Robots. Beautiful artwork. A haunting soundtrack. ROBOTS. There’s a lot to like about Machinarium, the latest game from Amanita Design that won the Excellence in Visual Art award at the 2009 IGF. A point and click adventure game in the very definition of the genre, you play as one of the many robot citizens of the city, you begin the game disassembled on a scrapheap, your first port of call to piece yourself back together and find out what happened. This game wants to prove it has a whole lot more to offer than just a pretty face? I’ll admit now, however, that I never have been down with the art gaming scene. The Graveyard was a bit too clever for me, and The Path passed me by without even a glance. So in looking at this game, I admit I did have some trepidation.
However, even the most art ignorant dunce like me can see that from the moment the game starts the visual style is striking, stunning and there’s certainly no room for doubt as to it’s breathtaking nature. The screens are gorgeous to look at, and as you can tell from the screenshots there’s clearly been so much care and attention thrown into every scene of this game. There’s truly nothing like it. Every building and every location is drawn and coloured to fit perfectly, and every character seems unique and defined. Most notably, Amanita achieves this purely through aesthetics of visuals and sound – there’s not a single line of dialogue to be found anywhere in this game. As the visuals capture you within their spell, so too the music and sound of this game work some incredible haunting magic, again fitting the style of the game perfectly and really giving your ears almost as much of a treat as the eyes.
Gameplay wise however, Machinarium isn’t quite as sure-footed. The first flaw comes in the story telling – and as much as it pains me to be brutually honest, I had no idea of most of the story until I visited the game’s webpage. In keeping with the rather minimalist take on extraneous things such as dialogue and text, I had a vague idea what was happening, but more than once during the game found myself not knowing why exactly I was say, helping the band or throwing myself down chutes other than it was the only thing I could do. Occasionally the game throws up hints as to what certain people require but there’s a definite sense of being left to fend for yourself almost too much. A massive offshoot of this is the lack of hotspots, and bringing back an often hated problem of point and clicks – the pixel hunt. Already having waxed lyrical about the graphics, it seems a bit of a double edged sword that for a lot of things in the game it’s impossible to tell what can be interacted with or picked up without mousing over it or even, in some cases, without moving the character next to it before trying to interact with it. Something as simple as the game automatically realising you want to walk over to the object before interacting with it might be helpful – and granted this does occur occasionally, but it does seem to be entirely random which objects this works on and which it does not.
The puzzles within the game are also very hit and miss. When done well, they are really done well, satisfying and at times there’s a real sense of achievement on some of the puzzles. Some of the puzzles are absolutely fantastic in their concept, but their solutions can be downright devious to the point where even after you’ve figured out the solution, you might still be scratching your head. To alleviate some of this frustration, the game has two ‘hint’ functions. One invokes a pictorial clue coming from your character in the form of a thought bubble, and the other in a rather genius move sees you playing a little minigame in which you have to guide a key to an exit while avoiding or shooting spiders. This mini game mechanic actually crops up throughout the game a Space Invaders clone and a literal head maze proving the highlights and invoking comparisons with DS title Professor Layton. And like that title seems to invoke a similar balance of frustration to a sense of cleverness when you beat it. Be warned though, if your diet of adventure games has mostly consisted of titles of the last few years you may find this game to be pretty tough going at times and find yourself seeing the spider minigame far more than you want to. In addition, sometimes the hints aren’t exactly what you’re after – most annoying is when you’re told the thing you’re after but not how or where it can be found, and you may end up spoiling other puzzles by looking at the solutions to current ones because the things happen to be on the same screen and you’ll have to backtrack to it later.
But overall, it’s really really hard and seems so wrong to condemn this game. Beautiful aesthetics which are unlike anything else – even little incidental details you don’t notice the first time, the subtle animations and music cues. The way the entire game feels like one of those classic Ivor The Engine cartoons that make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I’ll be honest, it’s a game that makes me wish that we at the Reticule had a more detailed scoring system, as I don’t think it’s a miss by a long way, but it’s still a tough game to recommend to everybody. Machinarium as an art project ticks all the right boxes. As a game, it can veer a little too haphazardly on the side of frustration thanks to the interface issues. Certainly worth a try – moreso if you like artistic games – but make sure you’ve got a lot of patience if you’re going to give it a shot.