Content of the article: "Machinarium – A charming slice of puzzle adventure gaming let down by a handful of atrocious design choices"
Machinarium's been in my library for years – this week I played through it.
It's a puzzle adventure game in the classic Monkey Island vein, by Amanita games (of Samorost fame). As with that series it's beautiful, has fantastic music, is charmingly off the wall in its animation and design, and features no text at all – only visual clues.
The puzzles are good, the challenge level is set at the right level, and there's a good built in hints system if you're really struggling, so no need to leave the game and ruin the fun with some unwarranted internet searches.
Sadly, a small handful of design choices nearly ruined this for me, and they are nearly all quality of life features that I imagine could be implemented in a day (I made that up – I'm not a coder).
The poor elements are:
Daft controls – you control your robots height (low, normal or super tall) and this affects certain things you can reach. This is clumsily overlayed with the same cursor control as walking and interacting. Cue much changing height when unintended and not being able to walk where you want to. And especially doing the wrong action when trying to interact. This would be fine if not for…
Terrible interaction highlighting – I'm all for objects not glowing to alert the player to their usefulness; at least in an adventure game where observation is key. But which genius decided that the interaction icon would only appear when you are in range of an object? Absolutely clownish. This is an adventure game. If I see something on the other side of the screen and click on it, I expect the character to take care of the movement necessary to get me there. This worked in games in 1992 so why they would remove this feature baffles me. This results in lots of trying to click on things and giving up, only to realise you had to be stood in the exact correct position to make it interactable. That's not a puzzle – that's some BS. Several times I looked at the hint solutions in frustration only to find out that I already had the correct approach and the games daft controls and icon interaction setup prevented me from doing it. This breaks one of the core principles of good puzzle game design – the puzzle is the challenge; once you've spotted the correct method, it should be effortless to execute. I was robbed of several Eureka moments. This could be forgiven if only they had included…
Proper movement – monkey Island 3 had fast travel 20 years ago. That means if you can see an exit to a screen, you can double click and just leave. I really, really don't need to spend 1/3 of all playtime watching the guy slowly walk everywhere – save that for puzzle specific animations and story moments absolutely, but DON'T make the process of moving five screens over to get where I need to be take a minute instead of 10 seconds. Frustrating as hell, especially when you don't know where to go next and need to poke around a bit. I would go even further than this and say gamers should have the option to teleport to anywhere on the screen with a double click. This feature could always be disabled in the case of eg time based puzzles (there are a couple) but the amount of tedious walking I've watched is off the charts. Some people will say it's part of the lazy ambience and relaxing atmosphere. I say you get enough of that while stood still trying to solve a puzzle (and you'll be scratching your head over several for a while). I play adventure games for the puzzles, not the walking animations.
Several of these issues seem to stem from the control screen being simplified to work with a gamepad and one button for consoles. There was no need to punish PC players with this setup (you can't map any controls) and I feel the developers got too deep into a circle jerk about simplicity of design that has impaired enjoyment of the final product.
Work through all of this you and you get a smattering of puzzles that fill the screen (link the wires, beat someone at five in a row, etc). In these cases you can use the right mouse button to zoom in (something you can do anytime). When moving normally, the camera moves with the cursor – this is great as it feels more organic and helps focus the view on where you are looking. But when doing a fixed screen puzzle, it makes sense to want it to fill the screen so you can focus on only that. So what do you do – zoom in. And what happens – the cam remains locked to the cursor, so the whole puzzle goes flying around the screen with every movement, making the zoom function unusable for the one scenario where it would have been truly useful.
This game has geat reviews. All the artistic positives are true – the music is stellar, the art, animation and humour are an absolute joy. The part that is somehow glossed over is the gameplay. The adventure game was perfected during the Sierra era of the 90s – how this game can not only not meet some of the design standards of that era but in some areas fall so short of them, is baffling. In an era where time is precious and quality of life is key to so many players, it devastated me that a game that I enjoyed every other aspect of was damaged so heavily by a tiny handful of design flaws, all of which are so obvious they smack you upside the head repeatedly every screen, and all of which I'm sure could have been remedied so easily.
I may give this developer another chance in future (they've had several games since) but not if these same fundamental flaws remain.
As an adventure game fan, I have to say overall I recommend it, but my recommendation comes soused in salty sulky sauce.
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