Three years have passed since the Mayans stopped being hip, with the Mayan Calendar’s 2012 apocalypse prediction turning out to be a bit of a letdown, leaving the most eccentric, over-credulous of people extremely relieved and with a surplus of canned food filling up their survival shelters. But this hasn’t stopped developers Sileni Studios from bringing out Mayan Death Robots, a new strategic fighter based on the ancient civilization and their mythology.
The premise of the game is delightfully simple, with just the right amount of humour thrown into the mix. An alien race is about to air the new season of their violent, intergalactic TV show, Mayan Death Robots, in which gigantic alien robots duke it out with some seriously heavy artillery. Unfortunately, they have chosen Earth as the host planet. Landing in the heart of the 16th-century Mayan community, the mechanical combatants are mistaken for actual gods, and the citizens quickly form alliances to their favourite competitor.
Taking control of one of the contestants, you will be supported by your new team of zealots as the stages are plagued with perils such as unrelenting winds, robot-devouring plants, and Spanish Conquistadors (that last one’s historically accurate — who says you don’t learn anything when playing video games?). There is also the slight problem that, every now and again, a real Mayan god will show up to the party to (quite literally) shake things up and cause some serious carnage.
The opening screen gives you two options: Solo or Versus. The latter is clearly the preferred way to play the game, but I’ll get onto that later. Both have a campaign and a quick match mode, too.
Quick match is exactly as its name implies: you and a friend go head-to-head in a one-off basic match. However, when it comes to the campaign, things get a little more complicated. There, you fight your way through a series of events, each with an ever-increasing barrage of hazards and challenges (which your alien presenter assures you are there for the sake of higher ratings). These range from incredibly simple catapults to, much later on, a whole fortress centrepiece constructed by the previously mentioned Spanish Fleet, complete with powerful cannons that can be rebuilt faster than you can take a turn.
Whether you are faced with fortresses or catapults, your main objective will always remain the same: to destroy the other robot’s core. These small glowing boxes that are blockaded on both sides of the stage are what need to be destroyed to gain victory. Killing your opponent will only buy you a minuscule amount of time as they will respawn after the next turn. Therefore, your actions will constantly alternate between aiming for your enemy’s core and fortifying the defences covering your own.
Mayan Death Robots owes its biggest debt, gameplay-wise, to the Worms series, which was built on the same destructive 2D combat. It’s also turn-based, only the turns happen simultaneously, and the fighting is 1 vs. 1 with both players getting a brief time limit to select their weapon. Every Robot will also have two main weapons as well as a jump and build option to work with. Plus, once selected, there will then be an even quicker timer for setting your trajectory and range, with both characters’ weapons automatically firing at the same time once the countdown reaches zero.
This approach makes the game feel a lot quicker than what players may be used to with Worms, and I found that it provided a very welcome change of pace. It’s so fast-paced that I often found myself forgetting to select my next move as I was too fixated on seeing if my previous launched attack had hit its target (if you don’t choose anything, your previous choice is reused). Every few turns, a wheel of chance will also spin and present the fighters with additional items, usually ones that are much more powerful than their regular attacks. These are fun to use at first, but you soon realize that they repeat very frequently.
The build option introduces a few more tactical considerations to the proceedings as you decide whether to reinforce your defence or encase your opponent in a wall of terrain, impeding them until they either jump or blast their way out. This is where Mayan Death Robots introduces stage creator mechanics within its battle system, requiring you to rebuild the stage by finding the best way to fit your blocks together à la Tetris. This feature works well, requiring rapid thinking as you decide what is the best way to arrange the pieces so that they will work to your advantage.
My favourite thing about the combat system is actually the support you receive from your army of minions. Each side is equipped with their own following of adorable, devoted Mayans, who will violently attack the other player if they come too far over to your side, which is a good way of making sure you are never too overwhelmed with threats. Killing the enemy’s Mayan supporters will add a bonus to your blast radius, helping you out if you are having trouble with making precise hits.
It’s also important to note that Mayan Death Robots features six fighters that are playable from the start and four more that can be unlocked. Most of the fighters share their names with actual Mayan Gods, which is a nice touch, although I don’t think the ancient legends have ever been represented in such a bright and stylized way.
The character designs are appealing, each with a unique colour, shape, and attack based on their element, making them easily distinguishable from one another. These include Hun-Batz: the howler-monkey god, a robotic ape whose choices of weaponry are boulders and exploding bananas, and Akna: the goddess of birth, whose spider-like appearance and abilities make her a very creepy foe. My most frequent pick was Chac: the god of rain and lightning, a figure who closely resembles a dark rain cloud in an egg-shaped dome and zaps others with viscous lightning strikes.
There are some notable flaws, however, as the title’s design makes it blatantly evident that it was created as a two-player experience. If you are playing through the campaign solo, it doesn’t give you much of an incentive to succeed at all. When playing co-operatively, you will unlock the next event no matter who wins, which makes sense as you are both advancing together. For some reason, though, the same also applies to the single player, meaning that it doesn’t matter in the slightest if you win or lose against the game’s AI; you will progress all the same.
I find it very odd that this was kept for single player as it makes it so that you can quite literally go through the whole solo campaign and get to its end credits by literally doing nothing. I understand that the game has been designed with a predominantly co-op play style in mind and that having it set-up like this streamlines the unlocking process, allowing you to charge through all of the events and obtain all characters and stages as quickly as possible. Still, it completely undermines the need for challenge, and makes the whole experience seem pointless for those who are playing on their own.
The Mayan god bosses feel equally unimportant, regardless of what mode you are in. As soon as they turn up, both players’ cores are temporarily removed from play while the two team up to take on the deadly behemoth currently residing at centre stage. In other words, the only way for you to ever die has been instantly removed, so there is never any real threat. Of course, you will probably be blown to tiny pieces every few turns, but it never matters as you’ll just respawn within 10 seconds. These battles simply become a task of continuously bombarding the enemy with attacks and items until their health gradually depletes to zero. A lot of these bosses will radically change the stage, mostly by pulverizing every last platform to dust, but even then, it feels like there is never any danger because the stage will eventually rebuild once the beast has been slain.
There are a few more irritations found in Mayan Death Robots‘ design. The worst is that the UI and HUD can block vital parts of the screen at times, as they don’t change their position or transparency if a player finds themselves in the part of the screen they cover. Not being able to clearly see where you’re aiming because the timer is in the way can be very frustrating.
What is also likely to be a big turn-off for most players is the lack of online multiplayer, cutting the title’s lasting appeal severely short. Local multiplayer is all very well and good, but it instantly shrinks the possibilities for replay value and variety in opponents. Without the online experience, however, I would say that the Mayan Death Robots still provides a solid 10 hours of enjoyment, assuming that you are a fan of this style of combat.
It’s a shame that there aren’t more stage customization options for the quick match mode where you get to choose the different hazards and items to be present in the level. Instead, a quick match will just consist of a bare bones battle; if you want a bit more variety, you have to enter a set event in the campaign mode. Due to the game’s budget and scope, I was hardly expecting the level of control found in Super Smash Bros., but a few extra options could have been fun, not to mention it would have contributed to the title’s longevity.
There also appears to be something wrong with the achievement system in single player. Whenever you have a match where both you and the computer are playing as the same robot, the game becomes confused and will log it as a victory for that character no matter who wins. I was surprised when I suddenly found myself being awarded the achievement for winning ten matches with Akna on a fight that I lost. Having tested this further, this seems to be the case with all the characters.
Nevertheless, Mayan Death Robots just about withstands all these flaws because its core gameplay remains enjoyable, helped enormously by a cute and humorous aesthetic. Players who enjoy the Worms series and games of its ilk will find it an amusing, frantic way to spend several hours with friends, and the good thing about its co-op orientated gameplay and the quick match mode is that it makes it an easy game just to drop into for a match or two whenever you please.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which we were provided with.
Built for co-op, Mayan Death Robots has a lot to love in its style and humour and will be best appreciated by fans of Team17's Worms series. Overall, however, the game is too bare to provide players with any more than just a few hours of explosive, strategic action.