Version tested: PC
Machinarium is a point-and-click adventure. No, really. It's a point and click adventure. The old-fashioned sort, where one screen can keep you stumped all weekend, where having a notepad to hand is a good idea and where every door and hatchway is guarded by some fiendish puzzle. As amusing as Telltale's Sam & Max games have been, a few hours in Machinarium's arcane steampunk world makes you realise just how far the genre has wandered from its traditionally ruthless roots.
It's the tale of an adorable little robot, cast out from a mechanical city by accident. He must find his way back home, rescue his girlfriend and prevent a gang of robot hoodlums from setting off a bomb. Inventory puzzles are the game's main currency, but it has a refreshing disposable take on this old genre standard. Once a puzzle is overcome, items are automatically discarded, so there's none of the inventory bloat that other adventure games suffer from. It's a streamlined procession of smaller brain-teasing chunks which lead seamlessly into one another while keeping their mysteries neatly separated.
To begin with, the influence of Samorost - the earlier Flash game by creator Jakub Dvorsky - is hard to miss. Puzzles are restricted to just one screen, calling to mind the familiar truncated explore-and-click aesthetic of old, and it doesn't take long to work out the sequence of actions needed to shunt your robot pal a little closer to his goal.
Things soon open out though, and in doing so some of the game's oblique nature begins to act against it. Having snuck past the gates, and been unceremoniously incarcerated by the bullying robot bad guys, escape leads you into the city proper where puzzles begin to stretch across multiple screens, piling on top of one another like waffles. Working out where to start unravelling the sequence of cause and effect becomes more of a problem, and the game's strict limits on what you can investigate make progress even harder.
Unlike other point-and-clickers, where you can mouse over everything on-screen to see what can be interacted with, Machinarium only lets you tinker with things that are within reach. Your robot chum is flexible as well, capable of scrunching down to floor level or expanding upwards to reach higher locations. Checking each location for useful features therefore becomes a question of painstaking exploration, making sure that every possible combination of position and height has been exhausted in order to clear each location of every usable trinket.
There is, thankfully, a two-tier hint system available. The first option - a lightbulb icon - simply gives you a broad clue as to what you should be trying to do. Like all in-game information, it's presented as a doodle with no further explanation.
If that's not enough, you can access the walkthrough book, which spells out the exact steps required in a sepia comic strip. This information must be earned, however, by playing through a short mini-game in which you guide a key through a Defender-esque cave to a keyhole. It's hardly taxing, but it is intrusive enough to make you think twice about reaching for the answers too quickly. I found that sometimes it would kill you as soon as you started, while other times the key would be left floating in an empty void with no end in sight. If that's punishment for abusing the system, it's never explained.
Such helping hands are a luxury in the early stages, but become harder to resist as the puzzles begin to overlap. Often, checking the basic hint offering is the best way to find the start of a puzzle thread, rather than traipsing around working out which of the numerous puzzles available can be tackled first. When the puzzle in question involves putting a cat up a didgeridoo, it's clear that finding the solution through trial and error won't be achievable for everyone.
For those who cry foul at such handholding, the walkthroughs do become a lot less foolproof the further you get into the game. They'll offer broad-stoke solutions but leave plenty of puzzling to fill in the blanks, so it's best not to get too attached to the lifeline they offer. While Machinarium Is happy to nudge you on the right track rather than let you leave in frustration, it also understands that the swell of pride that comes from beating a great adventure puzzle fair and square is one of gaming's most precious rewards, and shrewdly stops you from squandering it through lack of patience.
The game also loves to trip up your progress with more traditional puzzles. Along the way you'll be forced to dust off braincells to move pegs around, rotate coloured dots to fit a pattern and play leapfrog with arrow buttons. There's one of those sliding-block puzzles that you get in Christmas crackers, and even a protracted version of Connect 4 against a robot hustler.
The sheer variety of these puzzles is impressive, but there are times when the game seems a little too much in love with such devices. Unless you're a devoted fan of this sort of puzzle it can get frustrating to be making headway in the effortlessly lovely story, working your way through clever inventory quests, only to be stopped in your tracks and essentially made to solve the equivalent of a Rubik's Cube before you can continue.
At least you'll be treated to some gorgeous visuals while you scratch your head. The lo-fi Samorost vibe is unmistakable, but Machinarium has a much more consistent and tangible sense of place than its whimsically surreal predecessors. This is a world where things may be weird and offbeat (robot jazz, anyone?) but it all makes sense and follows a clear internal logic.
Your robot hero is an instantly likeable little chap, packed with personality despite never saying a word. Background details abound in the scenery, and there are lots of charming interactions that do nothing to further your game, but raise a smile nonetheless. Watching him strain to do a robot poo before sadly shaking his head, for example, or sliding gleefully down a handrail rather than trot down some stairs. Tim Burton's sketches are an obvious touchstone for the visual style, though I couldn't help but see the work of the wonderful Peter Firmin in its warm, hand-made textures.
The game doesn't bother to mask the fact that it's a simple Flash file, and there are clearly benefits to this low-tech approach. It has a tiny system footprint, it boots up almost instantly and you can resume play only a few seconds after double-clicking the desktop icon. There are downsides as well though. Right-clicking only brings up the Flash menu, so inventory manipulation can feel slightly long-winded. Rather than being able to return an item instantly, you need to manually drag it back up to the top menu bar and drop it.
Given that you'll be walking to each area of interest before experimenting with items, it's just enough to make getting stuck feel more frustrating than it needs to be. Navigation also feels a little basic, with no double-click to run somewhere and a tendency to lock your robot into a course that can't be cancelled should you click off-screen by accident. The game's unhurried pace is a pleasure in many ways, but isn't ideal when shuffling between locations searching for the way forwards.
These are far from deal-breaking complaints, although they are enough to keep Machinarium from reaching the top of the score tree where it belongs. Machinarium is a treat for the senses that demands more of your brain, a paradoxically gentle yet punishing riff on a genre that, until now, had been revived but sadly defanged for modern players.
8 / 10