Arena shooters have been around since the early 90’s and we’ve seen the genre grow and evolve from the classics like Quake to more modern and beloved franchises like Splatoon. One thing these games have in common is having an engaging and memorable world in which players can immerse themselves. The latest indie game to attempt this is The Otterman Empire by Tri-Heart Interactive; a game that truly is like no otter!
The Otterman Empire, and I mean this as one of the highest compliments I can give, feels like a Nintendo 64 game. You’ve got an elite team of anthromomorphics soldiers, most of whom are otters, trying to defeat a mad scientist with a robotic arm. Every level has a little cutscene where the villain shows up and sometimes lets out an evil laugh that doesn’t seem to fit him at all. It’s just an incredibly charming world that reminds me of a retro N64 platformer mixed with a Saturday morning cartoon, and I love it for that. You run around a variety of pretty nicely designed arenas doing aerial tricks with your jetpack and shooting down foes. If you need to refill your jetpack or your gun, just do what otters do best and take a dip in a nearby river.
The campaign mode of The Otterman Empire is almost structured like a mobile game. You have eight worlds, each with three levels, and earning enough points in each level can earn you up to three stars. The majority of these levels have you running around an arena and repeating an objective while you're on a time limit. The objectives in these missions vary in a way that keeps the gameplay engaging. Some levels will have you shooting specific targets or performing more acrobatic stunts. Others though involve basically doing nothing. One mission in the second world involved fixing robots, and this is done by standing close to them until it's fixed, requiring virtually no action on your part. Speaking of not doing anything, I often found myself just kind of stopping once I’d achieved three stars in a level because at that point it didn’t seem like there was much incentive to do anything besides running out the clock.
The level of customization in The Otterman Empire is definitely a treat. You pick your character, their skin pattern, what jetpack they use, the antenna on their jetpack, and what hat you want them to wear. I had a personal soft spot for Noah because he wears a colander on his head and I just thought that was adorable. You unlock new characters from progressing through the main game, but unlock extras from getting three stars in a stage. Unfortunately, getting three stars doesn’t seem to guarantee a new item. Newly acquired items are often labeled with modifiers like “Common” or “Rare” so it seems like the game wants you to repeat stages in an attempt to get different rewards. I wouldn’t mind this quite as much, but as I’ve established, earning three stars doesn’t guarantee you'll get anything at all. This adds a level of luck and grinding to the process that makes it feel like a gacha game, and I just don’t think The Otterman Empire lends itself to that type of system.
In a normal level, there are two main hazards you’ll find yourself dealing with as you try to complete your objectives. The first and most common are turrets. These are just guns that shoot you if you get too close. They do respawn, but it helps to take them out if they’re in a particularly dangerous part of the map. The other hazard is arguably the worst part of this entire game: the drones. Drones are tiny flying enemies that don’t actually damage you, but slow your character down to a snail’s pace. In a game about high speed action with water jetpacks and performing these objectives in a tight time limit, it really removes some of the fun to have to basically stop, aim upwards, and try to shoot down however many of these things have piled up. I understand that it’s a balancing act, but for a single person it’s not really all that enjoyable. On the final stage of each world, the evil scientist otter, Tiko, will also have large tanks roaming the map which have a lot of health and can kill you in just a couple of seconds. I found it best to just avoid these things.
Aside from the drones, I can’t really think of one big problem with The Otterman Empire that took me out of the experience, but there were a lot of little issues that did eventually start to stack up. One of the first that players may realize is for some bizarre reason the game uses the B button to make selections and the A button to cancel out of menus. This is hardly game-breaking, but I can’t say I ever really got used to it. And unfortunately, the controls can't be remapped. During cutscenes, it feels like nearly every single shot has textures loading in and out that make it hard to focus on what’s actually going on. And during the missions themselves, some of the choices for the heads up display seemed particularly odd. Like whenever you accomplish anything, you get a very small red flash of text in the middle of the screen that says “Objective Point” and I usually take flashing red font to mean I’ve done something wrong.
You may notice though that most of these complaints don’t really affect the actual game parts of The Otterman Empire, and that is where I think this title shines. The controls for the most part are fluid and fun. Characters zip and dash around fantastically. Few things are more satisfying than performing an aerial dodge through a ring and then shooting down a turret before it can open fire.
The final thing I feel I need to mention is the multiplayer mode. This is more or less what turns a pretty okay game into a much more fun experience. The Otterman Empire supports co-op gameplay, and features a local multiplayer versus mode. I was able to get a friend to come play a few levels with me, and the campaign is definitely more fun when you’re able to coordinate with another person. One player can shoot down drones with the other goes for the main objective, or however you want to strategize. We also tried out the local multiplayer, but with just two people it wasn’t very thrilling. I think it’d be a blast to have four people dive in though. It takes me back to those days of playing Goldeneye 64, Jet Force Gemini, or Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Like I said, this game reminds me of a Nintendo 64 title in the best kind of way.
The Otterman Empire is by no means a bad game. I definitely had some fun with it, but a number of small issues spread throughout kept it from being a game that I could say I really loved. If you’re a big fan of shooters, I could definitely see you enjoying The Otterman Empire, but I think I could really only give it a hard recommendation if you know you’re going to be playing it with a friend or two. As a single player experience, I had my share of issues with the campaign, but I can’t deny it’s more fun when you’ve got otter people along for the ride.
John reviewed The Otterman Empire on the Nintendo Switch with a code provided by the developer. The game is also available on Steam and Xbox One.