Games about little robots traveling a barren world ravaged by weltering black tumors that wiped out all of its kind is somewhat of a niche market in the world of fiction. This being the case, I jumped all over the chance to play this game, expecting both quirky puzzle-solving and ambiatic sublimity, two things I thoroughly enjoy. For what it’s worth, there’s a certain finesse to the game that can be achieved even through screenshots, which might have only increased the hype surrounding Mechanism.
For the outsiders looking in, the game is one that teeters along the line of narrative-driven gaming that some may not be entirely fond of. Mario Bros., this is not. The focus will inevitably be used to further the feeling of isolation and discovery, while gameplay and thrills take the rear. Even so, there’s a little of everything here to satisfy any gamer. The issue at hand, unfortunately, becomes whether or not these things function well enough for people to continue forth on their lightless journey.
Mechanism is available to purchase on Steam for your regional pricing.
Mechanism‘s absolute selling point is in its atmosphere and ambiance, which is effectively dark and brooding without feeling overbearing. Its musical score is minimal and haunting, the graphical effects have a nice gray sheen to them, and the robot doesn’t control so quickly that every corner can be passed over without a second thought. Slowly the effects of the game’s ambiance hit the player as they boot up the game and look around the first room in the game, which is one of the only “safe” places in the world presented. Leaving it forces the player to acknowledge the weight of the situation upon them—and their little robot link—as the remains of robot-kind and black sludge fill the screen in disturbing quantity.
As the game describes upon booting up a new game, “Sometimes a story doesn’t need a beginning. Sometimes it can start somewhere in the middle…” The player is given very little in terms of spoken/written exposition, instead going for the “Drop and go” method, whereas the player is dropped in a situation after the major conflict or event has occurred and lets them figure out the aftermath as they go. To some degree, this can work for a story (see: The Thin Silence), and it can not work for a story; what matters is the effectiveness of combining it with a game’s style of presentation and gameplay mechanics.
As one goes along solving puzzles and getting aspects of the world to function again, little pieces of information can be assumed of the world based on visual storytelling. One can access a skyline-like train system that can transport the player to a more building-heavy area where rooms with numbers can be accessed to advance the game. What they can also tell is interesting, as one room in particular still has its lights on, hinting that whatever may have happened to its denizen happened recently. Little mugs and plants adorn the room as though it hadn’t been touched at all by corruption, emulating the same safeness exemplified by the main robot’s own home. Little things such as this make the world more interesting to explore because one is apt to discovering trinkets of possibilities in a world empty of hope.
Though one issue that remains with the method of storytelling is that it is perhaps too vague. I’ll elaborate more later on, as it connects more to a gameplay perspective, but there was never at any point where I felt confident that I knew where I was going and for what purpose. Things happen at a certain rate, with items placed on the map at regular intervals in fixed spots, but never seem to really correlate into any linear path. It feels almost liberating to do things at one’s own pace, but at the cost of never really knowing whether one is truly progressing. Much like with the visual storytelling, progression is implied by placing things in spots requiring said things, but eventually the spots shrink up and one is at risk of wandering around due to one missed item. This may not sound too terrible, yet in Mechanism‘s current (and perhaps permanent) state, this is a lot more frustrating than it needs to be.
For all the bravado and positive attributes concerning the game’s atmosphere and story, where the game ultimately fails is in its gameplay. It’s not just the gameplay itself that’s the issue; the functionality of the game also comes into question. Multiple times throughout my numerous playthroughs of Mechanism, I’ve come across bugs, glitches, and inconsistent rules attributed to items and creatures that inhabit the game. At times I’ve managed to clip through the ground and fall permanently into the vast unknown, at times I was flung obscenely far in one direction by jumping on a certain platform. When I had my graphics turned down a certain way, important items wouldn’t even appear in the game. Items referred to as “Anti-flegma bombs” will only activate once while the game is active, but enemies that it kills will respawn after every player death. Therefore, I had to quit the game and reboot it after every death so I could kill the enemies again before progressing. Concerning enemies, there are times when enemies will spawn in certain places and times they won’t. Perhaps some enemies spawn only once per playthrough and others have random spawning areas; based on my own experience, this game just randomly decides for itself.
In short, this game feels as though it were released unfinished. Multiple glitches still occur and until the developer gets to all of them (he’s updated the game four times since its release yesterday), I cannot recommend the game simply due to it not guaranteed to be fully playable. Though this isn’t to say that the bugginess of the game is the only thing about its gameplay that I’m not fond of.
One of my biggest harps of Mechanism is its insistence on putting the camera really close to the controllable robot. Too close. One can hardly see the terrain one’s traveling on and the entirety of the world around them because the game’s so focused on watching the robot run. An option to zoom out would be lovely, because then perhaps the camera wouldn’t be so pesky with its direction. This is another drawback to having the camera so close: trying to angle the camera in different directions will cause extreme zoom-ins of the robot which seriously hampers more platform-heavy sequences and searching for specific hints in a boxed-in room. And this happens constantly. It impairs the field of vision for the player and can lead to a lot of frustrating fights with the camera to get a steady view of where to go and how to progress.
In regards to the “vagueness” of the game’s story, from a gameplay perspective, it can make for a fairly large mental workload just to understand what to do. It took me a little time just to understand how to leave the first room. In Mechanism, one can pick up up to two items in each of the robot’s hands. These items can be placed inside other machines (most common), used to avoid/destroy flegma creatures, or act as an aid to certain areas. This game lives on putting things in certain places, as the act is done more than basically anything else in the game. Grab a gear and put it into a certain place. Collect a battery and put it into a certain place. Grab a bomb and kill things. Essentially, the game is a giant string of fetch quests (with some variety) that keeps building and building until the inevitable conclusion… whatever that may entail. With very little text or dialogue in the game, again, there’s next to no indication that where one is going or what they’re doing is truly progression. One has to guess at a direction to take and keep exploring until they eventually find something. Combined with all the gameplay errors and fidgety camera, this makes the game more of a chore to play than fun.
GRAPHICS & AUDIO
In what seems to be a major theme for this game, the visual appeal for this game alone is perfectly fine. On the surface, Mechanism is an almost-cute game with dark themes that plays well into the atmosphere it wants to create for itself. The robots are rusted and simplistic, the environments are dreary, yet realistic, and the visual storytelling is something to be commended. However, the game’s glitchy state prevents it from being a perfect picture. Many times throughout my playthrough, little pockets of environment disappeared and reappeared dependent on where I was positioned (typically reappearing after closing the distance). Sometimes the game would freeze for a second as I entered a new area and the musical track changed. Interesting tidbit about this game: when changing areas with different musical tracks, the title and length of the track that starts up is shown in the bottom-right corner of the screen. Not sure if this is either good as bad, as it’s both a neat distinction and breaking the immersion. On its own, the game looks fairly good and well-lit, though the textures could use a little more detail to them. I just wish I could rely on the game to load them all properly.
Employing the same vagueness is the sound direction, which is fairly minimal throughout. As noted before, each area has a specific track dedicated to it that ranges from less than a minute to close to ten minutes. These tracks won’t do much for catchiness, but definitely aid in setting the atmosphere of the game with low, bassy pitches of audio reverberations and such. Occasionally spooky and usually calming, there isn’t much to the game in terms of individual songs, yet there’s always something going on in the background, whether natural sounds, the sound of the robot moving, or accompanying tracks. A single issue with the sound quality is that one area—one described with the rooms with numbers—has a pitch that passes the threshold of loudness and translates into an ear-wrenching crunching sound that kills the mood of the area, and may kill headphone users for a few seconds. It’s almost like Mechanism wanted to add a little technical error in every area just so it could have everything covered.