October 17, 2009 11:58 AM | Michael Rose
The setting: a world full of robots - some wise, some musical, some addicted to oil. Our hero: The underdog, kicked out of his home town by bullies, his girlfriend kidnapped. The plan: Save the town, rescue the girlfriend, have fun doing so.
Machinarium is an adventure puzzle outing which, as I'm sure you're very much aware, is insanely beautiful. There's also plenty of humour abound, clever puzzles to decipher and situations to solve. This is a world you're going to want to visit.
Everything about the animation and the atmosphere is just astounding. It hits you when you first start playing and by the end, that feeling of awe still won't have left. That an indie team can create something so gorgeous, something that can easily rival so many of the AAA releases of recent times is such a credit to them. Amanita Design have clearly pumped their artistic heart and soul into this wonderful little world of metal.
Initially I was worried that the beauty would only be able to carry the gameplay so far. During the first hour of play, I encountered a number of bugs - a couple of which meant I had to quit and restart the game to continue. Items disappearing, buttons not working - for a moment it did take the edge off of how polished the whole package felt.
The controls, too, felt rather fiddly to begin with. Our robotic friend can only interact with items which he is standing next to, so finding objects which I could touch was a case of shuffling slowly along until the mouse pointer became a hand. You could argue that it forces the player to explore a little more, but it just feels like a strange design choice to me.
Animations are, for the most part, unskippable. If I tell the robot to walk across to the other side of the screen, then change my mind, I have to wait until he has completed his trip before he will listen to my orders. This is normally not a big deal - however, if I've previously stretched or squashed him (by grabbing his body and pulling up or down), he will walk considerably slower, meaning it can take a good 20 seconds for this animation to end.
Bear with me, I only have one more gripe, I promise. Some of the puzzles are a little too trial and error for my liking. There will be certain situations where you need to set up an array of different objects in the correct positions before hitting go, then you'll have a few seconds in which to act on any movement. If you mess up, you may have to set it all up again and try once more, remembering what happened last time. While these puzzles do give a great sense of satisfaction on completion, I still found a couple a little tedious.
All these issues, however, were soon lost in a sea of excellent, challenging puzzles, wonderful animation and clever humour. There is no dialogue throughout the game - instead, robots make a variety of grunting, whistle and animal noises at each other to get their points across. Think WALL·E and you've got the right idea. However, for those instances when chirps simply cannot do the conversation justice, thought bubbles will appear, conveying exactly what is it the robot is trying to say.
These thought animations are used to tell the main story which turns out to be incredibly charming and witty. It's hard to believe that a game can cause you to build up hate for characters who don't even have voices and are made of metal. Finally giving them their just desserts is incredibly satisfying.
There are a series of smaller puzzles in each area which are usually combined to give passage to the next part of town, but every now and again you'll encounter a larger conundrum, the majority of which are popular/famous games taken from the past and given the metallic treatment - some proving very difficult to beat. Take the '5 in a row' game, for example. I eventually found myself booting my web browser up and searching for tactics for winning '5 in a row'. That could just be me being dense, of course.
No matter which puzzle you navigate, however, the game will always give you a great feeling of progression and reward. Finally solving one of the trickier parts which may or may not have rendered you completely stuck for a while results in elation rather than relief. Every puzzle is completely logical, too, so every time I found myself not sure what to do next, having a good think about the situation usually brought the answer to the surface.
I'm coming to the end of this analysis, yet I've still not mentioned my favourite aspect of it all. For me, it was all the tiny intricate details that made this glorious world of moving metal such a joy to behold. Amanita Design have gone to great lengths to make sure all those 'little things' are just as important as everything else. When it comes time for our hero to discard an item, it doesn't simply disappear from his inventory - there will be some lovely interaction in which he loses it. Animations are not simply recycled throughout the game - every time he reaches out to grab something, he'll do it in a different way to every other time. Our robot doesn't walk down every set of stairs - sometimes he slides down the rail. All this gives him so much more character and creates such a loveable adventurer for us to follow.
With around 6 hours of fantastic play (bar the first hour) and some of the most staggeringly beautiful visuals and animations we've seen from an indie game in a good long while, Machinarium is most definitely worth your time, especially if you enjoyed Amanita's past work (see: The Samorost games). Grab a copy from Steam, Impulse, Direct2Drive, Gamersgate or from the official Machinarium website. There's also a demo (both downloadable and playable in a browser) available.
[Tim has also written a brilliantly detailed walkthrough for the whole adventure which can be found here. Just remember, try to only use it as a last resort - it's far more rewarding to work things out for yourself.]