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Wot I Think: Kelvin And The Infamous Machine

What difference voice acting makes

We live in peculiar times, and so it is that I've really already reviewed charming adventure game Kelvin And The Infamous Machine [official site], but back when it was in Early Access. So rather than write the whole thing out again, I've popped the original review below, with new post-release thoughts at the bottom. TL:DR: they added great voice acting.

Original review:

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 is 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.

Post-release thoughts:

Well, they didn't add a gag for the cocktail glass in the spittoon. But what they have added is some really genuinely splendid voice acting. And I don't mean, "Splendid for a low-budget adventure funded by Kickstarter" - I mean splendid in the wider scheme of gaming, where most of it is so bloody awful. It's top-notch stuff, and adds an enormous amount to what was already a funny and congenial adventure. Each character encountered has failed to disappoint, with fun, ebullient performances, lovely timing on the gags, and the right balance of silly and sincere.

Sadly, however, they also didn't add any more context to the clicking, and as such the result is a charming game that never feels like you can reach quite deep enough. It's a perennial problem for the point and click adventure genre - it's why Double Fine's Broken Age, even in the quite good first part, felt so shallow - and it's such a shame. You have a single cursor, and you don't know whether your click is going to mean you look at something, interact with it, pick it up, or push it over. It reduces the player's role so significantly, where just simply putting a "look at" on the right click returns so much missing agency. Oh, and as mentioned above, so much more opportunity for jokes!

Despite this, Kelvin is one of the most competent and solid adventures I've seen in forever, without resorting to the intrinsic nastiness that imbues too much of the output from developers like Daedalic. It looks just lovely, a bold and distinct cartoon style that's something I want to see more of. And it's important not to underestimate how much the voice acting adds, including daft singing characters. It remains a sort of condensed adventure, short at around five hours, but with decent puzzles and lots of silliness packed into that time. I wish it could have gone further, added in the much-needed look-at, but the result is still something adventure fans definitely need to check out.

Kelvin And The Infamous Machine is out now, for $14.99/£10.99.

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