Having garnered some attention on its mobile release, These Robot Hearts Of Mine has found its way to PC via Newgrounds. A puzzle game combined with a story of young lovers and robots, Alan Hazelden's game aims to create an emotional tone to a more traditional puzzling idea. Does it work?
I'm going with a big no. What you have here are some cog puzzles (gears are surrounded by interconnecting hearts, which must be rotated until they're all upright), and a story, the two alternating. With nothing, beyond an aesthetic decision, in common. The tale, of a boy and a girl who meet, fall in love, find a robot, and then discover struggles, is a frayed, thin rope on which to try to tie a not particularly inspired puzzle game, both of which feature mechanics and matters of the heart. In fact, it's not until the very end of the game, 36 levels in, that either does anything interesting. Which is agonizing, because it's perfectly clear in every aspect that Hazelden was bursting with good ideas!
The minimalist pixel design is splendid, either white words on a pink background, or the simplistic design of the cog puzzles that could have run on a 48K Spectrum, and the ambient swirls and wonderful clunks of the cogs are evocative and engaging. Puzzles occasionally have a vague association to the line of story you've just read, although usually that's background hearts making a shape of a room, or a face, nothing especially interesting. You're given a target number of moves to solve the puzzles within, which for a decent while are around the 5 to 9 mark. Knowing they can be solved so quickly encourages you to look for patterns, routes beyond guesswork, and solve them logically. The only trouble being, that's a pretty repetitive affair, and it's not exactly the most riveting puzzle to complete. But then in the second half those minimum move numbers become increasingly wayward, and at around 13 start to lose any appeal to solve. When they reach the 30s I can see no incentive to avoid using the skip level button and just click your way through to the end of the story.
Which is equally silly, because it's only at the end, in the penultimate and final level, that it does anything clever. And it's really clever. It's evocative and emotional - something a puzzle game can rarely be. And it should have been how the whole game was thought through! I'm not sure how it wasn't recognised that the puzzle itself didn't sustain the theme, when there was the wisdom of that final moment. What is ultimately quite a trite moralistic parable could have developed a meaningful resonance for the player if there had been more mechanical effects, peculiarities, and surprises, there'd be something here. A more gradual breakdown of the puzzle, a sadder, more effecting dissolution of love, and I imagine we'd be shouting from the mountaintops. But sadly this is just an average puzzle game interspersed with an average story, presented as if it's going to be so much more.