Family Adventure
First Impressions: Machinarium

First Impressions: Machinarium

If you’ve not played the Samorost games, you’re probably a bad person.

Or, perhaps, just not on the same level of cute-web-games geekery as yours truly. The second option’s probably more likely, and probably for the best. But it also means that, well, you haven’t played the Samorost games. And you should almost certainly go and put that right before anything else happens in your life.

They’re exquisite point-and-click adventures, crafted by the fabulous Amanita Design. Outside of their landmark series, they’ve created games for the BBC and The Polyphonic Spree. There’s an air of childlike wonder to their work, bouncing off a playful mechanism of looking, touching and experimenting, rather than the regimented non-logic that holds back so much of the genre. It’s tactile, and it’s all about learning through doing. Amanita’s next game, Machinarium, is set for release later this year, and looks to extend that model.

This time, it’s far more overtly story-driven than previous output. Set in the eponymous city of Machinarium, the game follows the plight of a young, scruffy robot called Josef, dismissed from society and literally chucked away with the rubbish. Sneaking back into the city, you learn of a terrible plot to blow the entire place up – and, naturally, it’s up to you to prevent that from happening.

The game begins as you try to piece poor Josef back together.

What’s perhaps most interesting about this story is the way it’s presented. Machinarium features precisely no dialogue, and instead relies on its overwhelmingly beautiful visual themes to do the explaining. It’s all aided by the robot population’s ability to transmit ideas pictorially through thought-bubbles above their heads, and contributes to one of the most stunning aesthetics we’ve yet seen in an adventure game. Everything is marvellously cohesive, a real masterstroke of ‘silent’ narrative and visual storytelling. The most impressive bit? It’s all hand-drawn.

Previous Amanita offerings have been too, but this is on a different level: every inch of the game world is stunningly realised, from the overall ambience right down to the finest of details. The animations in particular are stunning, with an astonishing attention to nuance of character. It’s also a significantly longer game than Amanita’s previous titles, making this work an obscenely mammoth task. You’d have been hard pressed to spend much more than an hour exploring either of the Samorost games. Machinarium is set to last seven.

Predictably, it also sounds remarkable, with audio design and music by the exemplary Tomas Dvorak. It’s a sound that’s at once eerie and oddly optimistic; ethereal and ghostly, but with a constant sense of the noise of being in a real place. It’s all in place to cement a tangible mood, one that sits perfectly balanced between a foreboding sense of alien doom and the subtle, charming comedy of these little robots and the situations in which they find themselves.

Don’t let its flash-based nature put you off – Machinarium is beautiful.

There’s a chance it’ll be divisive. Machinarium’s puzzles don’t function in the same way as those in most adventure games, relying on the patient experimentation of the player more than careful, logical thinking. Indeed, at this stage, a few of them are somewhat unnecessarily obtuse, though Amanita assure us that additional hints are being worked on to incorporate into the final build. Still, it’s definitely a progression back towards the centre from Amanita, and while the tasks in Machinarium remain playful and experimental, they’re more directed, more guided, and more overtly logical. There’s even an inventory system – a first for an Amanita game – which means it’s less about pixel-hotspot-hunting, and more about thinking carefully about what might be required to progress from each area. Time will tell whether they’ve nailed the balance, but initial signs look good, no matter which side of the puzzle opinion spectrum you reside on.

And though its distinctive style is undoubtedly beautiful, the scratchy otherworldliness could alienate those used only to modern hi-tech wizardry. Macninarium looks wonderful, make no mistake about it, but it’s a wonder that’s not born out of an almighty, powerful engine. Indeed, it’s literally all about the design of the world and the hand-rendered realisation of it. The game’s built entirely in Flash.

So for those who don’t quite dig the aesthetic, there could be problems. For those not keen on its puzzle mechanics, or those who may be put off by its low-tech roots, it could be off-putting. But for those of us who don’t have a problem with that? It’s early days, but it could be one of the genre’s most brilliant strokes in years.

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