Mini-Mech Mayhem brings simultaneous-turn strategy gaming to PlayStation VR, but it's lacking in charisma and most of its depth is based on chance.
It’s time for another PlayStation VR multiplayer game, though this one has the distinction of being a more cerebral affair than Space Junkies. Mini-Mech Mayhem's title might make it sound like a Smash Bros. clone, but it actually wants the fill a particular theoretical niche for VR gamers more interested in competing with others online without the prerequisites of fast reflexes and astute spacial awareness, but it results in a kind of competitive tabletop-like game rendered in a saccharine kid-friendly veneer. The immediate question which tumbles in the background never to be satisfyingly answered is this: why make such a game restricted to VR?
When Mini-Mech Mayhem first boots, players are treated to a conversational introduction that presents them with a little robot character. They ask you to choose options for its various body parts as well as fill out avatar costume pieces. Yet again, as has become de rigueur, there’s a haircut and some simple customization details like glasses or a t-shirt for your armless and neckless head and torso, with promises to unlock more bits for mech and avatar as you play. Whether this is of import to players or not feels besides the point; it’s just an obvious inclusion with multiplayer gaming in 2019, and it’s included here so that players can show off their color preferences and cosmetic unlocks when playing against others online.
Jumping into multiplayer presents a potential four players per match, all of whom preside over a square grid-based board with traps, a power item, and a round-clearing victory coin. If a player secures three victory coins first they outright win the game, and an ersatz coin is garnered if another mini-mech is defeated by theirs during combat, making it so that a player could win the game in two rounds or, less likely, possibly a single particularly lucky one.
Now, there are two aspects which Mini-Mech Mayhem immediately offers up as defining traits: strategy and humor. Let’s break both of those down, first by describing exactly what it is you do in the game. Each player has three actions in total per turn, which can include two moves and one attack or two attacks and one move (strangely, only these two variations of a turn are allowed to occur, and players cannot choose to skip an action) and action order is based on a few factors — shorter moves happen first and moves happen before attacks in sequence. When it’s just two players, this process is fairly easy to wrap your head around, but a four-player match presents 12 total actions which all thread through each other in a manner that takes some time to learn how to read at a glance. Each player’s actions are set in stone before they are carried out on the board, with mechs moving in cardinal directions only, though attacks can be fired off diagonally.
It’s something like setting up a roomba for the first time; you can predict the obvious walls and corners of a room and even some larger furniture, but a thick rug or pet or discarded toy will probably get in the way on that maiden voyage. Most roombas will adapt to these obstacles, but the mechs in Mini-Mech Mayhem can’t really reorient on the fly, which is where the apparent strategy of thinking (and guessing) ahead comes in. Since there’s only one victory coin on each board per round, up to four players will always be angling for it simultaneously. Sure, it seems like you might just move one step north and two steps east to claim it, but others player can assume you’re taking that direct route and interrupt your journey with a forward-thinking bullet.
Unlike chess, the game isn’t about a counter-reaction or even thinking many moves ahead, and much of it sadly amounts to luck. A harebrained player could be doggedly unpredictable and end up winning a match, whereas those bee-lining for the victory coin will end up running into and pushing each other out of the way. Strategy can sometimes be smartly rewarded, but many matches (especially two-player ones) result in mechs edging their way towards that same coin over and over, constantly pushing or shooting each other out of the way until they finally end a turn on the winning square or whittle down another mech’s health.
This means that victory is rarely satisfying or even foreseeable, and it doesn’t help that literally every facet of Mini-Mech Mayhem is glacier-paced; playing out moves and even selecting actions always incorporate tiresomely slow animations. As it’s a VR game, players use their PS Move controllers to input actions, but the control scheme is absolutely irrational. Considering that there is a presented tabletop conceit, you might expect that each mech could be lifted and moved briskly across the board when, instead, players need to click strange hotspots and buttons, with travel distance chosen by jogging a wheel. It makes players look like they’re fiddling with an esoteric dashboard just to move two spaces, which probably appears meaningful from a distance but is absolutely unintuitive, even after several hours of play. While you can also opt for a DualShock controller, neither input method feels natural, and online multiplayer institutes a (sensibly included) turn timer that exacerbates these problems.
Humor is emphasized in Mini-Mech Mayhem’s promotional text, even though there’s hardly any scripted sense of character in the game to be found. Sure, players can choose emotes for their avatar or move their hands around as they stare at the board, but there’s nothing really funny about the game itself or its blandly nonspecific presentation. AI characters may dab and emote frequently, and an avatar can equip a hot dog for a torso, but none of this is worthy as comedy in its own right. You're even forced to physically fist-bump your mech after winning a match, which is palpably embarrassing in a "how do you do, fellow kids" way.
The strategy here feels more like guesswork, but there is an “interruption” mechanic, which includes a number of special powers that can adjust scripted actions mid-play, though these are limited by power requirements and are randomly distributed throughout each match. These powers can turn another player 90 degrees or nudge them into a trap, immediately throwing off what could be a winning action. It’s probably Mini-Mech Mayhem’s most inspired design choice, though the power requirements to activate them mean that the right ones aren’t always available, which confounds the presence of smart strategy.
For those uninterested in competitive multiplayer, there are AI bots and single-player “puzzles” to play, couched in the game's tutorial menus. It’s nice that it provides these options, but matches against tougher AI feel like the SNES' Super Mario Kart in the way they thumb the scale, and it’s hard to “feel” whether these bots are making smart lucky choices or just plainly aware of a player’s moves. Any human players seem much more balanced in combat than the provided AI, even during lost matches.
There’s no real way to know if a sizable community of consumers will pick up Mini-Mech Mayhem and fill its multiplayer lobbies, testing viable strats out and feeding an evolving metagame that eludes this review but, by all appearances, this is doubtful. Besides the aforementioned quibbles with its design or concept, it’s perplexing that this game was ever packaged as a VR title to begin with, and it probably should have been developed as a sharp smartphone app to first test its raw gameplay basics in the wild. It’s possible that some will find themselves seduced by its tactical promise, or enjoy emoting and goofing and dancing next to others a la PokerStars VR, but the final product is tedious to play and boring to watch from the sidelines.
Mini-Mech Mayhem releases on PlayStation VR on June 18 for $19.99. A digital copy of the game was provided to Screen Rant for purposes of review.