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Wot I Think: Unmechanical

Robo-physics!

Featured post 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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John Walker

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One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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