(PC Review) Unmechanical

Developer: Talawa Games
Publisher: Teotl Studios
Genre: Puzzler
Players: 1
Reviewer: Nick Stewart

Overall: 7 = Good

Minimum Requirements:
Win XP SP 3/Vista, Intel 2 GHz or AMD equiv. processor, 2GB RAM, DirectX 9 compliant and SM3-compatible video card, 1 GB free hard drive space

One of the truly beautiful things about digital distribution is its ability to introduce quirky, weird, or unique experiences that would otherwise have difficulty making sense at retail. There are any number of terrific examples and success stories emerging from the digital distribution platforms, which have allowed smaller games to thrive. Unmechanical strives to be one such example, and certainly seems to fit the mold from the outset, as an atmospheric physics-based puzzler featuring a wordless flying robot as its protagonist. It’s a moody experience replete with striking visuals and a likeable main character, though its incredible brevity raises more questions than is probably necessary.

And there’s definitely no shortage of questions surrounding the plot, which is in some ways the point: the game kicks off as an ovoid floating robot is roaming through a sunny pasture with some friends, when a pipe juts up from the earth and sucks him (it?) deep into the bowels of some underground industrial nightmare. After being unceremoniously spit out into a damp, dark, rocky cavern, your goal is simple: escape. That’s about it.  Additional clues about the nature of your capture, exactly where you find yourself, and the world you’re living in are scattered about in the faintest of ways throughout your new seemingly mechanical prison, and it’s this sense of mild exploration and discovery that helps to power your journey.

Those travels take you through a variety of quasi-dystopian environments, and become all about overcoming different mechanical systems via puzzle-solving in order to move from one area to the next in your bid for freedom. These puzzles are mostly straightforward, for the most part, and revolve almost entirely around your little robot’s only ability other than flying, which is to make use of a low-powered tractor beam at its base. This allows you to activate switches or pick up rocks, beams, mirrors, and the many objects you’ll need to move or manipulate in order to figure your way out. It’s a simple approach that offers simple controls, which helps you to focus more fully on the puzzles you encounter, which in turn are mostly decent logic puzzles but occasionally veer into other areas, such as memory puzzles, reflex puzzles, and even a rhythm puzzle. These are all presented in similar ways, typically reduced to “drop this onto that to activate a switch / open a door,” but it evolves in interesting and subtle enough ways to keep you feel as though you’re going through the same motions. Most of the puzzles are creative, satisfying to solve, and very rarely unfair.

The game’s use of physics is often a significant part of their evolution, but like most everything in Unmechanical, it’s used in much more straightforward ways than in many other physics-based titles. Momentum and weight are strongly felt, causing your robot to bob or dip or drag when carrying items of different sizes through tunnels, pipes, and water; however, with few exceptions, you’re rarely required to specifically use the well-integrated physics model to solve puzzles. This could easily label its implementation as a simple gimmick, since it only occasionally comes to the fore, but instead, it actually helps to provide a sense of the vaguest realism to your struggles—and by extension, some emotion behind your little robot’s plight.

Like much of the game itself, the nature of the puzzles are never explained, leaving the discovery of how each system works up to you. For the most part, this works well, as it helps to add to the theme of exploration. Even in those times where the puzzles’ solutions may be somewhat obtuse, a simple keystroke will offer a little thought bubble above your robot, where a small picture offers a rudimentary glimpse as to the solution. It’s an elegant approach, allowing the game to preserve its carefully built systems of curiosity and simplicity while keeping player frustration at bay.

This curiosity also nicely pays off in Unmechanical’s presentation, which is a big part of its overall appeal. As you move through the cavernous innards of this mysterious industrial complex, the backgrounds move along appropriately in perspective, painting momentary but impressive portraits of the strange hell in which you now find yourself. Whether it’s conveyor belts lugging items unknown, underwater plants swaying away, or erupting volcanoes spewing molten pebbles, the visuals have a knack for drawing you in. Without giving too much away, the distinct lack of life—robotic or otherwise—in your journey is striking, as it was likely meant to be. While it serves to really reinforce the pervasive feeling of solitude, it also raises even more questions about the real goings-on, and the purpose of where you find yourself—something which is never satisfactorily addressed by the time the game abruptly, surprisingly slams to a close.

This sudden end to the game is as surprising in its brevity as it is in its utter lack of closure or plot illumination and its out-of-nowhere credit sequence—and its potential to overwhelmingly disappoint. From front to back, running through Unmechanical can run as little as four hours, making this a very bite-sized experience. Although there’s something to be said for packing a high-quality game into a short timeframe, rather than padding it out unnecessarily and dragging it out for no reason, Unmechanical feels in some ways as though it’s part of a larger entity. The whispers of ideas and passing hints about your situations are interesting in their implications, but almost everything is left up to the imagination—something that may sound like a pathetic complaint, but it’s difficult to avoid arguing that even just a little more could have been done with the thin layer of implication.

Even more treacherous is the fact that players can very much by accident experience the “bad” ending without even realizing there’s an opportunity for a “good” one. Unless you’re particularly motivated to reload the last autosave and toy around a bit in the final area, you may have no earthly idea that there’s an alternative to the ending you experienced—something that’s also arguably rather dangerous, given the extremely flat and disheartening ending you’d otherwise experience. Moreover, even the “good” result is as bereft of satisfaction beyond a sense of “well, that’s an improvement, I guess.”

Unmechanical is an interesting curio of a game: it offers a nicely satisfying set of simple puzzles with a fairly adorable protagonist, but in an experience that’s much too short and with too little payoff for the ideas it introduces. The physics engine is decidedly solid, and the atmosphere easily carries the day, with its implications of vague horror (for robots, at any rate) and audiovisuals that help draw you in and become invested in this journey for freedom. However, it’s too short to follow through on its own concepts, and a pair of endings that are equal parts disappointing and easy to miss. It’s a bit of a shame, given how the brief time you’re given is actually pretty good. Worth checking out if you can catch it on sale, but it can otherwise stand to be admired from a distance.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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