Is this the time for Gotta Protectors? The franchise has long been underappreciated, launching on the little-used Xbox Live Indies service and following up with a 3DS sequel that made it West a bit too late to find an audience on the platform. The new game, Gotta Protectors: Cart of Darkness? It’s on the still-popular Nintendo Switch platform, and a real marketing push means more people will actually know about it. Does the latest entry’s gameplay back up this promise?
In the Gotta Protectors franchise, you play one of a set of classes and defend Princess Lola from waves of goblins and other baddies. You have a host of different attacks, as well as the ability to build and upgrade barricades to hold off foes. Cart of Darkness largely sticks to this formula, but builds levels around a train track. You put Lola in a castle train, and she can ride down the track and ram the opposing castle until it’s rubble.
The train element seeks to unify the ideas of the first two installments. The first game, Protect Me Knight, featured single-screen stages. The 3DS sequel had much larger maps, driven by the 3DS’ individual player screens. To keep the bigger environments but return to shared-screen local play, Cart of Darkness moves you around the map with tracks. You can just push Lola around by herself, if you want! (And you’ll need to do it to find secrets, in addition to occasional tactical opportunities.)
Play sessions are crafted in four-stage paths. Rather than persistent leveling, Cart of Darkness lets you invest resources into upgrade trees within a single chapter at intermission screens. This does a few things! First: it puts all players on an even playing field. Those of different play time can join together with no huge balance issues. Second: it recaptures the magic of the original game! Generally speaking, each chapter of Cart of Darkness functions like the full campaign of that short-but-sweet Xbox 360 game. That makes each chapter a satisfying chunk.
Each of the game’s classes offers different moves and strengths. Once you’ve unlocked all the abilities, there’s a ton of room to experiment! And maybe even shape a class you like flavor-wise into a play style that better suits you. If there’s an acquired taste in the bunch, it’s definitely the Old Man, with some tricky-to-use skills and obvious drawbacks. (The online stats agree, as he’s used about half as often as the others.) We’ve been big fans of the Mage setting maps ablaze since the first game, but we’ve enjoyed trying other schemes. And that flexibility? It also might be nice for those who are less than thrilled with the designs of characters like the Amazon and Ninja. Other characters can manage similar builds.
Gotta Protectors: Cart of Darkness is at its best with a full complement of friends. The game supports full online and local play options. In our testing, we didn’t encounter issues with online play, which is impressive for a dev team this small! However you play, it’s fun to split duties and focus on specialties. Are you running a build better for crowd control? Or maximum damage to a boss? Hey, maybe you’re the barricade expert. A lot is always happening on the screen, so dividing these responsibilities is a great help.
If you do need to play alone (and we did a lot for this review), you can take advantage of a few things. First: difficulty! The game doesn’t really scale to player count, instead offering different difficulties and letting you move up or down to your taste. There’s no shame in playing solo on Easy when you need to get through a tough stage.
Also, in all configurations, you choose a team of three characters and loadouts, and you can swap out at any time. This could be helpful in a pinch in multiplayer, too! But it’s especially important by yourself, as you can swap to your defense character or DPS build as the situation requires. Intermission upgrades apply to your whole team, too, so no worries there. Through spending in-game gold, you can unlock new loadouts for each class. While they’re nice suggestions for play strategies, what’s most useful is that all abilities in each are unlocked as options for the “custom” loadout.
Aesthetically, Gotta Protectors builds on Famicom/NES nostalgia. Lead developer Makoto “Karu_gamo” Wada, who also dabbles in actual NES work, understands the look and feel. And keeping it simple probably makes it easier to develop! The time in Cart of Darkness was clearly spent on expanding the sheer amount of content in the game, offering dozens upon dozens of levels.
And we can’t get through this review without talking about the compositions of Yuzo Koshiro. The Ancient boss has used the Gotta Protectors franchise as a sort of playground, making new retro-style tracks much like the ones that made him a household name. In many ways, Gotta Protectors games are worth it for the soundtracks alone! And this one’s no different.
The charm of the game is accentuated by some truly top-notch localization work. Cart of Darkness is laugh-out-loud funny, and it adapts the script to Western nostalgia well. All the cartridges made for a huge undertaking, for sure, but we most appreciate the incidental text and interstitial screens. There’s still a place in our heart for the first game’s charmingly rough approach, but Cart of Darkness is one of those releases that shouts the value of good localization from the rooftops.
But about those cartridges, though! You can equip them for a minor boost, and that’s fun, but you can probably find a handful of helpful bonuses without having to spend hours looking. They’re not going to dominate your experience if you don’t want to bother. Still, the presence of the one whimsical collectible gives players a lot of opportunities to experiment. You get some hints on how to find them, but largely we found it easiest to just scout out a map and look for suspicious locations. And hey, your reward? A nostalgic chuckle. Not so bad.
Gotta Protectors: Cart of Darkness refines a gameplay system that was already great, and offers a ton of challenges to keep you busy! And hey, maybe this time, more players will be fortunate enough to discover it.
Gotta Protectors: Cart of Darkness launches April 14, 2022 on the Nintendo Switch eShop. A physical edition of the game is also on the way from Limited Run Games. For more on Cart of Darkness, check out our interview with the game’s creators.
Disclosure: A member of the Siliconera staff contributed to the production of the physical edition of the game. That staff member is in no way involved with the writing or publication of this review.