There's just something endearing about cute little robots, isn't there? From WALL-E to R2-D2 to the nameless hero of Machinarium, the ability to emote only in bleeps and bloops and mute metallic gestures makes them eminently sympathetic characters. Less human, but often more humane, without all the negative traits of mankind grating on our nerves. They also tend to have unique abilities, which makes them intriguing game protagonists. In our ongoing quest for puzzles outside traditional adventure boundaries, this time we followed a pair of mechanical friends into quasi-platforming territory, and discovered two incredibly different experiences. Guess it's all in the programming.
A carefree glide over a lush green field is abruptly halted when you're unceremoniously sucked down into a mysterious underground world. Or perhaps that should be "innerground" world, as this is an organic realm of caves and lakes, tubes and coils, machines and levers, all powered by a giant beating heart at its core. Clearly you've descended to the innards of some massive living earth machine, with no obvious means of escape. As a tiny little bot now lost in the great unknown, you'll need to solve the many puzzles and traps that block the way out if you're to avoid becoming digested "unmechanical" remains.
Okay, I kind of made that last part up. It might actually be true, but with no story whatsoever in Unmechanical, all you really know is that you must begin to explore. You'll learn nothing more about the robot or the bizarre environment in which he (she? it?) is trapped. Odd random elements are introduced but never explained, then dropped with nary a word (literally, in this case). The basic premise is merely an excuse to drop you into an unusual puzzle-filled world, leaving you to your own devices to fill in any and all the blanks. Which is fine, as the resulting experience is a reasonably diverting 3-4 hour side-scrolling adventure, but it's a shame there wasn't more effort made to present a coherent narrative to complement the setting.
In fact, Unmechanical doesn't tell you much of anything. With no instructions or tutorial to get you started, I simply started hitting keys to learn what I could do. The answer: not much. That's not a criticism, just a statement of your limited abilities. With a little rotor on your head, you can easily fly up and down, left and right, or hover by doing nothing. Your sole means of interaction, besides merely bumping into things, is a tractor beam that lets you pull and carry objects with the mouse button. Not all objects, as you're not very big, but enough to lift small rocks, bombs, and metal beams. The controls are equally comfortable and intuitive using a gamepad, so you can alternatively sit back and enjoy the surprisingly relaxing gameplay if so desired.
Despite its side- (and height-)scrolling nature, Unmechanical is no more a platformer than it is a traditional adventure. There's no combat, no fast reflexes required, no death-defying leaps, and only the mildest of timed elements to contend with, and rarely at that. You can't die or even fail in a "game over" sense, as the emphasis here is strictly on puzzles and free exploration. Challenges range from weighing down pressure pads to switching levers to balancing scales, but the obstacles get more challenging as you go along. You'll repeat Simon-style sequences, construct a rotating jigsaw gear, displace water levels, align electricity gauges, and reflect mobile laser-reflecting mirrors. Few of these are ever justified by context; they exist simply to block your passage through the next door, tube, or tunnel until solved.
Many of the solutions require using the terrain to your advantage, whether by jamming gears, dislodging wedged rocks, or powering generators with light orbs. Complicating matters are force fields that won't allow you to pass through with anything in tow, and underwater passages that you can't navigate until your bot learns to swim (the only new skill you'll acquire in the game, which works exactly like flying, except slower and underwater). There's nothing particularly new or inspired here, but because you're guiding your robot avatar physically, the process feels much more tactile than a point-and-click equivalent.
The puzzle difficulty comes less from the solutions themselves and more from understanding the objectives to begin with. There are no overt directions offered, just the barest trace of pictorial clues to get you started, at best. That's usually enough for the self-contained puzzles (though the goal of one colour-based challenge completely eluded me until I looked it up), but there's a hint button you can press that causes a thought bubble to appear over the protagonist's... uhh, head (is it still a head when it's his entire body?). You don't always get a tip, though, and those you do get are pretty abstract. They also apply only to the current area, but the game is not strictly linear. Sometimes you'll need to branch off into different areas to perform an action that helps you solve an obstacle you encountered earlier.
Fortunately, exploring proves to be a delight. It's occasionally difficult to make out new passages in the background, and there's no map to help you orient yourself through its more sprawling levels, but Unmechanical is a visual joy to behold. The Unreal 3 engine-powered graphics are crisp and clear, and while this is hardly a "beautiful" environment, its diverse mishmash of rocky outcroppings, crystal caverns, lava-spewing volcanoes, and wide assortment of mechanical contraptions makes the setting feel like a cobbled-together character in its own right. (Which, if its beating heart and tooth-lined intestinal tracts are any indication, it is.) The hues are subtle blues, greens, and reds, which suit the atmosphere perfectly, while animations are slick and smooth.
Soundwork is equally impressive in an understated way. The musical score consists largely of appropriate downbeat moody tones, occasionally sprinkling in some sci-fi tech tunes that don't fit nearly as well. There's no speech in the game, but effects are convincing, from the clanging of metal girders to the gentle whup-whup-whup of your own helicopter propulsion that starts up whenever you move. In a nice touch, both the music and sound effects become slightly garbled and distorted each time you submerge underwater.
There really isn't much more to Unmechanical beneath the surface (so to speak), a fact punctuated by an abrupt ending that barely qualifies as such. A deep, lengthy, substantial experience this is not. But as an independent co-production from Talawa Games and Teotl Studios that began life as a student project in Sweden, it looks great, controls smoothly, and provides a leisurely way to spend a few entertaining hours. The puzzles won't blow you away with their creativity, but they will make you think and get your hands dirty in the process (or would, if you had any hands). There's no action to fear, just a bit of robotic exertion, and for a light afternoon of spelunking fun, Unmechanical hits most of the right buttons. There's a demo available at the official website, so there's no need to take my word for it. Check out this bleeping good blooping game for yourself!
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Our regular round-up of puzzle-platformers and other puzzle-centric games