Machinarium – The Verdict

Machinarium – The Verdict

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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.

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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.

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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.

The most beautiful game this year, but be prepared to work for progress
The most beautiful game this year, but be prepared to work for it

11 thoughts on “Machinarium – The Verdict

  1. I think I actually disagree with almost everything you wrote. I found its storytelling to be elegant and beautifully concise, and I knew little of it before plunging in. I found it almost never frustrating, its puzzles marvellously designed. Though artistic, I don’t think it’s even slightly an art-game – it’s about as traditional as adventures come, only with added pieces of absolute genius. And, more than anything else released all year, it’s a game I’d recommend, whole-heartedly, to literally everyone. In its genre, enormous classics excluded, it’s at the top of the pile.

    You’re right about it being beautiful though.

  2. Heh, I knew throughout writing this you’d disagree with me to be honest Lewis, after seeing you rave about it on Twitter. 😛

    For me, as I said in the review, I had no idea who anyone was supposed to be. About the only thing I knew was that I was a robot in pieces. I moved to the right because that was the only place I could go. I had no idea why I was supposed to care about the bomb or even why the robot in the kitchen – who I also had no idea was female until much later in the game – was female and my friend. Admittedly there were the thought bubbles, but I didn’t think they truly explained my motivation. If I’m honest I thought the bad guys were at first bullies that had tormented my character as a youth, not the ones who were responsible for me being in pieces in the first place.

    Unfortunately I’m not as willing to discuss my problems with the puzzles here for warrant of spoilers, but the lack of indication as to what can be clicked on saw me stuck on the elevator puzzle for about two hours longer than I should have done, given the eventual solution.

  3. The elevator puzzle was a minor stumble.

    I realise what I wrote probably came across as petulant “Wah, this reviewer disagrees with me!” fare, which it wasn’t intended as. I just found it curious that so many of the things you listed as flaws were the same things I loved. I mean, I really liked how the story drip-fed and made you work to piece it together. I didn’t have any trouble understanding, though. The flashbacks showed you frolicking with Robot Girl, and the Black Cap Brotherhood *were* bullies – but it became pretty clear straight away that they’d moved into organised crime (the gangster set-up with the wobbly chair).

    As for their being responsible for your being in pieces… well, no spoilers. But, that kind of wasn’t what happened. And I *loved* how it left it until the very final scene to explain how it really did happen, in a way that really made me chuckle.

    Horses for courses. I think it’s splendid.

  4. Oh no, didn’t think you were whiny at all (apologies myself if my response came off overly defensive) I just felt very similar to how you said you felt about my review to be fair – how we seemed to take similar things but view them very differently. As I said, the main thing that spoiled the game for me was the constant frustration. And as much as I was glad to finish it, at the same time it’s the sort of glad to finish it feeling that was actually in a negative respect. I’m glad I played it, but I can’t see myself ever returning to it for a replay for example.

  5. Is that just a genre thing, though? I mean, once you know the puzzles, you know the puzzles. The only adventure I can think of that’s a bit replayable is something like Pathologic.

  6. I don’t think so – I enjoy going back to most of the classic LucasArts adventures now and again, and can see myself doing so with the new Monkey Island ones too. This however, I don’t see myself ever really going back to except perhaps to get the images as wallpaper.

  7. I’m with Lewis on this one, though I do see where Ben is coming from. A good thing I didn’t do the review then eh? :p

    I think the game is great, but it has a few more flaws, like with the puzzle direction, than I hoped. It is close to World of Goo for me as a top notch indie title, and is certainly the stand out indie game of this year. Quality!

  8. Weird about the new Monkey Islands… I’m finding those so utterly dull, so begrudgingly “alright”, that I can’t wait for the series to finish so I can stop reviewing the things.

  9. I have to say I almost completely disagree with Ben as well. The game’s plot unrolled nicely, and I didn’t have a problem with why I was doing things – it’s a computer game! A huge proportion of games have tasks that are completed to no immediate benefit.

    The puzzles are definitely not rock hard and not one was unfair. I’m not by any means a hardcore adventurer, either. I only used the solution system once, and it turned out to be for the only puzzle in the game that didn’t have to be solved (in the greenhouse). I hadn’t considered a possible solution of the light puzzle used in both cases where I was stuck.

    The point I would agree on is that having to be close to an object to discover if it can be interacted with is annoying.

    It’s a huge step above other adventures I’ve seen recently, where there are objects in the scenery you can’t interact with that would clearly solve your problem if you could touch them..

  10. I wouldn’t call this an ‘art game’ – Machinarium is an adventure game at its core, wrapped in exceptional art. The more artier games want to do something different than just ‘be a great game’.

    I do agree on some of the puzzles – I had a hard time remembering all the stuff I had to find/do, which in turn made it harder to make connections between things I collected.

  11. After finishing the game today, I’ve got to say I agree with both of you (Lewis and Ben that is). I thought the story to be very nicely told and to be quite clear from the beginning, but because of the relatively short length I didn’t really ‘connect’ with the little robot’s quest. Sure, it was exciting to take care of the bomb, but the part where you’ve got to get to your girlfriend was over too fast and a also bit anti-climatic.

    Another major gripe I had was the question ‘why?’ Why am I helping the robot band? Why do I have to electrocute the cat robot (really, after seeing the thought bubble I was puzzled and completely lost about the reasons of doing that).

    It was a surprising game with beautiful graphics and a great atmosphere (the superb music certainly helped), but as you’ve mentioned in the review, not without it’s flaws. Still very worth playing though.

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