Early Access Preview: Kelvin And The Infamous Machine

After somewhat less pleasant adventure experiences of late, it’s rather lovely to encounter a simple but sweet point-and-click that is neither focused on stupidity nor cruelty. But rather time travelling silliness, saving the world from a mad scientist hell-bent on claiming the credit for the great works of geniuses past. After a successful modest Kickstarter, developers Blyts’ Kelvin And The Infamous Machine [official site] is out on Early Access today, complete but for voice acting and final bug testing. I’ve played it through.

Here’s my contention: Infamous Machine is a lovely adventure game, which keeps puzzles strange but simple, and avoids location sprawl by dividing itself into three distinct acts in different settings. But it’s not quite enough yet, and I think there’s time to ensure it does have what that little extra in the three months of EA they intend. More than anything, this is a game that desperately needs a “look at”, and wants a great deal for not having it.

Kelvin is a research assistant for an unpleasant scientist who designs a time travel machine that looks concerningly like a shower. Ridiculed due to its design, the significance of this achievement is ignored, and driven to revenge, the scientist hops about in the past claiming the works of Beethoven, Newton and da Vinci. Your colleague back in the future is able to recognise likely victims of his plundering by finding people who made great discoveries or creations, and then suddenly stopped. Beethoven, for instance, only recorded four symphonies, and despite great acclaim never wrote his notorious Fifth. Suspicious. So Kelvin heads to 19th century Vienna to find out why.

What results are three confined acts, each with a decent number of locations and puzzles, all of them in the style of ’90s oddities, combining extending arms with unpleasant incense to smoke out bees for honey to trap a crow to get its feather. You know the sort. But in an increasingly rare case, they’re not so obscure as to frustrate – in fact, if there’s any criticism to level at the puzzle design here, it’s that I too frequently solved them before I was given a reason to. A result of instilled instincts, certainly, but not quite ideal.

What’s also very apparent here is a sense of brevity. Conversations are fun, and generally well written, but in very many cases they’re limited to exhausting the conversation options and then never speaking to or involving that character again. I’m not sure if this is a result of over-ambition, of editing out puzzles that couldn’t get completed, or simply an attempt to add more life to the world. If anything, it makes perfect sense that not every character you can talk to should eventually need to have a puzzle attached to them, but decades of the genre’s not doing this certainly makes it feel peculiar. The game is easily completed over a five hour period, although its testament to the production just how much is crammed into that space.

If anything, The Infamous Machine feels like a condensed adventure, the collection of locations in each act meaning there’s a limit to how much confusion can be introduced, and perhaps some inevitability to how a puzzle is going to be solved. And I suspect that’s something a lot of people will appreciate, avoiding that agoraphobic alienation of discovering too many places, people, and things to be done. I certainly found it refreshing to be able to breeze through such a game, rather than tear my hair out, for a change. But of course that will perhaps lose the more… dedicated adventure fans.

The art style is fantastic, and the animations are very dedicated. There’s very little of the arm waving nothing-gestures so many adventures use to save time/money, and lots of bespoke animations for particular acts. That’s always a treat. Each scene is pleasantly created, if not always enormously detailed, and the characters all look utterly splendid. The only rather odd issue is that Kelvin looks really troublingly like Penny Arcade’s Tycho, which is an odd oversight.

Music is good too, but comes and goes a little strangely, with completely silent scenes feeling especially incomplete while conversation is all in text. The addition of voice acting, so long as it’s good (and the opening narrator voice is very good), will make a huge difference to things.

However, there’s that issue of the lack of an option to “look at” objects, people and environmental details. It’s increasingly the case in the genre, certainly, but it’s always a massive issue. Schafer’s recent Broken Age felt woefully lacking without it, and while the same expectations certainly aren’t demanded of a game that raised $30,000 rather than $3,000,000, it makes a crucial difference here too. The problem with a single cursor for all actions is that it means the player doesn’t know what the character is going to do. If I click on a fire alarm, am I going to look at a fire alarm, or set off a fire alarm? That ambiguity takes away a sense of control, and distances the player from the game. While many of us may miss the verbs, or the multiple cursors, such things require huge teams to write and code every possible response. But just letting us look with a right click and use with a left feels like the bare minimum necessary.

That problem is recurrent in Infamous Machine, not knowing what a click is going to do, and too often, being frustrated by Kelvin’s enthusiastically using an object before the player even knows what it is. It’s a heck of a lot more writing and voice recording to have objects be described, but I’d say it would make a massive difference to this game, naturally extend its play time by a chunk, and help the player to feel as if they have a lot more control. Plus it’s a chance for a ton more gags.

The game’s gently funny, and while Kelvin does fall into the goofy twit central character, it’s not an overwhelming trait, and for the most part this ends up being an example of an over-used trope done well. It also leans a little too hard on the self-referential “cuh, adventure games!” gags early on, but these dissipate quite quickly, and I confess to enjoying one or two of them.

They estimate three months before this is out of Early Access, and it’d be a tough call to want to play it all over again once the voice acting is added in. But with a bunch of bugs and a fair number of disappointingly unrecognised incorrect solutions to puzzles (how can refilling the cocktail glass from the spittoon not have had a gag written for it?), it certainly will do well for having a large collection of eyes on it. If they can flesh the writing out a bit too, however, it’d be a pleasure to dive back in and find all the new jokes. Early Access is a risk for linear adventure gaming, so it’ll be interesting to see how this works out. But what we’ve got here is a charming, well constructed adventure game, that just needs a little more work.

Kelvin And The Infamous Machine is out on Steam Early Access today, for $14.99. It’ll cost the same when it’s properly released, too.

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9 Comments

  1. Amatyr says:

    So if I play it in early access I get to avoid voice acting? Bonus!

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      Grizzly says:

      Why do you want to avoid voice acting?

      • Phasma Felis says:

        Voice acting in games rarely reaches the standards of “adequate,” and the awful woodenness of it actually makes games worse for people who care about that sort of thing.

        It’s always a pleasant surprise when it manages to be decent, though.

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          alison says:

          I feel like i’ve adapted my expectations to video games having shitty voice acting. Which isn’t to say they all do – a lot of them have very accomplished voice actors, but i think one of the problems with adventure games in particular is that the tone that you as a player may expect to hear when you choose a dialog option does not always match the tone that the actor gives to the line, and then there is this odd disconnect. This happens extremely egregiously with console ports where you just get to pick a general topic instead of an explicit dialog option (fuck you, Mass Effect), but even when you can preview the entire text it is galling to realize something that was sarcastic in your head turned out to be delivered straight by the actor.

          I experience this in a different way since i moved to Germany and now get all my game dialogs in German instead of English. When i watch a YouTube and hear the English actors deliver the same lines i cringe and feel it sounds unbearably cheesy. I don’t know if this is because German voice actors are much better due to Germany having a decades-old dubbing industry for movies and television or if it is just because my understanding of German is not good enough to hear the hokey acting i easily recognize in my mother language.

          As far as English video game voice acting goes, i must admit i kind of like it when they acknowledge they’re not going to match the drama of top-notch television so instead go for a very stylized approach. République has that. A fairly hackneyed storyline and very pretentious dialog, but because they are playing up this sort of bizarre dieselpunkish world they can get away with a WW2-era radio presenter voice and it fits, even though in real life that would sound hammy. Generally i think comedic/cartoon adventure games should go the same way. Tales from the Borderlands, for example, had downright hilarious voice acting, despite it being shamelessly hammy. I think it’s much easier to succeed doing preposterously silly voices than to try to go for serious drama in a genre like adventures where the player might have a presupposition about how the lines should be presented. At least some games like Dreamfall Chapters now let you preview the voice dialog before clicking; hopefully this will become a trend.

          • Thankmar says:

            Thats interesting. As a German, since the dawn of DVD which made me used to hear the original voice acting, its hard for me to appreciate the (most of the times) pretty good dubbing. In movies, parts of the atmosphere sound gets lost, and its always an interpretation of the voice actor of the interpretation the actor is doing of his character, its too many layers. I rarely go to the cinema anymore because I do want to hear the original voices.

            In games, there is maybe a theoretical bonus for german voice actors, but the localisation is in most cases vastly less funded than the original, which translates in being much worse since corners have to be cut.
            Having well-known voice actors, which do a really good job, can downright be immersion breaking: in Sacred (1 and I think 2 as well) the player characters spoke with the voices of Nicholas Cage and Jodie Foster, which was a curious experience. In Drakensang: RoT, Arno (I think) spoke with Brad Pitts voice. In Battlezone, there were Jack Nicholson and Clint Eastwood, but since they were just narrators, that was kinda cool.

            But I don’t like voice acting in RPGs and Adventures that much. It’s like Amatyr wrote: reading at your own pace, with your own interpretation, is faster, and caters to having a personal experience. When I can read subs, clicking away the reading always feels like stalling s.o., and it feels I’m skipping “content”. Thats why I don’t mind the voicelessness of many a japan-made RPG or action-adventure.

            The first Drakensang hit an interesting middlegorund: there would be voice acting for the first lines of dialogue, to set the mood of the character so to speak, the rest you had to read. I liked that, as it combined the acting with the faster reading. The second one had full voice acting, which resulted in much shorter dialogues but taking more time anyway.

      • Amatyr says:

        Apart from voice acting quality generally being terrible, it slows down gameplay at least 50%. When you grew up being able to play adventure games at the pace you read at, having to wait for a bunch of poorly paid actors to act out the same thing is an inferior experience.

      • Kitsunin says:

        To add to the reasonings, wanting to get rid of voice acting is actually a pretty common thing. One of the big things I’ve found regarding (possible) piracy of 3DS games is “undubbed” releases, which have the voice acting taken out — turning to “disreputable” sources is strangely to only way to do so.

  2. pringles says:

    My first thought was “a new sequel in the The Incredible Machine series?” Not complaining though.