Machinarium, let's face it, is not a particularly friendly word. It conjures up images of grotty workshops, of automated slaughterhouses, and rusting, febrile dreamscapes full of the screech of metal on metal. Well, it does for me. I have some issues with visualisation.
What Machinarium certainly doesn't initially elicit for me is exactly what it turns out to be - an engagingly charming and beautiful point-and-click adventure world full of character, emotion and humanity. What makes this more remarkable is that the game largely unfolds in the sort of oxidised and ramshackle scrapyard the title suggests. Not that it's unattractive - wholly the opposite. Machinarium squeezes more charm from a quite roughly drawn automaton than the Walt Disney Corporation has from a legion of creepily anthropomorphised mammals.
What hits you first is the beauty, the attention to detail and intriguingly muted palette. Machinarium is a world of browns and greys, yet evokes a warmly fuzzy Saturday afternoon cartoon sensation which establishes both place and character with incredible visual efficiency. Of particular note is the animation of the nameless, googly-eyed protagonist. One of the mechanics of this innovative, 2D point-and-clicker is that your robot hero can contract or expand to interact with points of interest at different heights (hot-points and objects can only be clicked when in reach), and adopts a stiff-legged, stalking gait when expanded and a scuttling locomotive style when compact. These touches imbue the cylindrical android with charm, transforming him almost immediately from emotionless droid to whimsical underdog.
Every screen is a new delight, twisted cityscapes and quasi-industrial interiors contrasting beautifully with geriatric robots and the bumbling malcontents whose bullying mischief provide the necessary antagonism to sedately shuffle the story along. This narrative progression is helped along by short, un-voiced cut-scenes and simply animated speech-bubble exposition. It's no War and Peace, but complex character-development and moral intrigue would only serve to obscure Machinarium's message of simplistic enjoyment - a gilding of the lily's gorgeous patina.
The game begins with a short bit of back-story, essentially establishing the hero, villains and love interest, before tasking the player with assembling our cruelly dismembered hero as he begins his quest. Initially puzzles are gentle, pick-up-and-combine affairs, introducing the concept of the proximity necessary for interaction as you attempt to gain access to the Heath Robinson city where the majority of the game takes place. Things soon diverge from this inventory-filling, however, and more interesting and complex solutions are required. Before too long you'll be playing proto-Connect 4 with a metallic lush, rescuing dogs with plunger guns and getting your spanner on for a spot of improvised civic plumbing.
These puzzles tend to be logical and well-paced, and despite a few frustrating points where the multiple problems at hand require a fair bit of back and forth, trial-and-error gameplay, there's always a tangible and obvious obstacle to be getting your teeth into. It's not often that the early puzzles get too tricky, but a pleasing gentleness pervades without leaving you feeling too spoon-fed. The hint system, communicated again via the pen-and-ink speech-bubbles, offers a straightforward clue to the solution for each screen individually - although they can tend to be a little too obvious without suggesting much of the actual mechanics of the solution. Still, in a tight spot it's better than nothing - and, if you're weak like me, it's all too easy to abuse an overly instructive hint system and feel shamefully guilty afterwards anyway.
Another high point - exceptional considering the tiny team which produced Machinarium from the ground up - is the truly wonderful music. Ambient and unobtrusive whilst never slipping from accompaniment to background, Machinarium's soundtrack snuggles gently in the ears and nestles there for days afterward. It's slick and professional, offering an excellent example of just how much a game's atmosphere can be enhanced by an appropriate and beautiful score.
There's still some polishing to be done before Jakub Dvorský's team unleash Machinarium on the world - there are still a few issues with saving and loading - but this build is already a great deal more stable than the last we received, and the incredibly high level of polish evident in finished sections indicates that an extremely high level of quality control is in effect here. Throwaway details and blink-and-you'll-miss-it animations render Machinarium's metallic flesh with such fullness that it seems tremendously unlikely that it'll ship with anything major malfunctioning.
A combination of this depth, combined with the intensely coherent style and endearing characters mean that Machinarium screams personal project, a labour of love unfettered by publisher pressures or investor deadlines. In truth, the only omission that strikes me in my three or four hours of play is the lack of a double-click quick-move mechanic. Although play areas aren't massive, tottering to-and-fro does start to grate a little during periods of mental block. A minor point, however, and a little churlish when such a visual treat is on offer.
Due in October, Machinarium will be retailing at $20 from Steam, Direct2Drive, Impulse and GamersGate; as well as the website. Current estimations are an 8-10 hour completion time depending on mental acuity, although you'd be pretty hard-hearted to not spend some of that time soaking up the atmosphere. At once slightly anachronistic and tremendously welcome, Machinarium could well be shaping up as a fiercely indie success story - not everyone's cup of tea, but a draught of the freshest Darjeeling to fans of the genre.
Machinarium is due out for PC and Mac in October.