Machinarium - PC
Ryan Kuo, Crispy Gamer
Machinarium Video Game Review
What's Hot: Exquisite art and music; Sensible puzzles; Kind robots.
What's Not: Flash interface can be clunky.
Crispy Gamer Says: Buy
After suffering imprisonment in the depths of the mechanical city, after fumbling around in its sewers and scaling its vertiginous heights, doing a few good deeds for its needier denizens while sticking it to their black-hatted oppressors, the robot protagonist of "Machinarium" finds himself in an arcade.
Like most useful things in the game, the arcade machines lie dormant until your robot finds a way to get them going. In this case, a stationary bike will crank energy into the machines, and the game asks you to spin your mouse cursor over and over in an approximation of the act of pedaling.
The mouse cycles don't feel like gameplay. They feel like work. And in doing the work to power up one of these games, you can't help but remember the mechanical logic of the other puzzles you have solved; and all the work it took to get your robot, Josef, out of his holding cell and into this arcade; and how all the people in "Machinarium" are made of metal and drink oil from a barrel.
Then you see that the game is "Space Invaders." Not a retro clone but the real thing, with the same tentacled aliens shooting the same zigzag lasers at the same little Earth defense cannon that swings left and right. The game's unmistakable blips and bloops are the only hint in "Machinarium" that humans might once have lived here.
As you crank up and play "Space Invaders," you can't help but think of the rather central role that you've been playing in this world. You've slowly but surely led Josef out of the dumps. He's on the verge of empowerment. You begin to see how tightly the robot's imminent redemption is bound to each of your own little victories.
It's a subtle and brilliant moment of self-reflexivity in a game belonging to a genre, the point-and-click adventure, whose common failing is that it focuses so much on the story it wants to tell that it loses the player in its folds. (This is the obligatory "random objects in your inventory have to be combined at random in order to do random things" genre complaint.) Wrapped up in narrative, adventure games often forget to function as games.
"Machinarium" nearly always works -- rivaling the classic "Day of the Tentacle" in striking a delicate balance between information and intuition. The game gives you the pieces, people and places; and if you pay attention, you will eventually pick up on what to do with them.
Its story of a boy robot separated from his girlfriend and home city, its clickable characters, its object- and puzzle-based gameplay; these are all familiar trappings. What is surprising is how cleverly and acutely the genre conventions in "Machinarium" are played to a fine expressive point. The game's approximately six hours move with the deliberation and poignancy of a short film.
Despite having zero dialogue, "Machinarium" is an immensely compelling world that teems with character. Far from being a gleaming metal dystopia, the city of robots is overgrown with rust, moss and weeds. Each character you encounter seems powered by a singular desire. New discoveries are punctuated by flashbacks to Josef's recent tragic past, shown as line animations in black and white. There are strong echoes here of the writer
Here is a rare example of a literary influence making a game better. Amanita Design's previous games, the Flash adventures "Samorost" and "Samorost 2," were whimsical affairs that were slightly too straightforward to be taken as more than well-crafted Web diversions. "Machinarium," in contrast, feels like something to sink into. It's wonderfully grounded by a rigorous and persistent logic in both its presentation and its puzzles.
The more "Myst"-like of these puzzles -- the pattern-recognizing, block-moving, switch-flipping, grid-running variety -- may disappoint adventure fans who (like me) prefer exploration of the world and interaction with characters to logic games. At worst, those fans can unlock a storyboard walkthrough on each screen by playing a mini-shooter that is just tedious enough to encourage at least one appeal at brainpower over twitch reflexes. And there's a more moderate hint system that gives a general nudge in the right direction.
Still, visual conundrums outnumber the character interactions, and they can be quite difficult. But they are key to the game's underlying themes, and half the reason for its unexpected, and welcome, replayability. The best puzzles, like a pattern-drawing mechanic used to operate an elevator; a maze game in the arcade parlor; and a connect-five board played against a wily robot in a tavern, are games within the game.
The other half of "Machinarium's" replayability lies in its art, which carries along a strong tradition of Czech animation. No single action taken in the game is depicted without weight: Josef tosses each unneeded object in his inventory with a unique, site-specific flourish; he skips, trips, and falls through the city with alternating grace and clumsiness; he reunites a band of street musicians with their instruments in a series of euphoric sequences that made my spine tingle. While replaying most adventures feels like guiding a doll through well-worn motions, "Machinarium" really is a film that you happen to advance bit by bit.
It unfolds across cityscapes high and low, from the city's inner circles to its edges. On each screen, the action is flattened into the foreground, trading depth of movement for a better view of the bridge to cross, the wall to scale, the robot in distress. Meanwhile, Josef can only be made to interact with things near his body. If, for example, you want him to pull a high-up lever, you'll have to walk him up the stairs to the lever and then stretch his torso upward before he can reach it.
As the robot scurries left and right, pulls himself up and slides back down, "Machinarium" calls your attention to its own hand-drawn surface. Amanita's games excel at presenting interactive objects and characters that appear to be fully integrated into the landscape, rather than pasted onto a static backdrop. So when you tug on a plunger, or snip a cable in half, you feel physically close to the world. You can almost smell the ink.
If anything, the art can be too subtle. A couple of the objects you need are practically hidden in plain slight. But "Machinarium" achieves on its seamless surface what more expensive games must contrive through 3-D technology: full immersion.
It isn't until "Space Invaders" that you are, pointedly, jolted awake. And this would be the game's climax, if not for a late audacious sequence that equates videogames to a divine act. As the story ends, you feel fulfillment not at watching the triumph, but at having brought it to fruition. You've been a cog in "Machinarium's" network of time and space -- a thought tickling your subconscious as you pedaled bicycles, cranked levers, and operated the complex machinery of its puzzles.
This profound sense of building a narrative through effort, piece by piece, is what makes "Machinarium" one of the genre's best to date. In a generation of games defined by lifelike characters, moral choice and awesome graphics, point-and-click adventures seem a bit quaint, their scant devices insubstantial. So
This review is based on a final build provided by the developer.
Videogaming & Video Game Reviews
Video Games: Machinarium - PC
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