Sometimes, video games are very difficult to assess. Tons of moving parts, context information, and overall enjoyability are but a few things needed to gauge the quality of a given title. Sometimes it’s easy: all of the above is good, and therefore the game is good. Alas, what happens when most things are good, yet one of the most important aspects to gaming meanders around mediocrity? Such is the tragic case of Retro Machina, a game with such admirable dedication and detail, derailed by a single, deeply-rooted flaw.
An impressive debut from Brazil-based Orbit Studio, the game features an isometric camera and puzzle-platformer elements. Some parts bullet-hell, some parts metroidvania, it tackles a number of different elements to ascertain a fulfilling adventure. It’s clear the team shot for the stars, doing all they could to utilize the elements incorporated and flesh out its ambitions. For all the effort clearly shown, it’s almost hard not to praise it without restraint. If not for one detail to be explained later, there’d be very little to drag it back to Earth.
Story – All Alone in a Lonely Place
Like many sci-fi stories, the plot to Retro Machina is a slow and methodical one. Built on supplemental information via visual storytelling and the voices of others, one will eventually come to know the fate of the world. One plays a single worker robot who randomly “malfunctions” while on duty, allowing them to act on their own accord. In an attempt to repair themselves, they escape their home base and venture out into the vast reaches of the planet. Now marked as a threat by robot-kind, they need to reach a specific destination, weaving through danger along the way.
This robot does not have a name, but you could name it if you want to. Whatever they’re called is hardly important—it’s their place in everything that’s more so. As one continues their trek into each barren environment, they’ll come to see the things that once were. How humanity flourished and lived, continuously advancing to a state of near-bliss. How it all fell apart without a moment of hesitation. The general sci-fi shenanigans: humanity pushes for innovation too quickly, not cherishing the things they have. An imbalance of nature and technology that would eventually cause chaos. Somewhat Fallout-esque, the robot is essentially walking through the memories left behind by thousands, if not millions of people.
To reiterate, “slow and methodical.” The player shall eventually come to understand these things; it will simply take time for it to sink in. Early on, there’s a subtle aimlessness to everything. Why is everything so empty? What’s the point of running around these mossy remnants of cities? Eventually, the significance of the game’s intent comes full circle, as later levels harbor more critical information. Slowly building up to a climactic ending that fits thematically with what it wishes to do. While not always immersive, a clear trend begins to form before ones knows it, allowing the ending to take hold in the memory bank for years to come.
Gameplay – Spam Buttons, Get Spiffy
I alluded to it early, and now it’s finally time to talk about why I cannot like this game as much as I’d want to: it’s rarely “fun.” As bold of a statement as this is, it’s an unfortunate consequence to a number of decisions made by the team when it came to major gameplay elements. Or rather, a sheer lack of variety in them.
Retro Machina is a lot of things—adventure, puzzle, platformer, action, metroidvania, bullet-hell, etc. Despite this, it has two distinct parts to its gameplay that I’ve noted as being most prominent: puzzle and action. These two things are a majority of what you will do if you play this game. You’ll play around with switches and adjusting platforms to progress through the room to the next, or you’ll fight a bunch of enemy robots, sometimes in a gauntlet-style rumble. And this occurs over, and over, and over, and over, and over; ten hours of rolling around rooms and hammering the attack button to meticulously cleave baddies of their health.
One notable distinction this has is the ability to control said enemy robots. Think Cappy from Super Mario Odyssey, only it’s just direct brain control. Using these enemies, one can manipulate their specific abilities to aid them in either puzzles or combat. I, personally, never used robots in battle because trying to control both the controlled robot and the player character simultaneously is a nightmare. Nevertheless, there is some charm in being able to fluctuate between a number of different abilities at any time. I quite liked controlling the robot that heals. It’s because it can heal you. Pro strategies.
However, this isn’t enough to save the game, as it’s essentially Retro Machina‘s one manner of gameplay distinction. Otherwise, the player is forced to sit through hours of tedious, repetitive combat and very slow-moving puzzles that quickly lose their appeal. For example, in combat, only a single form of attack exists: swinging a wrench around. Special attacks that cost energy also allow the player to create a shockwave or perform a spin attack, but are also limited and, especially for the latter, not especially advantageous. Per my experience, the best method of attack is simply to spam the attack button after giving robots a nice stun via the shockwave. I’ve far since lost track of how many times I incorporated this method.
With puzzles, it’s rarely better. The major complaint here is just how long it takes for individual puzzles to be solved. Most will require the player to take control of another robot, and for whatever reason, a large majority of them do not have any Speed Booster installed. I’m running across a room with another robot in tow—whom I’m outrunning—getting to the point where I need to be. Then I need to utilize the ability to progress, which gets me closer to the end, but not entirely. Then I repeat the process again and again, with many different robot varieties of varying levels of annoyance. Every time I saw a room that required the frog robot, I groaned.
In terms of exploration, one can go out of their way to collect a number of different items. Cores used to upgrade the player’s health, offense, special attack output, etc.; context items like pictures or data files that aid in adding to the narrative; key items that will be needed to progress or access secret areas. The “metroidvania” comparison is one made of all the backtracking one does in this game, which can be slightly tedious. Given my own experience (and appreciation) for the subgenre, however, this didn’t bother me much. With teleportation points and an ever-so-slightly confusing map, there’s not too much in terms of long travel times. The puzzles take up most of the time for you.
Graphics & Audio – Dazzling Dystopia
After what felt like stomping the game into the ground, let’s shift back into why Retro Machina is pretty cool.
Among the game’s selling points is its hand-drawn style, inspired by the work of Jacque Fresco. If Fresco were alive today, I believe even he would look at this game in awe. The amount of detail within environments, hiding key details of the past in plain sight, is phenomenal and appreciable… after the narrative significance kicks in. Each area has a gorgeous post-apocalyptic vibe to it, with wreckage and overgrowth thrown in beautifully. Even if much of my time was spent trying to look out for enemies, there were definitely times where I could stop and take everything in.
One issue with these visuals, however, comes with the platforming. It is occasionally hard to gauge where exactly the player robot is, due in part to the angle of the isometric camera and how the environment is blended in. There was one specific part late in the game where one has to fly between moving treadmills, back and forth. Putting it lightly, I wanted to rip my head off after all the times I accidentally fell off. Some better distinction of placement, such as a more noticeable shadow, or even just a randomly colored dot below the player, would’ve been appreciated.
Retro Machina‘s soundtrack is something of a synth-tinged ambiance that occasionally works, but is usually more background noise. I don’t recall if at any point the story or experience ended up hitting me due to a track playing at an opportune moment. What it does do is embed a sense of mystery to everything. A splendid array of light and occasionally unnerving high notes that keep people guessing at the mood of a certain room or environment. It sounds, as is implied by the “retro-futuristic” setting, like something out of a ’60s sci-fi flick.
A final thing to note would be the use of its sound altogether. While not quite as noticeable to players as the soundtrack may be, I’d like to extend my gratitude to the sound designers for making every specific movement and attack that baddies make easily distinguishable. Sometimes during gauntlets, a billion robots will be running around onscreen, and it can be easy to lose track of them. Yet I know immediately what I’m up against if I hear a buzzsaw noise, or footsteps that shake the ground, or tiny, quick footsteps that sound like wooden clogs. It’s the small details.
Retro Machina was reviewed on PC via Steam. A review key was provided by ÜberStrategist.