware of what has happened inside. Over the course of their journey they discover it has been overrun with aliens and rampaging machines. The two AIs have to make their way out of the space station alive and find out about what happened in the process. It's a premise that sounds good, and thankfully it plays as good as it sounds.
Dual Core is a twin-stick isometric shooter, similar to old-school arcade classic Smash TV. In it, you take control of a robot traveling room to room using the left analogue stick on your controller, while the right will control your fire. The game also supports the Wii Remote and Nunchuk, with the B trigger replacing the the right analogue stick functionality. We greatly preferred the twin stick shooting as it allowed for much more fluid combat, especially during some of the story mode's later sequences which can get a bit crowded. You can feel free to use whatever controller you prefer, and while the Wii U GamePad offers some additional functionality in the form of a touchscreen inventory, but we didn't find it particularly useful as it was easier to use the L button to sift through the inventory, which allowed us to keep our eyes on the action.
There's a big focus on couch co-op in this game, with up to four players being able to play at once. In story mode you can also pick up an AI companion named Corby, bringing the total number of combatants to five. While running and gunning is indeed satisfying, Dual Core isn't all about pumping rampaging robots full of lead. There are also some light RPG elements in the form of upgrades, which are obtained by collecting green crystals. Every ten crystals you collect earns you one upgrade point. Those upgrade points can be spent on improving your firepower, durability or regenerative capabilities - as you level up higher you'll need to spend more points per upgrade, up to a maximum of three points.
Complimenting the green crystals are both blue and red crystals. Blue crystals will regenerate some lost HP, while red crystals will permanently raise your maximum HP by one point. Enemies and boxes frequently reward you with some type of crystal, and it's always a wise decision to make a beeline for them as they'll disappear if you're not quick enough.
Additionally, a few types of weapon power-ups are scattered throughout the levels as well. You can get your hands on homing rockets, a powerful laser that can overheat or a triple shot. The main focus of the story mode is to clear enemies and solve puzzles; the puzzles in Dual Core aren't exactly complex, but they add some needed variety. They almost always involve finding a key on end of the map and taking it to a door; these keys even take up slots in your inventory, but they seldom stay long. Speaking of inventory, there are several items available to fill up those slots, from restorative items that will give everybody in your party within a certain area 10 HP back, to bombs that work on specific types on enemies. In our experience the bombs were seldom used, but we also played through on normal difficulty so your mileage may vary.
Story mode is great, but it's only one of three available. The main attraction for most is likely to be Arcade mode, which lets up to four players fight endless waves of enemies to try out for a high score. When more than one player is playing there is no splitscreen, so all four must cooperate and work around each other while still competing to grab power-ups and health. With a full group Arcade mode is one of the Wii U's most fun multiplayer experiences.
The last mode is a four-player versus match which, while interesting, we didn't enjoy nearly as much as the game's cooperative ventures. The maps are small, with each of four players taking a corner and having to find and take each other out. All the familiar items from the other modes are present, but the maps are dotted with teleporters and obstacles to both help and hinder everyone's attempts to get the jump on each other. It's fine, but doesn't hit the standards of the other two modes.
A special mention is due to the music too; it's excellent and complements the action well.
Dual Core is proof positive that a game should not be judged by its price tag. A satisfyingly long story mode, which takes about five or six hours to complete, coupled with an incredibly addictive arcade mode and a fun - if a bit underwhelming - versus mode make this one a must-have for Wii U owners.
If you're a fan of twin-stick shooters you should absolutely give Dual Core a look.