Review | Machinarium
//Not a puzzling matter
It’s not that the puzzles themselves are bad. They’re not. They’re often brilliant, displaying the sort of real logic the genre so often lacks. Only once did I muddle through a task without fully understanding why I was doing it, and even the more challenging sequences end with a satisfying “of course!” moment.
Instead, it’s a conceptual problem that arises through a combination of the hub’s structure and the game’s hint system. It’s a robust system that frequently works well. Once in each area, you can click for a basic hint – an image that gives you a rough idea of what the end result of this task should be. It’s rarely necessary, thanks to the solid design, but it works neatly as a gentle prod in the right direction.
If you’re still stuck, Machinarium gives you the option of playing a brief spider-shooting mini-game (quick point: Machinarium displays such a love of classic videogaming, on numerous occasions, that it’s difficult not to immediately adore it) in order to unlock a step-by-step storyboard of your current location. But that’s the problem. Many of the game’s puzzles extend across multiple areas, requiring you to plod on with something elsewhere before returning with an extra morsel of information or newly acquired inventory item. As such, the storyboard often confuses matters, leading you to think you’re in the right place when actually you should be on the other side of town. With or without its help, there’s occasionally an issue of knowing what you’re supposed to be doing, but not being given enough guidance as to where your supposed to be doing it.
That said, the hints system is integrated impressively into the game itself, and due to its sporadically confusing nature it never feels like you’re properly cheating for having a sneaky look. Machinarium is a game that believes in playing fairly. It’s often fiendishly difficult, but it’s rare to feel insulted by obtuse design.
It would probably be easy to criticise Machinarium, despite its exemplary quality. Aside from these slight stumbles in the hub, there’s an array of minor quirks that could, potentially, put people off. The storyboard re-locks each time you close it, forcing you to replay the mini-game for return access, making it near enough impossible to use for extended reference. Josef is capable of stretching and contorting his body, but collectible items only respond contextually, meaning you’ve not only to be standing in the right place but also at the right height to interact with items. That can be annoying. Some people aren’t going to get on with the lack of dialogue and social interactions that have defined so many great adventure games. And it seemed possible, once, to go the wrong way and get stuck there. Don’t go back down the big outdoor lift once you’ve finished that puzzle – you no longer have the inventory items to get back up again. [EDIT: Er... turns out I may have just missed something really obvious here. Amanita are looking into it, but can't replicate this quirk, so there's a chance I just wasn't looking hard enough. D'oh!]
But you’d be a fool to criticise it for such trivialities. Even with its list of quirks, Machinarium is a game that keeps improving with every new location, every new character, every new whimsical piece of music. Only briefly does it ever frustrate, and it’s usually followed by the realisation, ten minutes after quitting the game, of what you were supposed to be doing. The ending perhaps arrives a tad too early, after only seven hours or so and with little climax. But at the same time, it’s a hand-drawn indie game that’s seven hours long, and what little climax is there is wonderful. I mean, I applauded, remember?
I’ve seen a number of people, in hands-on previews or blogs about the demo, saying Machinarium won’t be for everyone. I couldn’t disagree more. It’s precisely because of its abstract feel and rustic charm that everyone simply must play this game. It is nothing short of a miraculous achievement for its tiny independent team, and I cannot wait until Friday when we can all start enthusing about the specifics. For now, if you have even a passing interest in adventure games or the indie scene, take this as the highest of recommendations.
Machinarium will be released via the usual digital download channels on October 16th, but you should probably buy it directly from the developer’s website. Not only do you get extra freebies that way, but all your money goes straight to them. They deserve it.