When we last joined our robot hero at the end of Robomaze II, he had liberated the Tower, where the totalitarian government was building an army of killer robots. Now he turns his attention to the Dome, another massive structure, home to the evil dictator himself. With one final mission to infiltrate the Dome, he can defeat them for good.
But the Dome is very different from the Tower. Robomaze II was set in a skyscraper with robots. The Dome is an overgrown mystical forest with witches, monsters, and soothsaying hermits. The robot’s armor powers don’t work out here, and for a contrived reason to start the game without a weapon, he accidentally left his gun back in the Tower. With no modern defenses, he’s gotta fight his way to the evil dictator with a sword.
That is quite a change. It’s almost the opposite of the last game – from a super-powered hero in a narrow building to a defenseless scavenger in the open wilderness. It becomes clear this was probably an excuse by the developer Wetware to make a game like The Legend of Zelda, a sprawling fantasy adventure with treasures and secret dungeons. (Only four years after the original Zelda game was released in the United States, at a time before this was a cliché, Robomaze III copied the opening scene where an old man in a cave gives you a sword.)
Yet despite the drastic flip in the style, Robomaze III still ends up repeating many of the problems that afflicted Robomaze II.
Like the previous game in the series, Robomaze III has sticky, rigid controls that seem to have been designed for a joystick rather than a keyboard. Either way, their stickiness and rigidness doesn’t compliment what Robomaze has turned into with this installment. The game moves quickly, and you have to dance inside and outside the range of enemies’ swords and axes to attack them. The stuttering controls are a poor fit for that, much like they were with platforming in Robomaze II.
I ended up avoiding combat as much as possible. That leaves a gaping hole in the game – at least until you’re trapped in an unavoidable fight against a monster that can absolutely trounce you, like the unstoppable minotaurs that show up near the end of the first episode.
As Robomaze III progresses and the robot infiltrates the evil dictator’s bases, the sword fights eventually give way to guns. While enemy soldiers are armed to the teeth, your bullets are a rare, exorbitantly expensive resource. That might be appropriate for a fugitive with limited access to technology, in such a stiff game where you also need to conserve ammunition to shoot open doors, it’s easier not to bother with the gun at all. And much harder when you do need it once those minotaurs get involved.
Skipping out on the action, that leaves Robomaze III with its sense of adventure. And in both of the two episodes, The Dome and the much longer The Final Journey, the world is shrouded in layers of mystery. Sometimes it tries too hard, and it gets buried under too much mystery; the game makes the terrible choice to hide crucial sections behind invisible secret passages, located next to tree stumps or, sometimes, on an unmarked piece of land. Though even without finding those passages and going deeper into the Dome, there’s a menagerie of creatures and places to discover that seem increasingly unbound by any rules.
To obtain your gun in The Dome, you must break into the conspicuously named Fort Doom. First you must travel through a pitch-black maze in a distant cave. In the southwest of the Dome, surrounded by a circle of gigantic mushrooms, lives a witch who will turn you into a frog! If you head up north to the river – patrolled by a police boat robot – you meet a pesky family of penguins who live on an underground island. Pesky penguins, folks! And guarding the door to the fearsome dragon who rules over the top level of the Dome, it’s a pit full of ghosts! Sure. There’s ghosts now.
How on earth did Robomaze get from Die Hard-meets-RoboCop to a menacing Hansel and Gretel adventure? With actual magic? At the same time as gun-wielding robots? It’s like the game dumping every idea it has into a pot and letting them stew for a while. As flawed as Robomaze III can be, the way that it tosses out any sense of continuity and goes in an almost randomly opposite direction can be a hoot. Robomaze III doesn’t go far with that contrast though, because it gets stuck on the action and level design issues that the previous Robomaze couldn’t get right either. They still have that in common.
Wetware seemed to understand that this should never have been a Robomaze game – or at least that it was more viable as a standalone title – and a year later in 1992, they rebranded it as Dome Quest. Then they reworked the game from the ground up as Hoosier City. It still has a similar premise about freeing people trapped in a dome, and with a large number of tweaks to smooth out the controls and the pace, it feels like the version of this mystical dystopia they had wanted to make all along.