First, take the shorter, puzzle-based gameplay of LIMBO. Give it a somewhat similar visual design to Machinarium, but up the graphical fidelity by using the Unreal Engine (think The Ball). That's a perfectly mechanical way to describe what exactly Unmechanical looks like, but in doing so, it misses the point of what the game feels like. Unmechanical is a game where you explore an utterly foreign world, with nearly zero direction or egging along. There's virtually no form of tutorial or key prompts or text or dialogue or anything beyond a factory of puzzles and a tiny robot itching to solve them. Indeed, the only text that appears in the game at all is “F1”, an indication of how to use the hint system if you get stuck. The effect creates a somewhat lonely and eerie experience, with some terrific atmosphere and a fantastic soundtrack. Even with the rise of indie games as an alternative to the mainstream, games with this sort of atmosphere are few and far between.
At the core of the game is a very simple puzzle structure. You are a tiny robot with an adorable propeller on its head, snatched away from your family and taken to an underground facility that is ticking away to accomplish… something. Your handy propeller allows you to float about in any direction, and a tiny tractor beam helps with moving debris and flipping switches. That's it. Aside from one mild instance, there's no upgrades, new abilities, or anything of the sort. That might seem like a fault, but the gameplay is solid enough that it doesn't particularly need to evolve to remain engaging, and the short length of the game definitely helps, as well. Most importantly, though, is the variety of the puzzles. These can range from simple switch puzzles to full fledged brain teasers, but every single one is something new and interesting. The one fault of the puzzle design is that it doesn't always feel organic, which can spoil the mood a bit. It's not a particularly important detail, but certain puzzles feel like something you would find in a big book of brainteasers, not in a mysterious underground facility.
Still though, this is one gorgeous underground facility. I mentioned The Ball earlier, only because Teotl Studios, the developers behind that game, served as the publishers on Unmechanical. The Ball had an awful lot of flaws in it, but one thing it did spectacularly was the en
vironment. Every bit of the scenery looked like part of some larger, whirring machine just hiding below the surface of the temple, keeping everything in check. Unmechanical shares the same feeling, with intricately detailed and kinetic backgrounds that look absolutely gorgeous. The game flips subtly between organic cave systems replete with glowing ore and fungi to fast-paced dynamos and tubes that keep some unseen force ticking. But no matter the environment, the game is packed with beautiful visuals. Everything feels connected, which isn't an easy visual feat to pull off.
So the visual design is fantastic, but it's more important to consider what this does for the atmosphere. The visuals really sell the idea that your robot is just a lost cog navigating in the spaces between the well-oiled machine. It's a foreign world to explore, one which only hints at the greater picture. Not that this matters, as your robot's only goal is to escape, but the entire facility feels vaguely sinister and alive as you fly through the emergency maintenance shafts and forgotten tunnels. It's a very disjointed world that feels unsettling, but in an intentional way. The groaning and straining of the sound design, together with the otherworldly synthetic soundtrack, serves to perfectly compliment this feeling. It's loneliness in an unknown environment, something many games strive for but few accomplish.
There are a few unfortunate quirks that hold the game back, but thankfully, it's just a few. Unmechanical is a bit lackluster when it comes to certain features outside of the actual gameplay itself. Despite running on a very capable engine, there are very few visual options to tweak, and the game could really use AA support to smooth out the wonderful artwork. There's also no save system outside of the autosave, which works well, but the game lacks any sort of ability to revisit specific chapters or juggle multiple files at once. This doesn't really matter, though, as the game is pretty short anyway. At just under three hours, it's a bit of a slim experience. Of course, it's a very delightful three hour experience to spend an afternoon with, but it certainly feels abrupt and there isn't much in the way of conclusion in either of the game's endings. In a way, though, that just fits the game's atmosphere even more.
Final Verdict: Unmechanical is an above-average physics puzzler that is brought up quite a few notches by the commitment to great visual design and a terrific use of atmosphere. It's a short but fun experience that uses the mystery of the unknown to great effect.
[xrr rating=8/10, max_stars=10]
This review is based on a review copy of the GOG.com PC version of Unmechanical provided by Talawa Games distributed by Teotl Studios.
Special thanks to GOG.com for providing the review key. You can buy Unmechanical DRM free and with bonus goodies at GOG.com.