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A resurgence of eastern European, in particular games made out of the Czech Republic, game development occurred in late 2009. Silver Wish Games developed Axel & Pixel found cult success on the Xbox LIVE Arcade platform while Amanita Design’s own Machinarium grew into one of the most successful independent releases of the year. This Machinarium review will look back at why this game was successful and evaluate its overall thematic design philosophy.
Machinarium is primarily an adventure game that takes cues from past platform greats such as Beneath A Steel Sky or Monkey Island. It modifies many gameplay elements to suit its own themes while also showcasing some great hand drawn 2D backgrounds with an incisive musical compliment rounding out the overall aesthetic. Read on for the full Machinarium review, featuring separate analysis on each of the game’s aspects, including setting & aesthetics.
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Setting of Machinearium
Players take on the role of the robot Josef, who is thrown out of the machine city at the beginning of the game, for a case of mistaken identity later extrapolated upon. Due to this predicament, he has split from a girl robot love interest and quests to find her, after the game’s antagonists (known as the Black Cap Brotherhood) kidnapped her. This gives the game a sense of direction, with clear plot progression & good versus evil dynamics from the offset. This theme is given further emphasis through the early game, where Josef encounters the three antagonists, escaping their grasp through some solid puzzling.
This overall character is one of Machinearium’s inherent strengths. In-game, the world immerses you to a sufficient degree, with a plethora of touches you’ll find jesting or even comical. Development has clearly been put into making it seem like a plausible, habitable place due to the gameworld effectively opening up to Josef once he’s back inside the machine city. Robots are found playing tic-tac-toe, playing in street bands & looking for lost dogs across the smorgasbord of grayed out locales in the city.
It adds a depth of repercussion to your actions that is only heightened with the use of speech bubbles filled with images replacing voice acting during the narrative & extra-narrative dialogue. This also applies to the games built in walkthrough and hints system which shows diagrams as a means to explain what you have to do on any given screen. Also, playing a little 30 second side-scrolling shoot ‘em up of sorts requires you to at least complete a small task before unlocking the games secrets, instead of jumping straight into FAQ land immediately.
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Aesthetic of Machinearium
Similar to Axel & Pixel or Full Pipe, backgrounds and even characters are stunningly hand drawn with a granular depth, usually saved for AAA titles like Gears of War. To further the comparison with Epic’s meaty 3rd person shooter, Machinearium has a washed out look & feel to its machine city setting, emulating the grey locales of the bigger release. It diverges from this washed out look at certain moments and the overall hand drawn detail continues to showcase Machinearium’s inherent charm.
A fully featured soundtrack is available for download on purchase of the game digitally. Produced by Thomas Dvorak, unfortunately not the famous decathlete, it adds a layer of sumptuous & often haunting ambience to the levels of the game. From broken piano riff’s to some impromptu dub-step, the score compliments the vibrant decay of the city itself, mimicking the open areas with pronounced strings while using ambient effects to create an enclosed atmosphere when needed.
Its use of cramped spaces early on, much of the first quarter Josef is found rummaging through pipes or small rooms, to great effect. Players will feel a welcome and deliberate relief when they finally reach the open-world “move as you please area” of the city. Their are plenty of colourful characters, some stencil animated speech-bubble cutscenes and a whole plethora of animals, machines, robots & other small details that further ramp up the vibrancy of this aesthetically grey universe.
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Gameplay In Machinearium
Machinarium shares many similarities with point-and-click adventure luminaries, such as Monkey Island or Full Throttle, but it has some integral differences that carve out a unique (if still somewhat derivative) gameplay experience. The picking up items, clicking on things to interact with them, combining items and using timing to beat certain puzzles is all there.
Josef only has a clickable radius equating to his arms reach however -being the only area in which objects can be interacted with. So, instead of clicking an item at the other end of the screen and seeing Guybrush or Axel et al run over to the item and animate, Josef needs to traverse the screen and reach the item before being able to interact.
This adds a layer of depth to the traversal mechanics with many puzzles inherently preventing Josef from getting to a clearly visible item. One such example is found in the open world city, where a robotic dog is seen from across a canal, where Josef will have to find away across before he can interact with the dog carrying an item. Machinearium further complicates & rewards players for finding these puzzles out instead of allowing them the ease of clicking the screen once like in other adventure games of the past.
There is only a smattering of change in the gameplay throughout the four-to-five hour affair which does a good job of introducing new puzzles (think water pipe minigame) or obstacles (think sleeping Black Cap member) at a steady pace. A gripe can be found once the overworld is in full swing however, as players will find themselves with several items and a lack of impetus, insofar as where to go next.
This can be solved in-game however, with the hints & walkthrough system allowing less skilled players a chance to play through the game, without putting in the mental effort. It’s a neat touch for those on a 2nd or 3rd play through also, as it negates the idea of pressing ALT+TAB to look at an internet FAQ, when it can be done in-game.
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Machinarium Review: Overall Opinion
A game that uses some artistic flair in its presentation, with a bounding soundtrack and hand painted vistas, coupled with tight gameplay that perhaps betters the genre defining luminaries -Machinearium is a great independent title and should be revered as a gatekeeper to the adventure genre for a few years to come.
The restraints on budget ensured this game remained more focused on dynamical meaning and interpretation through visual action instead of poorly written dialogue voiced by Nolan North or the thousands of game cliche’s we often see in bigger releases. The inherent character and sense of contextual depth makes for one of the standout games of the last couple of years -let alone 2009. Machinearium is a game worth playing, no matter what type of gamer you are, because it showcases why this industry has the potential to be something remarkable.