Wot I Think: Unmechanical

By John Walker on August 9th, 2012 at 1:00 pm.

Oh, physics.

Indies Talawa Games have released their first game, Unmechanical, on Steam, GOG, Onlive and Gamersgate. It’s a physics puzzler about a cute little robot, trapped inside a peculiar machine. But is it good? Here’s Wot I Think:

Admittedly it had me at a cute little robot. It’s hard to dislike any game that shows a gang of happy-go-lucky robot chums going about their day, then suddenly one of them being captured and dragged into an underground chamber, trapped and needing to escape. But he’s too cute to be imprisoned! Fortunately for everyone else, Unmechanical is more than its central character – it’s a near-perfect morsel of puzzling brilliance.

At first it seems as though the game is going to be too simple. You have movement and one button to control the hovering robo-friend, that button turning on his mini tractor beam emitted from his underneaths, allowing him to carry objects light enough beneath him. And that’s it. Working comfortable with keyboard and/or mouse, and perhaps even better on a 360 controller, the next simplicity discovery is that despite the scenes having three dimensional depth, you’re moving up, down and sideways on a 2D plane. But this is absolutely not simple.

Straight away you realise that this is about experimentation. There’s an extremely obscure hint system that I forgot about immediately, the game obviously far more fun when approached with an attitude of improvisation. It’s primarily physics puzzles, and thanks to the Unreal Engine it’s superbly designed to handle them. The majority of the game’s goal is to explore four regions from a central hub, to gather large, lit orbs. Each of the four lies behind a multi-stage, elaborately complicated set of challenges, each asking you to meddle with the environment until you understand what needs to be done. This ranges from wedging steel girders into cog mechanisms to grind machines to useful halts, to guiding bombs through laser beams to explode weird, fleshy targets. There are even some traditional puzzle elements in there, balancing out scales, lighting areas of the screen, and so on, although none feels out of place, nor needlessly obscure.

Perhaps the real key to Unmechanical’s overwhelming sense of success is just what a pleasure the robot is to control. His swaying movements are perfectly weighted, gliding him up and around narrow pipes feeling intuitive and remarkably satisfying. Despite being completely expressionless, he’s packed with wonderful details that give him life, from the tiny blinks of his eyes, to the adorable ‘eeks’ and ‘oofs’ he lets out as you bump him into the scenery. Without a line of dialogue, he’s imbued with superb personality, almost certainly all of it anthropomorphised. If anything, his straight-faced fortitude makes you want to hug him just for his sheer determination.

The rest of the game is beautiful too. The backgrounds are elaborately detailed, a conflation of mechanical and organic. Vast, intricately detailed beating hearts are wired to metallic gloom and dulled fluorescent lighting. Enormous computers pulse through wires and veins, with intermixing backgrounds of circuit boards and long, fleshy pipes. The sound choices are also spot on, the metallic clangs added so much weight to a dragged girder, and those aforementioned yelps when you slam the poor robot into a wall. And the music matches the rest, ambient and interesting, adjusting to match the moods.

Of course, where there are physics, there are issues. As is the perennial problem for physics puzzlers, it’s possible to get yourself in a pickle the designers hadn’t predicted. I had to start one room over after I (pointlessly) wedged a giant cog in a doorway and couldn’t move it in either direction. And later on I was almost in a game-breaking situation where I’d (pointlessly) dragged a vital floating lump of ore under water and into a cave. Because the robot can only grip things from his bottom, a floating object on a cave roof became enormously tricky to retrieve. And this was in an enormous area with many solved puzzles all around, and the game’s (excellent) checkpointing and lack of a save meant I’d have been forced to start the entire game over. Fortunately through mad determination and a daft amount of time, I managed to get it back and could carry on. But if there’s a weakness here, it’s the developer’s failure to imagine the more stupid things a player may do.

The other fault is entirely on Talawa Games. The menus look like something they might have thrown together for the earliest alpha, and then forgot about, and they fail to remember some graphics settings. More strangely, they don’t include options for adjusting specifics. I know that UDK can be a pain for this, but it would be so much nicer to see things better anti-aliased. And I cannot think of any good reason for a lack of a chapter-based save, and the ability to go back to play specific areas again.

But neither of these things are any reason to avoid this. And there are so many reasons to play. At around four hours long, it’s such a wonderfully designed, ideally balanced set of challenges, often tricky but never obscure, revealing a maturity in crafting that is remarkable from a first-time indie team. It’s absolutely adorable, damned smart, and well worth your time.

Unmechanical is out now, costs £7, and there’s a demo on OnLive.

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27 Comments »

  1. MadTinkerer says:

    What a lovely birthday present! (Though technically my birthday isn’t for another few weeks, I’ll treat myself to this now. Charming exploration-puzzlers are my all time favorite genre.)

  2. Marliquake says:

    the music in the trailer is astounishing

  3. Kyrickell says:

    I wasn’t sure this article would actually contain a review, since John is asking “Here’s wot I think?” in his opening paragraph.

  4. Winged Nazgul says:

    Here’s TB’s WTF on the game:

    http://youtu.be/TBB8FlKO6pc

    Seems this was a collaboration between students at a university that specializes in game development and the developers of The Ball.

  5. wccrawford says:

    My biggest complaint was that I downloaded, installed and beat this game in under 2 hours. I had fun the whole time, but it was just short.

    • Mattressi says:

      Damn, that’s really short. I was thinking of getting this, but I’m just not big on games that don’t last longer than a LOTR movie. Are you sure you’re not just REALLY good at these games and that someone who is…well, crap at them, wouldn’t take 6 hours instead? Or is that too much of a stretch?

      • John Walker says:

        He’s ridiculously good. It took me around four hours, and the developers describe it as that long too.

      • wccrawford says:

        I do play a lot of these games… But the puzzles were all pretty obvious, to me.

        If I had been forced to do more experimentation to solve the puzzles, then it would have taken longer… But I’d rather they just added more puzzles to the end instead.

    • MadTinkerer says:

      So in time-per-dollar and brain-think-per-dollar it’s still better than a movie. Yep, I’ll still be getting my present. :)

  6. Skabooga says:

    Ah, the type of puzzle game which is not just different versions and designs of the same puzzle. My favorite kind of puzzle game.

  7. Hunchback says:

    The game is simply excellent, super cute and … NICE to play.

  8. The Random One says:

    Is the Onlive demo an actual demo, or just the regular game for half an hour as they usually do?

  9. Tei says:

    I am playing it just now. I find it adorable and the puzzles have the right difficulty level. Actually, It reminds me a lot of Waking Mars for some reason (?).
    The background graphics are really well done and complete the experience.

    I don’t think the menus are a problem, for most my time on the game I ever forgot about it… and also about the hint sytem until this article mentioned it.

    Other than that, is a cute little game :D

  10. Nero says:

    Just finished it minutes ago and I really enjoyed it. I agree with the minor issues but the charm and gameplay makes up for it. Just a joy to play.

  11. Xocrates says:

    Just finished it, and while it’s a nice little game I find the WIT a bit too generous.

    Overall the puzzles are fine, they’re often clever and hit a good balance, however I got stuck on several of them for a short while because I didn’t realize there were apparently unrelated parts of the level that were also part of the puzzle (exacerbated by the fact that many others are self-contained). Which leads to the occasionally bizarre situation where you’re not experimenting to try and solve the puzzle, you’re experimenting to find what the puzzle actually is.

    However my biggest complaint, is that more often than not it’s not clear where you’re supposed to go. Sometimes you have to backtrack and then go through a door half way down the path, sometimes you have to remember which of the 5 exits were open the first time around. Frankly, this doesn’t count as exploration any more than looking for your car keys does.

    And as a minor nitpick, the endings (of which I found 2) seem a bit sudden.

    Ultimately, I just find the game a bit too slight to be worth 9€ (and for those wondering, I estimate it took me about 2 and a half hours)

  12. liquidsoap89 says:

    That trailer reminds me of the jetpack parts of Little Big Planet. I might have to try this game out!

  13. DPB says:

    I have to agree on the lack of saves. I did plan on going back to find some of the other endings (I found 2 but I’m fairly sure there are a couple more), but after getting the 2nd ending, my save glitched and put me back to an earlier point. The puzzles I solved have remained so, but I can’t get back to where I was before because the exits are blocked.

  14. hamburger_cheesedoodle says:

    Some beautiful level design here- I’m not surprised to learn that Teotl worked on this. Hourences & co do such pretty things.

  15. G-Lord says:

    After playing 1 minute of the demo, I had to head over to GoG to buy this game. Love puzzle platformer.

  16. LintMan says:

    the game’s (excellent) checkpointing and lack of a save meant I’d have been forced to start the entire game over.

    I would argue that an excellent checkpointing would preclude the possibility of being forced to start the game over and not force the player to spend a daft amount of time trying to undo a mistake.

    Hoensty, how hard would it have been for the developers to add a save system? Just a basic checkpointed save system should have been trivial to add.

    I’m really tired of the console mentality that can’t be bothered with saves on PC games like we can’t spare the space on our 80GB hard drives. I wish PC reviewers would pound more on devs that do this.

  17. doodaddy says:

    This reminds me of Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet. Do they have a common papa? Is that what Little Big Planet is?

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