Not content with his role as star of an immensely successful Nickelodeon cartoon and enviable position as the world's most popular anthropomorphized sponge, SpongeBob Squarepants also enjoys a prolific and presumably lucrative side-career in the world of video games. This latest release, Plankton's Robotic Revenge, brings the lovable loofah onto the Wii U with a disappointingly dull third-person co-op action game that sadly fails to live up to SpongeBob's personality or pedigree.
The setup will be a familiar one for fans of the series: plucky little Plankton has hatched another scheme to lay his hands on Mr. Krabs' treasured Krabby Patty formula. The twist is that this time he's mostly succeeded - with the help of a custom-built, subaquatic robot army - and it's up to SpongeBob and friends to save the day by retrieving the three keys to the Krabby Patty safe before Plantkon does. The tale's told through unskippable CGI cutscenes - an odd departure from SpongeBob's usual cartoon style - with some funny dialogue and equally funny Godzila-style lip-syncing.
While it isn't obvious at first glance, Plankton's Robotic Revenge isn't really a platformer, nor is it a collect-a-thon adventure. Rather, it's a simple 3D action game with a focus on clearing consecutive rooms of enemy waves. Players move through the linear (and rather confined) levels until a barrier pops up and Plankton's minions flood the area, and then attempt to take out the baddies with a combination of melee and long-ranged attacks. When every droid's been dealt with, ground-pounding a switch or two opens up a path for players to continue to the next area.
There's the occasional deviation from this formula - in the boss battles and some difficult to control Kersploosh!-esque challenges - but for the most part gameplay consists of walking SpongeBob and his friends from Point A to Point B, battling a bunch of bots, and hitting a switch - almost invariably directly adjacent to the associated door - to move on. While it certainly works, it's far from compelling, and the rinse-wash-repeat routine wears thin rather quickly. The repetitive nature of the gameplay isn't helped by the fact that the individual stages within each area (of which there are three, one for each key) look and feel very similar, and you'll spend most of your time fighting identical groups of the same three or four enemy types.
WIth combat making up such a large part of the gameplay, it's a shame that it isn't more fun. Each character has a single melee attack - which turns into a three-hit combo with repeated button presses - and access to the same stock of seven different long-range weapons. Leaving aside the fact that it's incongruous and slightly disturbing to see SpongeBob and Patrick packing heat, the guns - or "Gizmos", as they're euphemistically referred to in-game - are generic-feeling and rather bland. There's a trusty pickle pistol, a condiment-firing cannon, a tartar sauce laser, and other vaguely wacky riffs on various types of video game guns, but none of them really seem like a part of SpongeBob's world, and in practice several of them don't even feel measurably distinct from each other. You can use "Sprockets" - found in barrels and after defeating enemies - to upgrade the weapons between rounds and at certain points within levels, with helpful tweaks like increased damage, a higher rate of fire, or more projectiles. Upgrading your arsenal is oddly satisfying, even if the weapons are nothing to write home about.
Still, firing on enemies with the Gizmos is far preferable to messing around with the melee combat. SpongeBob's admittedly adorable foam-finger attack works well enough against single enemies, but it requires you to be so close to your target that when baddies gang up on you - as they often do - it's incredibly difficult to deal any damage without taking a significant amount yourself. It has all the strategy and finesse of a slap-fight, and it takes a distant second to the lock-on, long-distance Gizmos in terms of actual effectiveness. Success in combat largely boils down to running away from your enemies - easy enough as SpongeBob and friends can outpace pretty much everything - while holding down the fire button, and much like the level design, the monotony gets old fast.
That said, SpongeBob needn't bear this fate alone - Plankton's Robotic Revenge supports up to five players for drop-in co-op at any point. SpongeBob, Patrick, Squidward, Sandy, and the recently-wronged Mr. Krabs are all up for grabs, and each character plays identically, so it's all down to personal preference. Having a few friends around can do a lot for any game, to be fair, and co-op doesn't fix the game's problems, but Robotic Revenge handles its multiplayer well, and playing with a couch full of fellow sea creatures is definitely the best way to enjoy the game. The action all takes place on the same screen, with the camera favouring the first player, so there's no split-screen squinting to worry about, and loot and locked-on enemies are colour-coordinated for each character.
Aside from some occasional hiccups with the lock-on system, Robotic Revenge controls rather well. Movement is fluid, jumps are fluid in an agreeable, underwater sort of way, switching between Gizmos with the shoulder buttons and firing with ZR feels easy and natural, and the straightforward layout will be easy to pick up for younger gamers. There's no manual camera control, which can often be a problem in 3D games, but since the levels are so narrow and linear, it's only ever rarely missed. There's also no Pro Controller support, and solo play always requires the GamePad, with support for full off-TV play. Getting friends together for the game's five-player co-op, meanwhile, will require a Nunchuk and Wii Remote for each player past the first.
One odd aspect of the game is that, as easy as it is to pick up and play, the combat can border on being a bit too intense for its intended audience at times. Plankton's unfeeling robot drones let loose a surprising amount of firepower on poor SpongeBob and his friends, and the enemy AI seems to be set with a rocker-switch between "Kill" and "Ignore". Thankfully, there's no finite number of lives to worry about, and the frequent and generously placed checkpoints will help younger players through the tougher bits of battling. Finally, in multiplayer, players can revive each other by standing within a fallen friend's colour-coded circle for a certain amount of time, so as long as someone's still swimming, everyone has a chance.
Visually, Plankton's Robot Revenge suffers from a bit of the uncanny valley effect - something about SpongeBob looks "off" when rendered in 3D, and the plasticky models lack the personality of their more expressive cartoon counterparts. Elsewhere, the presentation hits the same pitfalls as the gameplay: with the same assets used over and over, levels and stages tend to run together, and the graphical repetition reinforces the sense that there's nothing new under the sea. It's a competent and colourful graphical package overall - and everything looks decent from a technical perspective - but it could sorely do with a shakeup every once in a while.
The soundtrack hits some wonderful high notes, with the charming, lazily-plucked pacific melodies, soothing slack key, hearty sea-shanties, and roaring surf riffs the series is known for, but these are paired with some surprisingly generic Rock at uneven intervals. The voice-work - happily handled by the show's excellent original voice cast - is very well done, and helps bring the cutscenes and characters to life. Comments and one-liners during gameplay repeat quite often, but they're still welcome - aside from the fact that every quip brings an uncomfortable volume adjustment for the background music before and after each individual line of dialogue.
SpongeBob and company may prevail in the end, but Plankton's already had his true revenge: an uninspired, repetitive game that does nothing with the boundlessly bonkers potential of its legendary license. Die-hard fans of the series might be able to power through on will power alone, but outside of the audio, the infrequent cutscenes, and some suitably silly tooltips, very little of the cartoon's charm comes through in Plankton's Robotic Revenge. Five-player co-op means that there's some potential for shallow, short-lived bash-the-baddies fun with a group of friends, but for most people - and especially for solo sponges - the experience is just too monotonous to be worth soaking up.