Deformers isn’t exactly what you’d expect as the latest title from Ready at Dawn, the developers of the beautiful but vapid The Order 1886. The studio has moved from a gritty, single-player shooter heavily focused on world-building and storytelling to a physics-based arena brawler. It’s a brave move, taking a leap into the unknown when most studios are quite happy to find their niche and plant themselves firmly in place. So, kudos to Ready at Dawn for taking a chance. Execution is as important as intention though, and Deformers slips up in some key areas.
At its core, Deformers is an arena brawler where players duke it out with squishy blobs known as Forms. Players must roll, jump and dash their way around the map, attempting to smash the other Forms to pieces while keeping their own jiggly selves intact. You destroy your opponents by either shooting them with little blobs of goo, or firing yourself at them as a living projectile with a ram attack. You can also pick up your opponent and toss them off the side of the map, or defend yourself by temporarily inflating into an immovable cube, which will deflect damage back onto anyone who is foolish enough to attack you.
Those four moves are all you have at your disposal, but the simplicity of the combat is one of Deformers’s great strengths. It’s basically rock-paper-scissors with a few bells and whistles: blocking beats dashing, throwing beats blocking, and dashing beats throwing. It’s simple on paper, but drop eight players into a small arena and it quickly descends into chaos (the good kind). Using the right move at the right time to defeat whichever opponent you happen to be targeting whilst avoiding getting smashed by the other seven players is where the joy lies. It’s incredibly satisfying when you inflate up to defend at the last second, sending your would-be attacker flying off the side of the map for their troubles.
There are also five classes to choose from before you descend into battle. Some specialize in one aspect of combat, while one is an all-rounder class which is decent at everything. If you favor charging headlong at your opponent with little regard for your own well-being, go for the Striker. If you want to roll as the tankiest tank in the room, then the Guardian is the blob for you.
What sets Deformers apart from other brawlers is the Forms themselves, the bizarre cast of characters who take center stage during these battles. Forms are bloated, anthropomorphized versions of animals, foods and other assorted monstrosities which the player can choose as their avatar. They are fantastic. Just look at the picture below. Look at their pudgy little faces: they are adorable. They are painstakingly animated too, and each character showcases their own style as they roll around the arena. The stack of pancakes, called Stax, has sticky syrup on top with a little knob of butter that slides around as he moves. Butter physics is a strange thing to be impressed by, but here we are.
It should come as no surprise that Deformers is visually stunning though, given that Ready at Dawn gave us The Order: 1886, one of the most gorgeous games of this generation. The way the Forms alter their shape as they roll about, or inflate into slightly grotesque cubes, is impressive to watch. It’s all calculated on the fly too, with the game procedurally generating the deformation of your Form, as opposed to using prerendered animations and shapes.
Unfortunately, the technology that goes into making the Forms so deformable also results in one of the title’s biggest flaws; it requires a constant online connection. The amount of CPU power needed to perform all the calculations for the malleable character bodies is well beyond the reach of current generation consoles. As a result, all the physics calculations are performed on the server side. So even if all you want to do is play a split-screen match in your living room, you’re going to have to connect to the dedicated servers.
The lack of any offline modes itself isn’t the only issue though, as the game has a complete lack of AI bots. You can add Dummies to private matches, but they have no AI, so they just sit there and wait to get hit. Combine the absent AI with the fact that you can’t join an in-progress game, and the team-based game modes can go to hell very quickly. Online gamers are a predictable lot, likely to drop out of a match once their team goes a few points behind, and without AI bots or mid-match reinforcements, at that point the whole game is a wipe. You just have to sit there, take your beatings, and hope that next match your teammates aren’t such a bunch of useless cowards.
The other consequence of no AI is that you’re reliant on the player base still existing in a few weeks to be able to even play Deformers. The population is reasonable enough at peak times, but I’ve tried to get in a few games at lunch time and found nothing but tumbleweed on the servers. It doesn’t bode well that the servers are having these dry spells so soon after launch, the time you’d expect them to be at their busiest.
Neither the lack of AI nor the always-online requirement are Deformers’s biggest issue, though: it’s a lack of content. There just isn’t enough meat to justify the asking price, and what content does exist is partitioned away behind an unlock system which seems designed to encourage microtransaction purchases over all else. There are three game modes: Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, and Form Ball. The first two are self-explanatory, whilst the latter is a wacky take on soccer, playing much like a grounded version of Rocket League. Throw in seven maps— eight if you count the Form Ball arena— and that’s it. No capture the flag, no juggernaut, no tag. There are tons of possibilities for game modes that would work with the core gameplay, but for now you’re stuck with Deathmatch and Form Ball.
Worst of all, the one content-rich area of the game, the Form customization, is locked behind an unlock system that offers an offensively slow trickle of points. You can only gain Strands, the currency used to unlock new Forms, by leveling up. The stream of points is generous at the offset, but the further you progress into the game, the longer you’ll have to wait between Strands. Don’t worry, though— you can buy Strands from the marketplace for a nominal fee because of course you can. Silver is the other currency available in game, used to buy customization items like hats or glasses, and while this can’t be purchased for real money, it still feels like you earn it too slowly.
For a game which offers so little to begin with, to lock such a sizable portion of the content it does have behind a tedious unlock system is frustrating. Deformers wants to be Rocket League, but being Smash Bros would suit it much better. It would rather stick to online battles, ranking systems, and unlock trees rather than reveling in the joy of its frantic combat, perfect for an evening in with a few friends. Throwing itself into competition with Rocket League just highlights Deformers’s most glaring weakness; it offers less and it costs more than its competition. I really wanted to like Deformers. Hell, I do like Deformers. I like what they’ve got to offer, but there just isn’t enough of it to justify the investment. I’m sure it will be supported with additional content down the line, Ready at Dawn have said as much themselves. New games modes and characters could breathe some much-needed variety into the game, but, as it stands, Deformers asks too much and offers up too little in return.