When I claim that Transformers: Devastation plays like a budget-level Platinum game, I’m grading on a completely different scale than I am other developers. It’s similar to how people will describe something like Cars or Brave as bad “for a Pixar film”. The worst of a Pixar film is still on the level of average for other film studios, particularly in regards to family entertainment.
While Platinum has developed a proper trash game in the past, Transformers: Devastation does not sink so low. It merely does not have the same money or craftsmanship as sibling titles Bayonetta 2 or The Wonderful 101. This is largely because Transformers: Devastation has no clear design thesis for its combat. It imitates its more polished brethren by including combos, slowing-time and finishers, but the combat is not really built upon any core idea.
To compare further to Platinum’s other titles, Bayonetta 2 is pretty much all about that dodge mechanic and slowing time. Yes, the mechanics have more nuance than that, but the slowing of time is frequently emphasized in the narrative materials as well as the occasional swift gameplay trial (such as leaping from one piece of rubble to the next as it all descends at half-speed). The Wonderful 101 is more about “weapon” types than combos, where different foes are weak to certain weapons. Combat relies on frequently changing which type of attack you’ll be inflicting rather than lengthy combinations.
In comparison, Transformers: Devastation feels a bit more like a mish-mash of these sorts of ideas without the desire to fully commit to any of them. You can still slow time with a perfectly executed dodge, but the opening is often too slow to even complete an entire melee combination. It is not nearly so advantageous as in Bayonetta 2. While there are a variety of weapons to be used in Transformers: Devastation, the player has no method in which to swap them out on the fly, save for ranged weaponry. Yet these guns have very limited use compared to melee attacks, acting more as filler or defense from flying units than a completely separate strategy.
It seems instead that Platinum strove to design enemies to behave in specific ways, yet also be capable of being destroyed by any weapon, or Autobot, that the player chose to use. This keeps tactics and strategies much more broad.
However, there is one core design choice that allows Transformers: Devastation to feel unique. Each melee combination concludes with a unique finishing move, with some targeting single foes while others still strike in a wide area of impact, potentially damaging all surrounding enemies. While Bayonetta also has a variety of unique finishers, none of them really do anything but execute a single mook on the battlefield. It is in this manner that Transformers: Devastation stands out, as players are encouraged to better learn the buttons they continually mash.
This conflicts with the ability to play as multiple characters, however. In fact, I can only imagine that Transformers: Devastation is torn between two idealogies, on one hand a more arcade-style beat-em-up while, on the other, it yearns to apply attributes and statistics that level up, weapon upgrading, and looting, concepts that over-complicate the arcade-nature of combat. Instead of simply choosing an Autobot and bashing in some Decepticon heads—such as you might in the old brawler arcade games—the player must sample the characters and choose whether they’d like to specialize in just one Autobot or explore each one’s capabilities. The latter option being an expensive task that would leave each character relatively weak compared to throwing all of your resources into upgrading one single Autobot and all their equipment.
This lack of focus makes Transformers: Devastation a weaker title when standing beside Bayonetta 2 or The Wonderful 101. However, Devastation also sits upon a separate grading curve by simply being an adaptation of a property, which means it not only has to please a gaming audience, but the audience of the Transformers property. These audiences likely represent a Venn Diagram, particularly when taking fans of challenging action games into consideration.
To that end, Transformers: Devastation is a success. If the Transformers were mere robots they would be much less successful and iconic characters. The entire transformation gimmick is what sells the toys and the concept, and it’s the transformation that you need to get right in terms of gameplay. Players are thus encouraged to transform into their vehicle modes not just so they may explore levels more swiftly, but so they may unlock hidden secrets and inflict heavy damage upon select enemies. By animating each finishing move as a transformation sequence, the game adds visual flair to the combat. By implementing a combat application to transformation, the ability no longer feels aesthetic or superfluous. It has practical meaning, one that is bound to evoke familiar images such as Hot Rod charging into Galvatron during the climax of the animated film.
It is most certainly nostalgia for the animated film that Platinum, and the story writers, are striving to connect to. The gleen of the metal plates on each Autobot and Decepticon is done in the same style as the polished Ultra Magnus. Optimus Prime and Megatron trade dialogue from the film, each saying a line originally spoken by the other, in an attempt at subversion. Throwaway lines make reference to song titles from the film’s soundtrack. The writing team is seeking to create a new canon for the Transformers comics, but it is a canon that still holds tight to the love of the original series, camp and cheese included.
The story, which is of no control to Platinum, is where I long for High Moon’s writing. While War for Cybertron and Fall of Cybertron both clung a bit too tightly to the original series’ camp, I feel that High Moon was at least trying to evolve the franchise while still maintaining a child-friendly narrative.
No matter the preference, it is clear that Platinum managed to put more effort into the game than simply reskinning another title from their portfolio. There are shared elements, yes, but the prevalence of ranged weaponry and the implementation of transformation influenced the design in such a way as to evoke a proper feeling. Each Autobot is also designed to play differently, particularly the much more slow but incredibly powerful Grimlock.
Perhaps the true highlight of Devastation is in fighting all the different Decepticons. While it is certainly a bit disappointing that you only get to play as one side in the war, it allowed Platinum to be more creative with how each Decepticon fights against the player. Blitzwing is constantly swapping between tank and jet forms, Soundwave is joined by Laserbeak and Rumble on the battlefield, Devastator moves slowly but covers great distance, and Shockwave cleverly implements deflectors and illusions to overwhelm the player.
The more common Decepticon hordes even behave differently. While they’ll be grouped in similar teams in the early portion of the game, by the end they’ll be mixed together in challenging fights demanding more clever use of strategy and prioritization from the player. By the end, the game is truly beginning to feel like a massive brawl, with all other Autobots being controlled by the computer. While the concluding level never feels quite so thematically charged or big as War for Cybertron’s final level, it most certainly rises the action to a satisfying finale.
No, Transformers: Devastation won’t be as satisfying to a savant of the action genre, particularly to the library of Platinum Games. The combat is still well-polished, however, even if it does lack some focus, and Platinum has successfully applied varying trademarks of the franchise into the combat mechanics and enemy design quite masterfully. As such, any fan of the old Transformers animation, those keeping up with the current comic series, or less genre-savvy game players are bound to find an exciting experience.
An inferior, budget-level Platinum game is still a really good game.