In the description on PS Store for A-Men Polish developer Bloober Team has thrown down the gauntlet to players by stating that its tactical 2D puzzle game is built for “hardcore gamers.” PlayStation gaming has a modest history of character swapping puzzle games; as far back as 1997 the PSone had Lost Vikings 2: Norse by Norsewest, but A-Men is a welcome early entry for the genre on PlayStation Vita. However, don't let your guard drop because of cutesy presentation or upon hearing the flimsy story, involving blowing up a malfunctioning A-Corp factory that is mass producing deranged A-Droid robots. Similarly, the prevalence of a jump button shouldn't trick you into believing this is a harmless action platformer: during the course of 40 levels and four different background scenarios, A-Men’s environmental riddles will boggle your mind and crush your will.
The core gameplay premise is to lay traps, so you destroy a required number of enemy A-Droids, however you must still ensure that all of your controllable characters have an open route back to the escape helicopter. If you control two characters in a level, both must make it back in order to succeed. Dotted around the landscape sit a designated set of character skill capabilities that you collect like power-ups, but you must constantly plan your next step. If you recklessly squander your skills, leaving your escape route blocked, you'll have to restart the level and may curse the repetitive nature of old-school dynamics that revolve around learning from your mistakes.
The five controllable characters are drip-fed throughout the first half of the game. Early levels start with a private who has simple rifle fire, grenades and explosives. He works alongside an engineer, who acts as the equivalent of a Lemmings builder, but can also destroy structures. The game’s variety grows as new characters and skills are introduced: the commando (not bionic, sadly) utilises a grappling hook and can float to safety from huge drops, using a parachute. The muscleman can throw characters up to unreachable platforms and alter the position of crates, or drop heavy objects on A-Droids. He also carries off a mean Fu Manchu moustache, which is just one example of the game's wacky personalities, as demonstrated by humorous idle animations and annoying speech, and the stoned surfer lingo and a character who sounds like Sid from Ice Age aren't particularly funny. At least the spy’s obsession with beavers raises a chuckle and his ability to disguise himself as an enemy, or herd them using ‘stop’ signs, is the last skill to master.
The stages have been designed to challenge your understanding of each character’s capabilities; you don't choose which character to take into a level. Once you reach the final factory scenario’s set of ten levels you get to juggle more characters, with one asking you to manage four character classes at once. The combination of a larger group of controllable characters and a higher required kill total provides a more complex array of environmental puzzles. If you're a strategic brainiac who can decipher the riddle layout of a stage to destroy every enemy and complete it in a fast time, you'll be rewarded with a high score and a prestigious S rank. Most gamers will be happy just to get to the chopper, though.
One-hit kills ensure that A-Men is unforgiving — it's not just your character that dies, it's game over for the entire squad. A stingy mid-level save system doesn't help: it costs points earned from killing A-Droids to save at selected machines, but each consecutive save involves an unreasonable hike in points. If you have no points, or if you cannot reach a machine, you will not be able to save. The A-Droid enemies have two main AI routines, the first are dumb lemmings waiting to be herded into a Limbo-like spiked pit, and the second are smarter A-Droids who can operate elevators and will not step blindly into a trap. All enemies are best approached stealthily when their back is turned, because as soon as they spot you the music takes a frantic turn to indicate they're charging to attack.
At first the versatility of the controls impresses, mixing a choice of touch screen and traditional buttons and using the rear touch pad to quickly centre the camera on a selected character, with a wonderfully swift 2D camera assigned to the right stick. However, both touch screen and button inputs switch positions to reflect the context of interactive objects in the environment, which can result in the player unfairly selecting the wrong skill and being punished by instant death.
Unfortunately, the sense of accomplishment felt upon completing a level is outweighed by a feeling of frustration from trial-and-error gameplay, in which player progression is determined by repeatedly learning from mistakes. This detracts from the fun and without a choice of difficulty levels, character health bars or decent mid-level save points, A-Men can feel like a slog that's best enjoyed in short bursts. It is a shame Bloober didn't incorporate a multiplayer option as the A-Men dynamics would have worked brilliantly as a competitive two-player game, not unlike 1984's Spy vs. Spy.
Ultimately, the £11.99 price is too high, despite Bloober’s realistic affirmation of “over 20 hours of challenging gameplay”, especially when compared to the PS3 pricing of PSN games like Trine 2 (£6.49) and Lemmings (£3.99). Although audio work on the music is fitting, with rousing military march tunes driving your squad forward, the 2D visual design is less impressive. There are nice touches, including a scaling effect, fun details like tiny squirrels operating machinery and effective use of parallax scrolling, ranging from foreground icicles to fiery factory furnaces, which add depth to the backgrounds. However, once you reach the later stages in the third winterland world and final factory setting the engine starts to stutter, as scrolling around environments causes bouts of slowdown. This is unfortunate as the camera is smooth during the forest and seacoast levels, so it disappointing considering the hardware can handle the 2D artistry of Rayman Origins.
Bloober Team has built the character-swapping puzzle gameplay of A-Men with a specific gamer in mind, and strategic players who relish deconstructing carefully designed levels with specific skills will lap it up. The only downside is during occasions that result in unfair death, when the player’s patience is tested by shifting control inputs, a miserly mid-level save system and unforgiving one-hit kills. A-Men walks a fine line between the fun of persevering with a trial-and-error system and the frustration of instant death, and should only be tackled by the most patient players.