Most mech games of late feature grimy metallic monstrosities in dystopian worlds, taking their cue from the harsh sci-fi landscapes of Battletech. Virtual On: Oratorio Tangram, however, recalls a simpler time, when brightly colored giant robots with huge Sega Dreamcasts on their backs cheerfully blasted one another to smithereens in pristine environments. Don't let the bright visuals and upbeat music fool you into thinking this is a simple game, though. On the contrary, its gameplay is complex and esoteric, and the game does little to help newcomers get acclimated to its nuances. If you're willing to dedicate the time to it, though, you'll find that this mech combat game's deep, fast-paced action can be immensely rewarding.
The action in VOOT consists of a series of one-on-one battles between mechs in three-dimensional arenas. There are 12 mechs available from the get-go, and they offer a dramatic range of movement speed, armor, and weaponry. They differ from one another every bit as much as you might expect the characters to differ in a fighting game, and dedicated players will enjoy familiarizing themselves with the capabilities of each one. This same depth is a double-edged sword, however, given that the game doesn't make its complexities very clear or accessible. There's a brief series of tutorial videos, but they won't prepare you for more than the easiest of battles. An interactive tutorial might have helped newcomers feel more comfortable. As it stands, you may want to consult a FAQ to acquaint yourself with the finer points of combat strategy.
The default control scheme has you moving with the left stick and turning with the right stick while jumping and dashing are done with the face buttons. Series fans will be pleased to know, though, that they can also employ a tank-style dual-stick control scheme that mimics that of the arcade cabinet. Initially, the huge reticule that appears around your enemy whenever you’re facing in his or her general direction might make VOOT look like a standard point-and-shoot affair. You can try playing it that way, but you’re liable to get worked over, and to not have much fun while you’re at it. Maintaining a lock on your opponent and scoring hits is a lot trickier than it looks. That’s because even the most hulking mechs here can dash speedily out of the way of incoming attacks thanks to the huge jets on their backs. To get good, you’ll need to get comfortable with maneuvers like air-dashing, which is good for evasion, and jump-cancelling, which is useful for quickly getting a bead on your opponent. The action tends to be wickedly fast as players scramble to get in some shots while simultaneously trying to stay out of their opponent's crosshairs, using the scattered structures on each level for cover.
In addition to these and other movement techniques, it’s also useful to get comfortable with the unique properties of your mech’s three standard attacks (a left attack, a right attack and a central attack, performed by pulling both triggers simultaneously), as well as the advantages and disadvantages of crouch attacks, dash attacks and turbo attacks. There’s a tradeoff built into many attacks—one weapon might have excellent homing capabilities but do little to no damage against a well-armored mech, for instance, while another might only fire straight but is devastating if it strikes true. Attacking while dashing lets you move away from your opponent while getting some shots off, but also results in you becoming unable to dash again for an instant when the move is completed, leaving you vulnerable to attacks from your opponent. In addition to working away at your foe’s energy during this long-range game of hide-and-seek, you can also try to get in close to unleash a devastating close-range attack, but if you’re not careful, you could end up being the one who gets walloped. Skilled players can combine these maneuvers and attacks into a fluid dance that keeps them one step ahead of their opponents, but doing so is no easy feat, and it takes practice just to learn, let alone master.
Nowhere is the action better than in online combat. There are currently plenty of competitors online, many of whom have already racked up hundreds of battles, and if you show up unprepared, they will waste no time in cleaning your clock and demonstrating what skilled Virtual-On play looks like. It can be humbling, but if you’ve got the courage to go toe-to-toe with them, it can also be very rewarding. Like many more traditional fighting games, to get much out of VOOT, you need to put a fair amount into it. But the excitement and satisfaction you can find in skilled competitive play make the investment well worth it.
The online play is certainly the standout feature, but the arcade mode, in which you face off against a series of mechs before fighting a final boss, can also be fun. On the default setting, it’s quite challenging, but knocking the difficulty down a notch or two makes it much easier, which is good for getting in some practice, unlocking some of the game’s surprisingly easy achievements, or just for seeing what it feels like to win for a change. And there’s a score attack mode, in which you fight computer-controlled opponents and your score is uploaded to a leaderboard.
VOOT was considered a visual stunner on the Dreamcast, and it still looks great, with a high-definition upgrade that makes the details of each mech and the rapid movements of their oddly graceful combat that much easier to appreciate. Certainly by current standards the graphics are simple, particularly the game's environments, but they're also cheerful and appealing, and the vibrant colors and the sheer variety of weapons and attacks make the visuals as lively as the action. The upbeat electronic music complements that action nicely, and the din of explosions and weapon fire and the whine of turbo jets could have been lifted straight out of an anime.
Climbing into the cockpits of these mechs can be a bit daunting if you're new to the Virtual On series, and it's unfortunate that VOOT doesn't do more to familiarize newcomers with its unusual gameplay, because it's enjoyable once you wrap your head around it. Given the steep learning curve and the 15-dollar price point, VOOT may leave you feeling disappointed if you're just looking for some pick-up-and-play, rock-'em sock-'em robot action. But if you want a deep, fast, skill-based tactical fighting game, these giant robots will deliver.