The human body contains miles and miles of tubes and passageways through which our various fluids flow, conduits for the countless cells and substances that keep us alive. And though it isn't clear whether the organic environments you traverse in MicroBot are indeed human, the fluid dynamics and sense of depth create an appealing setting where the microscopic can seem monumental. You cruise these pathways with your small ship, blasting aggressive enemies and collecting resources to upgrade your arsenal. Customizing your craft offers some experimental fun, and your enemies do get tougher and more numerous as you progress. But the simplistic action doesn't evolve much over the course of the game, and it never presents a truly formidable challenge. MicroBots is a lukewarm experience with enough likable qualities that you won't regret playing it, but not enough good qualities to make you really want to dive in.
The first level you are plunged into plays up the Innerspace angle, with capillary-lined corridors suffused with red, pink, and orange hues. Fleshy walls loom up into the foreground, and indistinct glands throb steadily in the background, giving you the sense that you are suspended in the middle of an internal abyss. Inorganic pipes intrude on the landscape, often pumping fluid that gently affects the movement of your ship or vigorously sweeps you along to a new area. The visual depth and liquid dynamics combine to create a feeling of floating that is amplified by the ethereal, atmospheric music. It's a pleasing effect, though it's a shame there are no audio options. The sound of your frequently firing guns and the hum of your engine can diminish the mood.
Your default ship is equipped with two rapid-fire guns for killing enemies and a paddle for locomotion; the right analog stick controls shooting, the left controls movement. The enemies you encounter come in many shapes and sizes, and when you encounter (and kill) a new type of foe, it's likely to drop a collectible piece of data. Gather enough of these from a given enemy, and you unlock a new piece of technology for your ship. Weapons like homing missiles and laser beams add to your destructive power, while defensive boosts like extra health and shields can help keep you alive longer. New motors help you move faster and maneuver more quickly, and auxiliary items like a harpoon, a bomb, and a time-slowing device provide some strategic wrinkles. You get the opportunity to change your loadout a few times in each level, and experimenting with different combinations is a lot of fun. Equipping a few lancets and some damage-dealing engines can turn your ship into a speedy wrecking ball, while loading up on explosive bullets and protective shields can make you into a tiny tank. There are plenty of possibilities, and every element can be upgraded twice to significantly improve its effectiveness.
Though taking different permutations out for a spin is enjoyable, it's likely you will stick with the one you find most effective for much of the game. There are many different viable loadouts, but MicroBot never requires that you use any particular items in any given section. In each level, you navigate through corridors and open spaces, blasting anything that has a nasty robotic look about it. Some baddies are content to fire at you from afar, while some make kamikaze charges straight for your ship. When different types of enemies appear in significant numbers, things can get dicey, and in these moments MicroBot approaches the frantically engaging challenge offered by the best dual-stick shooters. Though these sections can be invigorating, the energy they create is usually dissipated shortly after by a return to the more deliberate, exploratory pace that dominates the game. Exploring every nook and cranny of each level and hunting down collectibles certainly has its appeal, yet while the atmospheric presentation flourishes in these sections, the action withers.
MicroBot is a game caught between two contradictory poles. On the one end you have smoothly paced exploration and collectible hunting that lets you appreciate the game's enticing visual presentation. On the other, you have fast-paced shooting and quick maneuvering that makes for some frantic, challenging action. Unfortunately, these two opposing scenarios make poor partners, each diluting the other to create a fairly bland experience. You can play the 20-level campaign and four challenge modes either alone or with a friend, but the online connectivity is limited to challenge mode leaderboards. There is a reasonable amount of content here for the asking price of 800 Microsoft points ($10), and the game does have some appealing elements. It's a shame they never coalesce into something more.