I never enjoy seeing a video game with unfulfilled potential. On some level, it’s a painful experience: I see the possibility of what the game could have been, and the greatness that it’s already capable of achieving. But then I have to acknowledge whatever shortcomings keep said greatness out of the game’s reach. It’s as though the game is teasing me without really meaning to.
Or at least that’s how I felt playing The Misadventures of Tron Bonne. Even from the beginning, this game demonstrates a lot of potential. Its anime presentation works perfectly to evoke a sense of nostalgia while also incorporating the gameplay into a clever episodic format. Yet the gameplay systems have trouble keeping up. Despite their good faith efforts to engage the player, many of the action segments are too rote to keep the player invested. And while the Servbot system is a good idea in theory, it remains under-equipped to do what it needs to do in practice. While by no means a bad game, The Misadventures of Tron Bonne leaves something to be desired.
I admit this is a feeling I typically have around Mega Man Legends games, and that it’s almost certainly rubbing onto this spin-off. In Tron Bonne’s defense, though, it is definitely the more fully realized of the two games. It doesn’t flounder about with disparate concepts, hoping at least one of them will make sense. It knows exactly what it wants to be, and it has the confidence to go after it. The narrative, for instance, eschews the lost civilization trope from other Legends games, and instead focuses on the titular heroine’s efforts to pay off her brother’s debt.
A simple premise? Yes. But it’s also a premise that lends itself well to humor, one of the game’s strong suits. Some of that strength comes from how busy the game is with antics. Most of Tron’s jobs see her either getting into some kind of trouble or venting her frustrations about the Servbots’ incompetence. However, neither Tron’s frustration nor her servants’ ineptitude would mean anything if not for well written characters. This, the game has in spades, particularly with Tron. While she’s an easily flustered person who takes out her anger on those around her, she’s never outright cruel to them. The worst the Servbots can expect from their boss is being scolded. Other than that, Tron comes off as a warm and amiable person. Considering her status as the main character, it shouldn’t surprise you that that warmth radiates outward, affecting every facet of the game. It makes the humor easier to enjoy, and it gives the game an intimate ethos.
That intimacy only grows stronger when you add nostalgia to the mix. And I don’t mean nostalgia in the way that playing any game from before 2003 feels nostalgic. What I mean is that nostalgia is baked into the very design of the game. The visuals, with their sharp, cartoony character designs and crisp use of color, would be well at home alongside anime from the 1970s. And the music isn’t that far behind; it carries the same arcadey energy that Capcom music at the time was known for. Combine that with the narrative, and it’s easy to understand where Tron Bonne finds its sense of nostalgia. Everything plays out like a Saturday morning cartoon, with you taking the role of the excited ten year old waking up early to catch the latest episode. You’re totally involved with the action on screen, anticipating whatever gag or piece of action the game has up its sleeve next.
Unfortunately, as conducive as the presentation is to the game’s systems, the latter are never as fully realized as the former. This isn’t for a lack of good ideas, though; Tron Bonne has that in spades. In her quest to earn enough money, Tron takes on a litany of jobs, each one manifesting as a different gameplay system. Bank robbing plays like a Mega Man Legends-esque shooter; stealing crates from the harbor play as a grid based navigation puzzle (move these crates to this spot in this number of moves); and when you’re plundering ruins, you might as well be playing the original Legends. For as indecisive as this sounds in theory, the previously described anime format allows the game to jump from idea to idea without compromising its cohesion. After all, if this is an anime, then it stands to reason that each of your jobs is just another episode in the show.
Yet it’s the type of engagement these jobs strive for that has me worried. Quite often, progress in the game is tied to discerning simple patterns and then fulfilling them with your rote behavior. A lot of games do this (especially older ones like Tron Bonne), and it would very reductive of me to hold this as a criticism on its own. In fact, some of the engagement in games like Holy Umbrella and Mr Driller comes from the relaxation that filling in those patterns elicits. Not Tron Bonne, though. Where its peers constrain their structures to control what the player feels, Tron Bonne is open and more slowly paced. This means that the game no longer operates on a pure emotional level, and that the player is free to analyze their actions. So the therapeutic quality is lost, and all that remains is a dull boredom.
The ruin exploration stages are particularly bad about this. On the one hand, the narrow hallways are too confined to appeal to the discovery aesthetic you’d normally expect from a dungeon crawling game. And on the other hand, they’re too formless to appeal to a therapeutic quality, either. What process is there to lose myself in? Where are the grand schemes of The Legend of Zelda? Or the serene maze-work of a Dungeons of Dredmor? They’re nowhere to be found here. What we get in there place is an uncomfortable middle ground where you lead Tron through flat hallways to no real end. The robot fights that break up this exploration don’t help much, either. Without any of the temporal pressure that defines the action stages, fighting robots is just as monotonous as exploring dungeons.
Speaking of robots, the Servbot system also encounters major problems, albeit for different reasons. It doesn’t fail for a lack of definition. In fact, ordering Servbots around is one of the game’s more well-defined mechanics. Not only does telling your minions to rob houses and gather treasure make you feel like a cartoon villain, but it also lets the game’s teamwork angle shine through magnificently. As a collective, the Servbots have all the definition they need.
It’s as individuals that they falter. Tron Bonne tries to give each Servbot their own unique personality by giving each one their own unique statistics. One might be smarter than his friend, and another could be stronger. I use words like “might” and “could” because these statistics are so abstracted and divorced from the actual gameplay as to become completely meaningless. For all the game has to say about their individual attributes, each Servbot is equally capable of performing whatever task they’re assigned to. Although this is a convenient set-up while playing the game yourself, it effectively neuters whatever opportunity there is for the Servbots to exercise their personalities. How am I to tell that one Servbot is lazier than another if that laziness never manifests itself in play? The between mission headquarters might offer a solution, given its resemblance to Persona Q’s Stroll feature or the Barracks in recent Fire Emblem games. Yet here, too, we find problems. Each Serbot wears the same face and speaks with very similar (if not completely identical) voices, making it difficult to discern one from the other.
One of the more disappointing aspects is that the game has opportunities to display their personalities; it just never does. As an example, one of your Servbots will start actively helping you with puzzles after you’d progressed past a certain point. You’d think this would be the perfect opportunity for the Servbot to demonstrate his level of intelligence. Yet no such thing happens. The Servbot will always find the ideal solution in a heartbeat and execute on it without a single flaw, regardless of their intelligence. This design choice effectively contradicts what the levelling system is supposed to do, as it renders all the Servbots equally intelligent. And it’s not as though this was the only option the developers had. They could have had the Servbots take too long solving the puzzle on their own, or make them give up and reset the puzzle to what it was before. Either strategy allows for varying levels of intelligence without negatively impacting the player’s success. As it stands, the Servbots amount to a good idea that the game doesn’t execute upon.
And sadly, I think that’s the perfect way to summarize The Misadventures of Tron Bonne. The game has a lot of good ideas, and on some level, it knows how to execute on them. It knows how to embody the fun Saturday morning cartoon spirit, and it knows how to limit its ideas to keep them from stagnating. Still, I can’t overlook the game’s faults, because they operate on too fundamental a level for me to ignore. They’re not bad enough to ruin Tron Bonne. However, they are enough to hold it back from being everything it could be.