Reviewed by Mr. Bill and Lela
If anyone had ever told us that we would actually like any game that contained several required arcade sequences, we wouldn't have believed them. But then along came Machinarium (as in sanitarium?) and from the opening scene we were utterly enchanted and completely hooked. For it is a great little game in so many ways, a one-of-a-kind original that will make you smile while it strengthens your intellect... even if you do grumble and complain about it (as we did) every step of the way.
It is a charming little story about robots. In fact, all of the characters in the game are various kinds of robots, and it takes place in a huge old metallic city that is both filled with, and operated by, antiquated, and often rusting, robotic machinery. It's all quite fascinating, and in a strange kind of way it reminds you a lot of the ancient machinery in the old MYST games ( I kept calling it "Riven for Robots").
And the robots themselves are wonderful. As the game begins, we watch as our adorable little nameless hero is brought out of the city with the rest of the trash, and then unceremoniously dropped, in pieces, onto the scrap heap of the city dump. So of course the very first thing that you have to do is to find his missing torso, arm, and leg (after bargaining with a robotic rat) to put him back together again. But the minute that you do, without so much as a 'thank you', he makes a beeline right back to the city!
We soon discover why. The love of his life is a prisoner there, and she is in mortal(?) danger because some bad guys have disconnected the Brain who normally runs the city, and have planted a time bomb set to blow the place up so that they can take over. He must stop them.
This is a beautifully designed and smoothly running animated 3rd person game, with a very simple and easy to use point-and-click interface. At the very beginning of the game (which serves as a tutorial) we learn that our little guy can only pick up and/or use things when they are within his reach. So although he can be stretched up a little taller, or scrunched down to squat, it nevertheless effectively limits the size of the area that you can investigate at any one time. And just to make sure that you don't miss a thing, the cursor changes from an arrow to a very obvious hand whenever he is able to use something.
The small inventory is conveniently located in a hidden bar at the top of the screen, and the main menu is in the one that is stretched across the bottom. The game automatically saves for you, but in addition there are 6 manual save slots that can be overwritten if desired. That is more than enough, because there is only one place where you can die, and if you do, the game immediately restores you back to the same place so that you can try again.
There are no subtitles because there are no voices. The robots all communicate with each other telepathically, in simple animated pictures, not words. They also think, and even daydream, the same way, and we see their thoughts (often charming and funny) in a bubble above their head.
The humor is warm, laid back, and low key, appearing only periodically and in unexpected places, like in the trophy room, or while you are working with a moody exhaust fan. And some of the characters are truly unforgettable. We loved the NFL-sized Linebacker type who kept crying because his little bitty baby doll was unable to walk. And that big bird that sat up on the wire and imitated our every move had us both in stitches.
The entire game is quite literally a work of art. The city of Machinarium itself is a unique, imaginative and highly detailed world that has been hand drawn and painted, with obvious talent, in the subdued colors used by many of the old masters. Plus steam rises, birds fly, water runs, neon lights flicker, etc, in all the appropriate places. And unlike what we've grown accustomed to seeing in many games, even the hero doesn't look stiff or static. Indeed, this little male machine displays more endearing characteristics than many humans do... he dances whenever he hears music, he daydreams about his girlfriend if he's left just standing around, and he will turn and glare at you impatiently when you almost drop him into a fiery furnace. Now add the great background music by Tomas Dvorak (which can be, and should be, downloaded separately to enjoy), and every last detail is complete.
But as appealing as this game is in so many ways, what it is really all about is solving puzzles. You can't go anywhere or do anything without completing one or more of them, and we have to tell you, folks, that some of these puzzles are HARD! Oh they start off easy enough, with familiar inventory-based puzzles, and of course everyone you meet needs you to get something for them. And there is usually one example each of all the other classic puzzles that adventure gamers have been solving for years (although here they often have some unexpected twist in them to throw you off... like the missing tile piece in this game's only true tile slider puzzle).
But don't get complacent, because the puzzles get progressively harder and more complicated as you go along. This is a 'brain game', guys, like the ones they're promoting now to help ward off Alzheimer's, and a few of the later puzzles look like they'd be right at home on the Mensa test. They often involve multiple steps and/or reprogramming something to make it work, and solving them requires keen observation, pattern recognition, logic, and a healthy dose of plain old dumb luck.
So don't beat yourself up if you can't solve them right away without help. Fortunately for us, the developers apparently knew this would happen and so designed the game accordingly. You're allowed to take your time on the puzzles, to study them and try things out, repeating as often as necessary. They often left hints on or near the puzzles. And if all else fails, they have included explicit help.
There are 2 icons in the upper right hand corner of the screen. Clicking on the light bulb will give you one pictorial idea (or hint) per level. The book icon contains a complete pictorial walkthrough. However it is given to you only one page at a time, the one for the current problem, but it does show you everything that you need to do there, including directional arrows for the movement of pieces. So we took a picture of certain pages and printed them out for reference.
We can hardly believe now that we almost didn't play this game because of the 3 or 4 arcade sequences that we had heard it contained. Actually they were all pretty easy, and almost a welcome break from all the thinking that you have to do on the other puzzles. All of them are the old-fashioned kind that little kids play, and all but one was like 'Space Invaders', where you just keep blasting away at something till they're all gone. Even the one that looks like a maze is not really a maze, because it doesn't matter which way you go in it. You just pick up your gun nearby and then run around blasting little red dots until they're all gone, and you win the game. (They're supposed to represent a 'virus' that was given to the Brain by the bad guys). And if you start running out of lives while you're doing that, it's very easy to get more by simply going over to the readily available little blue dots instead.
So as you can tell, we thoroughly enjoyed this game. In a sea of look-alikes, it is a memorable, challenging, and outstanding original... and we can highly recommend it.
By the way, be sure to watch the credits closely. Does this mean that there's going to be a sequel? We certainly hope so.
© November 2009 Mr. Bill and Lela
Developed (2009) and published by Amanita Design.
Rated: E for Everyone
Minimum System Requirements:
PC: Pentium 4 1.8 GHz or Athlon XP 1800+ Processor; Windows XP / Vista; 0.5 GB RAM; Geforce 6500 or Radeon HD 3400 Series Graphics Card; DirectX Compatible Sound Card; 0.2 GB of Free Hard Drive Space; DirectX 9.0; Mouse
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Walkthroughs or Hints: