By Marty Mulrooney
The first thing that strikes you about Machinarium, the new point and click adventure game from Amanita Design (creators of Samorost 1&2), are its graphics. Showing a dense robot city full of hustle and bustle, the artwork on display is never anything less than stunning, elevating the material far above its Adobe Flash-based engine. (Usually used for short, online-only games.)
The next thing you notice is the sound design. This game features amazing background music and sound-effects, perfectly suited to the onscreen visuals. It really is a delightful pleasure to load up an independent game from a small Czech development studio and be blown away, in this day and age of HD graphics and next-gen console gaming, by an indie offering.
Unlike most point and click adventure games, Machinarium features zero dialogue. This does not mean that there is no story present though, far from it actually. Rather, it means that this game is a strictly visual experience (with a healthy dose of fantastic music and sound). You can see what the various robots in the world are thinking via animations that display in thought bubbles above their heads, but no words will ever be spoken.
The story begins with our protagonist, a little robot with a big heart, who is literally dumped in several different pieces outside the city where he lives. Taking control, the player must put themselves back together before journeying home to save their lady robot friend (and defeating the bad guys, who have planted a bomb!) The story is very simple but ultimately very satisfying. Actual exposition is minimal though.
Therefore, the game instead relies on charm, artistry and puzzles to keep the player’s attention. And boy, do the puzzles in this game deliver! Some of the puzzles in this game are bordering on genius, although I sadly had to resort to a walkthrough several times for the more difficult ones.
This is due to the nature of the puzzles themselves. My favourite were inventory based, and situational. There are actual puzzles though. What do I mean? Well, by that I mean there are slider puzzles, space-invaders style shoot-outs, and many fiendish locking mechanisms to wade through. And they are rock solid.
The game does feature a really great help system though, which somewhat alleviates the difficulty. Clicking the light blub icon at the top of the game window will show a thought bubble with a clue. You can even access a fully drawn step-by-step walkthrough of the current level if you defeat an arcade shooter game that protects the hint book icon, although you have to beat this game every single time you wish to cheat. (Fair enough!)
It is odd, because my initial impression of the difficulty was that it felt slightly unfair. Looking back however, I don’t really think this was the case. Sure, in other games puzzles that require swapping dozens of wires/ sliding tiles/ changing fuses, I would cry “LAZY PUZZLE DESIGN!” and be done with it. Yet here, in the world of Machinarium… it all just felt so organic and natural. Sure, this is a hard game, but the design is second to none in my eyes. I loved how the game gave a great sense of place, with the city connecting different locations realistically and inventively.
As I played more and more, I often found myself quite happy just to wander around, listening to the beautiful soundtrack and looking at the stunning artwork. Once you adjust to Machinarium’s unique pace and logic, you can easily lose hours as you try to progress further. I also loved how the amount of screen space taken up varied between different locations, as can be seen in the various screenshots throughout this review.
I don’t want to give much more away, as the game is quite light on story anyway. Regardless, I feel that there is narrative to be found here if you look for it, and events near the end of the Machinarium do a great job of explaining how the beginning came to be (even if the ending itself is a little sudden and pat.)
Some small interface problems hurt the game slightly: you have to walk right next to an object before you can use it, or even become aware that you can use it. This makes progression slightly slow at first, although I soon got used to it. Also, the lack of voices does work wonderfully, although it can sometimes make the question of what you are actually supposed to be doing next slightly murky.
Right clicking also reveals the usual Flash settings menu seen in web-based games. It is a shame this couldn’t have been disabled, as otherwise the game looks every bit as professional as any other 2D adventure game (if not more so) and also has the benefit of being super-compatible with regards to system requirements.
Still, these are small problems that do little to overshadow what is ultimately a unique, original adventure that had won me over wholeheartedly by the time its conclusion arrived. With a slightly more forgiving difficulty and some more substantial story elements injected, this could have been the indie adventure game of the year. As it stands, it is still in my top 10, and I urge any adventure fan to try it as soon as humanly (or robotically) possible!
8 OUT OF 10
UPDATE: You can also read our interview with Machinarium creator (and Amanita Design founder) Jakub Dvorsky here!