Machinarium is at first glance promising. It has an imaginative setting to explore, portrayed in extremely
detailed backgrounds in a stunning hand-drawn art style (though character design is on a par with other Western amateur
efforts, i.e. dreadful: the protagonist looks like a cross-eyed retard that some third-grader drew on the back
of his math paper), and much of the animation thankfully avoids that ugly
"paper doll" look commonly seen in Flash games. Even the electronic music is pretty cool. Unfortunately, the simplistic
interface and puzzle design result in a game that's merely decent, with plenty of atmosphere but few interesting
things to do.
Like Amanita Design's earlier Samorost games, Machinarium is Flash-based and involves solving
puzzles by clicking various hotspots on each screen to move around and activate objects. Two improvements here
are the addition of an inventory and your interaction with hotspots being limited to the
reach of your character, both of which force you to think at least a little bit about what you are trying
to do instead of merely sweeping the screen for anything clickable.
Still, like the Samorost games, there's often little indication of what a hotspot will do before you
poke it. This results in a lot of aimless clicking, hoping for something different to happen, rather than
piecing together a solution in your mind and then trying to implement it. By itself, this isn't so
bad — figuring out how a strange world works is half the fun in such games — but there are very few multi-step actions
you need to perform. Most of the time, getting something interesting to happen with a hotspot means you're
already done with it. The inventory puzzles don't fare much better, with most items either obviously
functioning as keys or as missing components for other inventory items.
My biggest disappointment with this game is the wasted potential of the theme. The game's called "Machinarium",
for Christ's sake, and it's set in a robot city. It seems so obvious to include puzzles that involve figuring out
complicated piping, wiring, or other power sources, or trying to operate large machines with interconnected parts.
The detailed backgrounds offer plenty of opportunity for clues, and it would fit the control scheme, too. There's a
reason why games like Myst focus on mechanical puzzles — if all the player can do is click and drag without a
list of actions to choose from, it makes sense to design puzzles with lots of buttons, toggles, and sliders.
Sadly, when Machinarium does give you anything resembling a mechanism to play with, it's usually some dumb
mini-game like a 9-tile sliding puzzle. There are at least a half-dozen of these throughout the game, not including
a couple of action mini-games (such as a Space Invaders clone). This kind of puzzle design (or lack thereof)
is really inexcusable for adventure games at this point. They're transparently tacked-on with no attempt to plausibly
integrate them into the environment. I solved most of them with random fiddling, so they don't even add much challenge.
Speaking of challenge, the developers included both in-game hints and walkthroughs for every screen, in case it wasn't
already obvious that they are afraid of alienating their less-intelligent customers. You have to play a mini-game
to unlock the walkthrough, but then you get to see hand-sketched storyboards that show step-by-step solutions for
the puzzles. It's bad enough that they make the answers available at all, but I'm tempted to deduct a star for
putting art in there that only encourages players to look at the damn things.
I suppose the best I can say about Machinarium is that there's nothing particularly bad about it. There's a
great sense of exploration, I found the world charming despite the aesthetic uneveness, and not much in the game
or nonsensical. It's a decent game, but a step backwards in everything other than perhaps visual style.