When we hear the mention of "Adventure Games" most of us will daydream back to a better time. A time filled with islands full of monkeys, a time of tentacled days, a time where kings and police quested, sometimes in space. We'd slap on our leisure suit and hit the road, maniacs driving full throttle. But as the year 2000 passed our genre became grim, veiled in myst, the longest journey ahead. As adventure games died out we faced Hell (on Wheels), but there would come a time again. A time where new developers would set our beloved adventure genre FREE(lance Police).
Whoops! See, I went and got all nostalgic again. Adventure game fans will understand my feelings, though. We've come through a drought these past nine years, and though the genre has found some of its best games intermittently since 2000, it's only now that releases are gradually becoming more frequent. New iterations of Monkey island and Sam & Max have rekindled many gamers' passion for adventure games. Unfortunately, though, original intellectual properties are still few and far between.
Enter Machinarium, an independently developed adventure game starring a small silver robot stuck in a crumbling mechanical slum. The painstakingly detailed environments and endearing characters and story should be enough to persuade any gamer to purchase this game. If those words alone aren't impelling, read on for my full review and why Machinarium is important to all adventure game fans as well as to the genre.
The first area in Machinarium is symbolic of the entire game, and more which I'll reflect on later. A flying robotic garbage machine dumps a load of scrap metal into what can only be a graveyard of machinery and robotic compatriots. You've been thrown away. Of course, the reason why is several puzzles away, but, despite the lack of initiative, you put yourself together. You give a small robotic rodent a lost stuffed animal in return for your leg, then you fish your missing arm out of a pool of water with a magnet and some string. Thus begins your journey through the world of Machinarium; putting broken pieces back together again.
What will first amaze you is the beauty of the world, despite the wear and tear that shows on everything. Items in the foreground are appropriately blurred despite their obvious detail, and background are often covered in haze or fog, hinting at unexplored areas within the city. The perfect example is what must be the town center. A rusted fountain sits in the middle of a circle of broken tile. The greater circle is lined with lightbulbs, some broken, and should you touch the ones that are still whole they might break as well. Here, you'll spend time helping a broken robot in a wheelchair fix his ailing leg, though after you heal him he'll return to his wheelchair.
And therein lies the secondary beauty of Machinarium: the mood and atmosphere. The game is thick with despondency. It's only as you travel through the town that hope and light begins to fill some of the darker areas. You'll give batteries to a guard whose small friend has run out of energy; you'll fix broken musical instruments; you'll return a radio to a forlorn robot; and, perhaps most vividly, you'll travel to an arcade where none of the machines work and one is broken completely. Nearby is a bicycle machine which you'll have to use to repower the arcade cabinets. After you're done though, the arcade will return to a powerless state.
And this entire mood is reflected through the musical score. Most of the music is extremely haunting, but also serene. Crickets in the background will mix with the raspy tones of a needle scratching an old album. It's all very pure. While some faster, more jovial songs will leave both yourself and your little robot dancing, the majority of the soundtrack is very morose.
It's only your small silver robot that contradicts the dejection you'll feel. During his idle moments, he'll dream of what can only be his girlfriend robot. Each small dream will leave you with a smile. The sketchy black and white thought bubbles that are used as communication in Machinarium will show your robot's words and thoughts, ultimately creating a level empathy with the characters. Early on, you'll run into enemy robots in the city, and you'll be angry at how they treat you and the other town folk. Despite that, though, the little robot never seems to aim for revenge. Instead he pursues a greater resolution, an ending that will surprise you but is yet completely fitting and natural. I'd love to hear what other players have thought of the way Machinarium ended.
The controls are extremely simple and intuitive: click to move, click to pick up an item, drag an item to where you want to use it, there you go. The only spin is the ability of your robot to stretch to be taller or shorter, which can occasionally trick you into ignoring an important item that would normally be out of your reach. In practice, it's much nicer not having all of the items at ground level. Each level ends up feeling more full as a result, though it also requires you to be more aware.
In regards to item finding and where each item belongs, the game does a wonderful job of giving in-game hints. There's a hint bubble for each stage that will more often than not guide you in the correct direction. I'd recommend avoiding the hint bubble until you've no other recourse though, as they often spoil the solution. Beyond that there's a walkthrough book that will give you a detailed account of every step required for the area. The book asks you to play an annoying little game before it grants you access to the walkthrough, but it seems appropriate for giving away the game's secrets.
Beyond the standard of finding an item, then taking it where it will be used, Machinarium adds in some truly challenging puzzles. Nothing that should make you pull your hair out, but I found myself with a pad of paper and a pencil, attempting to organize my thoughts more appropriately, quite a few times. There's a particularly annoying board game where you have to get five stones in a row that will frustrate you initially. Damn robots are built for those kinds of fucking games!
What I've really wanted to touch on, though, is Machinarium's importance to the adventure genre. Being an adventure game nerd makes this little segue unintentionally snooty, but I think it's appropriate. I mentioned how the initial area of Machinarium is symbollic in more ways than one. Beyond that game, I think that scene represents Machinarium's role in the bigger gaming picture. A small robot in a graveyard of other robots, piecing himself together in pursuit of something important, something more. It's no stretch to say that most independent games, as well as most new IP adventure games, wind up in a junkyard. Machinarium itself seems to have been released with one foot in the grave, working with a scant $1000 marketing budget.
This game is different, though. Beneath its independent exterior and small budget, there's some high level productions values that went into this game. Not only is it worth the asking price, it's worth more on potential. Potential for these new developers, and potential for a budding new adventure game generation. While Monkey Island and Sam & Max are great games, I hold no faith in the executives behind the projects. They will not try and further the genre through their own games, let alone fund new adventure game IPs. Machinarium is deserving of your support on multiple levels.
Let me reign this in a little bit. I'm making a pitch to support this game on more than what the game is, but let me be clear. This is a great game. It's beautiful beyond what a 2D adventure game that was made in Flash should be. It's challenging, but not to the point of being exclusionary. And you'll have fun the entire way through it. Best of all, when you're done, you'll remember the game. And hopefully, 10 years from now you'll think back and smile.