"The heart wants what the heart wants." -Woody Allen
Love works in mysterious ways. Where logic and hormones duke it out like a scorpion fighting a tarantula, the heart comes in like a jeep, dominating through sheer force and willpower. Alan Hazelden's chilling tale of obsession and romance is an uneasy marriage between a traditional puzzle game and prose. While I wouldn't say these two disparate genres don't click at all, I'd wager that if they had a Facebook page they'd forgo being "in a relationship" for the more tenuous "it's complicated".
Each of the game's 36 levels begins with a line of text telling the story of a couple who discover a robot. Suffice it to say, things get dicey. Their tale is reflected by a series of puzzles wherein you turn cogs clockwise to rotate hearts surrounding them until they're all right-side up. Though adequate, they're not the most rewarding brainteasers. Unless you're a savant who can predict more than seven or so moves ahead, chances are you'll just muck about until you're fortuitous enough to come close to a solution. Deciphering those last few moves can be satisfying, but, like a Rubik's cube, the number of steps required for success can be overwhelming.
Just as the couple's relationship goes south upon discovering their mechanical friend, the player's relationship to the prose deteriorates as well. Perhaps this is intentional and prolonged tinkering with gears is supposed to mimic a character's obsession causing them to lose sight of what's important, but the end result is that after spending 20 minutes on a puzzle it can be difficult to recall what the last plot development even was.
Curiously, you have full access to every level from the beginning, so players who just want to see the story through can do so without solving a single puzzle. While the ability to skip the most frustrating stages is appreciated, this generous option only highlights how divorced from the narrative the puzzles actually are if they can be bypassed with no repercussions.
One area where These Robotic Hearts of Mine is cohesive is in its haunting minimalist presentation. The 8-bit primarily monochrome aesthetic punctuated by pink hearts is appropriately bleak, while the rustic grinding of gears and pulsating heartbeats give the whole thing an ominous flavour.
Rarely, however, does it provide more than that. Sometimes the level design will resemble a relevant image, but most of the time the puzzles don't reflect the themes beyond the obvious symbolism apparent early on. The full breadth of the game's mechanics can be gleaned from the first minute, and only at the very end does it draw new parallels between its opposing parts. The final note is a confident closer, but it's too little, too late.
While the similarly romantically-charged puzzler Catherine successfully allowed its relationship drama to bleed into its mental gymnastics, These Robotic Hearts of Mine's clinical approach keeps the two at arm's length, and neither is particularly strong on its own.
That's the tragedy about These Robotic Hearts of Mine. Love is perplexing, challenging, and confusing. Thus, the cold, calculating puzzles should complement the emotional relationship parable. Hazelden wants it to work. We want it to work. But the sad truth is that in this instance the two simply don't have enough in common. Sometimes love just isn't enough.