This is another tag-team review from me and Adoboros; he handled the controls of Tyler: Model 005, while I helped to solve the puzzles. This review has gameplay spoilers and minor story spoilers.
During its opening sequence Tyler: Model 005 (which I’ll shorten to TM5) presents itself as a charming puzzle-platformer with a sympathetic main character — dormant robot Tyler, who wakes up confused and amnesiac after an electrical surge.
Your job as the player is to explore the house which Tyler awakens inside and to figure out what’s going on, solving environmental puzzles to access more of the house and turn on more light sources. Tyler is tiny enough to hide inside a coffee cup, making even small rooms seem vast to him, so the game’s setting isn’t as cramped as you might expect from its description.
Light sources are necessary because Tyler is light-powered and can only run for about 30 seconds outside of direct light. Tyler’s battery can be upgraded later in the game, and its power drain can be slowed down, but this short limit can lead to many frustrating deaths during the early rooms. Unfortunately, the starting Basement is both the darkest room and the hardest to traverse — this choice might explain why the proportion of gamers who have completed the first room drops precipitously from the number who have completed the tutorial.
This is a shame because once you eventually find other characters and TM5 develops a plot rather than a list of tasks, the plot works. It’s a simple story, but one that gives you reasons to care about and help the little robots. Yet the plot doesn’t start until 3 hours in, which is statistically way after most people have given up.
Although the battery mechanic is the intended challenge, most of TM5s difficulty comes from its poor controls and physics. TM5 has clunky controls at its best, but at its worst it feels more like Goat Simulator than a serious platformer. Sometimes Tyler jumps through solid objects; at other times he gets caught on the smallest possible edges of a box. Sometimes he can jump up to a ledge three times his own height; at other times he can’t reach platforms only marginally taller than him. Tyler’s jump distance also varies dramatically for no logical reason.
In theory Tyler can jump, climb, shimmy along ledges, and wallrun. However, all of these movements are carried out by holding the same button. In practice, you hold the A button and guess at what move will follow. This makes platforming sequences exasperating as you’ll frequently try to climb onto a ledge and instead run up it and fall off, or try to jump down to a shelf and instead run down the nearest wall. (Also, you can be randomly flung across the room or rocketed upwards when making even simple jumps). Given that we only found wallrunning essential once during the story, its inclusion seemed counterproductive.
Tyler’s ability to pick up objects and place them on buttons or turn them into platforms is equally difficult to master. Although simple to describe — the object appears as a projection, and the left stick moves Tyler while the right stick moves the projection — the system is temperamental and it never feels intuitive or satisfying to use.
These finicky and unpredictable controls are why I gave up on completing TM5 and handed it over to the much more patient Adoboros. However even he grew frustrated, summing the game’s physics up as “the laws of gravity are more of a suggestion”. Tyler’s swimming ability, despite making no sense given his electric and metal construction, is the most functional and best-controlling aspect of the game. Yet this well-done mechanic is neglected.
In addition to swimming, TM5 adds a couple of unusual elements to the environmental-puzzle-platformer mix. Tyler can attack the ants, spiders, rats and other creatures which inhabit the abandoned house to level up and gain bolts to spend on upgrades. Although the combat adds variety, it isn’t implemented very well. Drawing your sword doesn’t always happen when you press the button, yet sometimes it draws when doing other actions like jumping. It’s not always clear when you are attacking an enemy, or being attacked, as Tyler’s limited reach means enemies must be in melee range to connect with his sword. While Tyler does have a health meter (that isn’t labelled as being a health meter), it goes down silently when he is attacked and there is no other feedback to show when he is taking damage.
Luckily, you can easily bypass standard combat and instead rely on the Cherry Bombs intended for opening inaccessible areas. Even though Cherry Bombs are described as being very rare, there are easily enough to complete the environmental sections and have plenty spare for combat use.
Similarly, the tower defence elements are novel and usable, but they are again unnecessary. We were never required to complete one during the story. They also could have been explained more clearly, as there are no descriptions of what the buildable defence points do or of where to use them.
In fact, a lot of TM5 could have been described more clearly — in many situations its rules and assumptions are incoherent. Some areas that appear brightly-lit don’t actually count as light sources, and it’s not clear why a solar powered robot can be recharged by nearby fireflies or broken TVs. The Hint function is a welcome addition, but Tyler’s hints veer between directly useful statements and inane repetitions of his main quest, when they are present at all. Locations and routes aren’t clearly signposted, and sometimes your path to the exit of an area is indistinguishable from the dead ends.
Most importantly, Tyler gains a potentially interesting ability halfway through the game that isn’t explained at all. During one cutscene, he accidentally rewinds time. After that, the ability is freely available to you: however, you aren’t given any context on what it affects, when you might need to use it, or why it might be helpful.
We reached the ending without finding any reason to use Tyler’s rewinding ability. When we later tested the rewind during a tower defence section, we found that it physically rewound Tyler, but not enemies. As a result, we died while rewinding because enemies could move forwards and attack Tyler without us being able to respond. Rewinding also affects Tyler’s battery charge, so we guessed that its intended use was to rewind Tyler back into lit areas when he strayed too far away from the light. However, by the point that rewinding is available, you are playing in easier rooms with plently of available light, so that use case isn’t needed.
Finally, the time-rewinding elements of the game make the story underwhelming; the game finishes rather than resolves, because it falls into a common time-travel trap.
Overall, I’d describe TM5 as a disappointing execution of a good aim. The overall concept is interesting, and so is the retro-futuristic vibe generated from its 1950s-plus-robots combination. Visually, I had no complaints aside from the slightly dulled colour scheme, and the sound design was also competent. Its main issues are its controls and its confused design, which brings in too many partial mechanics only to abandon them.
TM5 tries to innovate on the puzzle-platformer formula by being multiple genres at once, taking on elements of an exploration game, a tower defence game, and a survival game. Yet by doing this it remains mediocre at all of them. As the first game from a small studio, and a game made entirely using free tools, TM5 feels like the result of a team being too ambitious too quickly then running out of time to deliver the grander idea they wished to create.
Because TM5 is an indie game that I bought from the Microsoft Store for £4, I won’t complain too much. I’ve played worse games before, and I’ve seen major studios release games far more broken. In the moments where everything works together, TM5 feels like an even-more-indie Unravel, but the periods of frustration and exasperation outnumber those moments. TM5 isn’t terrible, but it could have been a far better game if the development team had stuck to one genre and focused on the core controls rather than the embellishments.