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Machinarium

Score: 93%
ESRB: Not Rated
Publisher: Gamer's Gate
Developer: Amanita Design
Media: Download/1
Players: 1
Genre: Adventure/ Strategy/ Family

Graphics & Sound:

Adventure games are a grand tradition in PC gaming, and there are new signs that adventure and point-and-click are experiencing a comeback in the Casual genre. The historical adventure game was a good enough looking product that featured better than average storytelling and concept. What Machinarium does for adventure gamers is to blow the dust off classic high-concept gaming and combine this with absolutely gorgeous artistic style. What you'll notice immediately in the game is a complete lack of visual interference. The screen is cleared of any clutter, because you really don't need to know more than what objects are on screen, that can be manipulated. A drop-down itinerary and selection of menus makes for an amazing visual concept, but you will sometimes find that not having inventory in front of your face means that you'll forget some critical object. It's a small annoyance, well balanced by benefits of being immersed in the scenery.

Every piece of visual and sound design in Machinarium feels calculated to create an experience, and to move you subtly but surely toward your goal of solving each level. It's not as if there are glowing halos around objects that you can manipulate or use. You'll have to spend a fair amount of time puzzling out what in the level can be used to help you, and more time beyond that to understand what you'll actually need to do with each object, and in what sequence. There are visual hints you can access at each stage, and the entire story is told through scenes that play out using the game's characters as actors, plus some squiggly iconic stuff that looks more like street vandalism than helper text. Machinarium keeps away from being too obvious about anything, and in that way it creates a compelling visual style that never assaults the player.


Gameplay:

The story of Machinarium has you playing a forlorn little robot that enters stage right, dumped unceremoniously in a trash pile on the edge of civilization. Why is it that the powers-that-be don't think more carefully about the danger of discarding perfectly good robots and people? These underdogs have a nasty habit of coming back into the picture, as we've learned all too well from watching the big screen. True to form, the unnamed hero puts himself back together (one of the game's first puzzles) and starts his hero's journey back from whence he came. This simple premise becomes a grand adventure, accessible through nothing more complicated than a click of the mouse. This type of skill in game design is what lies beneath every great game, and it's the stuff that made us all fall in love with games, back when we were taping paper overlays on our television to play the Magnavox Odyssey.

Much in the same way that Portal is lauded for "teaching" players complicated mechanics, Machinarium takes time to draw players into its world. A more appropriate point for comparison would be Myst. Machinarium and Myst both have their fair share of mechanized puzzles, although Machinarium wins by virtue of having a mechanical theme, overall. The puzzles early in the game establish some simple rules for players. The first is that items can be collected. The second is that items can be used in surprising ways, or combined with other items for some really unique twists. The third is that while you may not have any of the power in Machinarium, you always can find ways to ensure that brains win out over brawn. There's an interesting theme of lateral problem solving and conflict resolution here that may be a kind of subtext for Machinarium, much as themes of loss and redemption flowed underneath Braid. All this said, Machinarium is a far lighter and more amusing game than Braid or Myst; it succeed in large part by making you extremely interested in your protagonist's plight, and by placing you into a setting where every level brings fantastic new visuals matched by equally interesting puzzles.


Difficulty:

And by interesting, we mean frequently challenging... It may look at times like a light-hearted, animated kids' game, but Machinarium has enough puzzle mojo to make a grown man cry. Happily, there are hints in the game, but like everything else they are somewhat opaque. Telling a story entirely with scribbles and symbology is an interesting challenge, and Machinarium doesn't dumb things down, or fall out of character, just because you need a hint. Instead, you'll need to earn your hint. This system works reasonably well, but like all games of this type, the answer is often just about that one click or click sequence you haven't tried. There's no penalty for repetition, and no death in the game, so you're free to experiment as much as you'd like. Instead of this becoming a meaningful cheat, clickfests will only distort the purpose behind Machinarium. This isn't a seek-and-find game where you can win if you can just click around on any object that appears to be capable of some manipulation. Instead, you have obvious gameplay elements that need to be combined or moved in just the right order, to achieve the desired end. We'd liken the experience to that moment in Zork 2 (or was it 3?) when you confronted a locked door with nothing more than a few objects in hand. Once you realized that there was something in the keyhole and a small space below the door, it was only a matter of waiting for assimilation and epiphany. Machinarium doesn't give up secrets easily, but it does take you along the path with sufficient guidance to make the experience more fun than frustrating.

Game Mechanics:

Nothing more complicated than a click awaits you in Machinarium, and that's a beautiful thing. There are some idiosyncrasies to the menus and displays, as we mentioned earlier, but it all works in service of a spare interface. There's a small footprint to the game, and a relatively modest set of tech specs, considering how much is accomplished here, in terms of visual design. Once you create your account and start playing, things resolve to the click-to-play model, where anything you see on screen may be part of the puzzle you are attempting to solve at the moment. Inventory becomes more important, where initially you find all the objects within a level that are needed to solve that level. There is the ability to save anywhere, but this really just means you can save the level you're currently running. The only gripe we have, and we expect it is part of the game's philosophy, is that objects aren't marked as being at all special or relevant to your quest. At least in a lower difficulty setting, this addition would have greatly simplified the way we approach Machinarium.

Many gamers may not have a reference point for Machinarium, even though it won awards and accolades alike, but we imagine that there will be a loyal following behind the game, if there isn't already. It provides simple gameplay mechanics with anything-but-simple adventure challenge, making your brain work hard while it gives back in the form of an amusing, engrossing narrative. The structure of the game is brilliant, and each level is a well-crafted gem. Sure, it's a niche title, but Machinarium is an example of development mojo combined with storytelling craft. Do yourself a favor and get on this one.


-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

Minimum System Requirements:



Mac OS X 10.4, 1.8 GHz Intel processor, 1GB RAM, 380MB free disk space
 

Test System:



Mac OS X 10.6, 3 GHz Intel Core Duo, 4GB RAM, NVIDIA GeForce 9400 e256MB VRAM

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