Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Machinarium (Amanita Design/Deadalic Entertainment, 2009)

I've been mentioning the Humble Bundle a lot lately. As I said in my review of Contre Jour, it's a great way to discover lesser known games that I might miss otherwise. Way back in the first Humble Bundle I purchased, there was an interesting point and click adventure included by the name of Samorost 2. The original Samorost was a free online Flash game, and the sequel expanded on it in every way.

After finishing my playthrough of The Room, I was still in a point and click puzzler mood, so I started digging through my backlog to see what fit the bill. That's when I remembered that during a sale on I'd picked up another game by the makers of the Samorost series that shared its unique play style. That game was Machinarium.

As with the Samorost series, Machinarium is a point and click puzzle adventure that doesn't quite play by the normal rules of the genre. Point and click adventures evolved out of the graphic adventure genre, which itself evolved from classic text adventures. Amanita Design has managed to sever that last bit of evolutionary hold over by producing their game almost entirely without words. There's no dialog, no descriptions, and after the very beginning there are no instructions. Instead, everything is presented visually. If a character wants an oil can, rather than having him say what he needs there will be a dialog bubble with an image of an oil can.

Why does he need an oil can? As the cover art implies, Machinarium takes place in a world of robots. While there is the occasional bit of plant life here or there, pretty much every one and every thing in this game is a machine of some sorts. While a point and click adventure full of robots who don't talk may seem like a dull idea, the characters manage to have a surprising amount of charm and personality that makes each of them unique. Well, not counting the identical uniformed guards you meet from time to time, but then again, isn't the whole point of a uniform to prevent being unique anyway?

The story of Machinarium tells the tale of a young robot separated from his girlfriend and trying to get back to her. Along the way he unwittingly stumbles upon a dastardly plot by some local ne'er-do-wells and must find a way to save the day. Mostly, this saving the day is accomplished through a series of environmental puzzles, some item collecting, the occasional fetch quest, and a fairly unique variation of tic-tac-toe that would probably do well as a stand alone Flash or mobile game.

While a balanced combination of exploration, inventory management, and random experimentation will get you past most of Machinarium's challenges, some of the puzzles are a bit more obtuse in nature. This is not a game that goes with the obvious solution. Sometimes situations in the game present themselves in a way that hints strongly at a particular solution that's just out of reach, only to be solved in some seemingly arbitrary way that's only attempted because at a certain point it's the only course of action left to try. Yes, it gets frustrating at times, and the difficulty is occasionally far from balanced, but not to the point of ruining the experience. In fact, the satisfaction you get from finally figuring out how to accomplish a task you've been at for hours is part of what makes this genre work.

In order to alleviate some of the inevitable frustration, and prevent players from rage quitting or simply looking up a walkthrough, the developers thoughtfully included an in-game hint system. Unfortunately, the included hint system tries to be a little too clever for its own good. You are permitted a limited number of hints throughout the game that can only be accessed by playing through a mini-game that as far as I can tell involves flying a key into a spider and then not getting a hint. This could have been done better, or even left out entirely, but luckily if you click on everything enough times and follow the clues both subtle and obvious, then you'll be just fine without it.

To me, the most striking and memorable feature of Machinarium would have to be its visual style. The game utilizes hand drawn 2D artwork in a style reminiscent of a graphic novel mixed with a watercolor landscape. The drawings are detailed enough to make the world feel alive, yet uncluttered enough to not obscure the clickable objects, a problem that still manages to plague some games of this genre. The mechanical city is filled with whimsy, and I kept thinking that it could have inspired an amazing theme park if the game had ever reached that level of popularity. If anything, a cartoon spinoff of the game would be entertaining.

Even though I it wasn't a perfect point and click puzzle experience, I thoroughly enjoyed playing Machinarium, and if a sequel ever surfaces, I will definitely pick it up. If you're a long time fan of point and click games and don't mind a less verbose narrative then this is a game I'd recommend giving a try, especially considering how many platforms it's available for at this point. It also might be worth a try to anybody who's traditionally been curious about the point and click genre, yet turned off by the traditionally long winded plots. As a bonus teaser, here's a link to the original Samorost Flash game to let you taste an earlier example of Amanita Design's unique style. Have fun!

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