It’s been awhile. So long in fact, I cannot remember the last time I’ve played a point and click adventure. In between shooting aliens in the face, stopping the dastardly deeds of nefarious villains, and collecting all of the loot, I’ve neglected the genre. Thankfully I decided to take a short trip to Machinarium and quite enjoyed my stay.
What drew me to this game originally was it’s stunning and unique art style. It truly feels like playing hand drawn concept art. Rest assured the quality the art style stays consistent throughout the duration of the game. Once the initial awe of the art design subsides, you notice that the world of Machinarium is polluted and, except for the city in the distance, absolutely barren. This invokes a dreary and sublime feeling that lingers throughout your journey. It’s outside the city in this bleak landscape, in the most magical of places… the dump, that we first meet our mechanical protagonist Josef. This where the adventure starts and in order to begin, you need to literally help Josef pull himself together before heading into the world of Machinarium to rescue his girlfriend.
The second most fascinating aspect of Machinarium, just behind the aesthetics, is the complete lack of dialogue in the game. In the middle of my playthrough, it dawned on me that not once have I seen text or have heard exchanges of dialogue. The entire game (barring the tutorial) has absolutely no words written or spoken. The good news is that this method works even with a cliché plot. The game can accomplish effective communication between characters and give them a sense of personality through vocal noises such as laughter, grunts, and even utter gibberish. I’m impressed that the game can make you care about what happens to Josef and his girlfriend without the use of dialogue. Another aspect of this is the storytelling and background information conveyed via dialogue-less though bubbles of Josef, which are basically cutscenes without actually being cutscenes.
The story’s main villains are three robots distinguished by their “Black Caps” that are little more than thugs and bullies. It felt as if they were included in the game just to be an obstacle for Josef to overcome and to adhere to the; there is a hero so there has to be a villain philosophy. Why they are doing evil deeds and what their goal is, is never explained. It could be taken however that they are doing bad things just to watch the world burn, however I felt it was the former scenario rather than the latter.
Machinarium doesn’t hold your hand and progressing through the game can be rewarding but frustrating at times. The first thing I had to understand is how to identify interactive objects and use them in creative ways. This becomes slightly easier after you make your way into the city and learn the necessity of identifying the small details in your surroundings. Unlike some games that highlight key interactive points or objects Machinarium does the opposite and hides them. They can blend incredibly well in the environment, so much so that the area/level becomes a puzzle in and of itself. There were times when I would just stare at my screen wondering what I could actually use in order to progress. I mention this because you can’t find objects of interest simply by clicking on anything and everything. The cursor will only change to a mouse when Josef is within range to interact with the object. Preventing errant clicking forces the player to actually think about what is and isn’t of interest.
Since Machinarium is a point and click game you won’t be doing any complex movements. You can move around the environment by pointing and clicking with the cursor. Josef also has the ability to make himself taller or shorter depending on your needs. This can be accomplished by clicking on Josef high or low, or using the D-pad on the PS3/PSV controller. Josef can scurry across the screen fairly quickly however a problem arises when you are tall/short and attempt to move across the screen. While either tall or short his movements slow to a crawl. This is important to note because while moving you cannot redirect Josef at all, nor can you return him to his normal size. You must wait for him to get to the previous clicked location. This became annoying at times when I realized I went in the wrong direction or had a different idea on how to use an item. Waiting for tall Josef to walk across the screen got agonized towards the end of the game after accidentally doing it so many times. Items can be found throughout the world and are collected and stored in a black drop down bar at the top of your screen. These items are used to accomplish various tasks and often need to be combined with other items for you to use them. All the items you come across serve a purpose so there are no random items without uses.
There are two resources for getting stuck. One consists of a hint (one in each level) located in the black drop bar at the top of the screen. It’s indicated by a light-bulb in a thought bubble. The more intriguing one is the “walkthrough book” also located in the black drop down bar. This shows the entire walkthrough for the current level step by step in great detail. The tutorial says to “use it only when you are really stuck” and is also something I recommend doing… although I did have had to use it more than once during my playthrough.
You need to complete a mini-game before using the walkthrough book. It consists of a key that travels from left to right across the screen… that shoots bullets to kill spiders. You must traverse the area without running into the walls or getting hit by the spiders as doing so will send you back to the beginning. Fret not however as the mini-game is incredibly easy to complete and has largely the same exact level layout regardless of where you are at in the main game. To put it simply however, the mini-game is not fun and is extremely repetitive. Repetitive to the point where I avoided using the book just so I didn’t have to play the mini-game again. In hindsight however, that may have been the exact reason Amanita Design chose this mini-game. That and to make sure every player is able to use the walkthrough book when in dire need. I do think they would have been better off substituting the mini-game with a puzzle instead. The rules and how to play the puzzle could have been consistent but the content of the puzzle changes every time you solve it. It was also to my disappointing to realize that the walkthrough book can only remain open for one level at a time meaning you need to play the mini-game again for a level you have already used it on i.e. if you use it in level “A” and then in level “B” you don’t have access to the book in “A” anymore without doing the mini-game again.
The puzzles are really varied. I never had a “been there done that” moment when doing all of the different puzzles. While being varied in their objective the puzzles were also varied in their difficulty. You’ll complete some puzzles and tasks with sheer dumb luck; others will frustrate you to no end, while others will make you wonder why you didn’t apply to Harvard. Some of this frustration can be attained to the vagueness regarding how to play some of the puzzles, what to use items for, or even what some of the items actually are. Solving these dilemmas without the use of the hint or walkthrough book requires quite a bit of ingenuity. Thankfully not all puzzles are vague and abstract providing a nice balance to the game.
I’m going to mention some puzzles in particular; however there will not be any spoilers present. Some examples of frustrating puzzles/tasks in Machinarium are; getting a particular item from the bird, getting past the fan-machine-person-thing (you’ll know what I’m talking about), finding the last red key, and the music puzzle at the end. These are absolutely frustrating to solve and it took me quite a while to figure them out. Promptly upon my success I felt as though I should have realized the solution a lot sooner but at the same time I also realized why I had such a hard time and that my stupidity was in fact warranted.
However, the most stressful part of Machinarium had to be the “connect 5” mini-game. This transcendent being of an NPC beat me again and again and again to the point where I questioned my own intelligence. Once I accomplished the seemingly impossible task, I made the decision to challenge him again. This was done out of sheer spite while riding on my high horse with visions of a second victory dancing in my head. Don’t do it, trust me. Win and walk away, you’ll thank me later.
I also want to briefly mention the brilliant soundtrack that corresponds perfectly with the game adding to the feel and sublimity of Machinarium. Tracks such as the Clockwise Operetta and Mr. Handagote stood out personal favorites. Listening to the robot band jam away was a special treat in and of itself. Also, I never thought I would ever admit to enjoying the sound of elevator music.
The main downsides to Machinarium include its length and lack of replayability. There are no alternate endings, different paths, or missable puzzles. After beating the game it’s largely pointless to give the game another go immediately or even within a few months of playing it. Unless you have terrible short term memory and can easily forget the puzzle solutions and where/how to use the items you aren’t likely to play it again anytime soon. The only reason I could have justified playing through the game so soon after beating it is to experience its beautiful aesthetics. Sadly, Machinarium was on the shorter side as well. However the length of the game is largely due to how fast you can solve puzzles. It took me between 4-5 hours to complete the game but I can see it being done under 4 hours or even closer to 6.
Machinarium is a fun and challenging point and click adventure. It’s a well polished game without glitches. The animation from start to finish is unique and beautiful. The city gives off a sublime feeling while at the same time it has a dreariness due to its hazy polluted skies. The soundtrack is fantastic and sounds as unique as the game looks. There are a some gripes regarding Josef’s movements but the gameplay mechanics largely get the job done. The dialogue-less narrative was entertaining considering the cliché damsel in distress scenario. Josef was easy to root for and the thought bubbles were a unique way to get back story across to the player. The Black Caps however were a bit of a mystery and as a whole, fell a little flat. The game can have difficulty spikes regarding vagueness of what an item actually is or what the rules of the puzzle even are. Most of the puzzles though were challenging and fun while being incredibly varied. The hints and walkthrough book are welcome but the mini-game is mundane and repetitive. Machinarium is also on the shorter side and lacks incentives to replay the game again within a short period of time. All in all I highly recommend taking a trip to Machinarium, just remember to support the developers Amanita Design buy actually buying the game here: http://machinarium.net/. It’s currently available on PC, Ipad, Andoid, and the Playstation Network.