Does a sweeping story and large budget make a great game? Many smaller developers like Teotl Studios and Talawa Games believe a great game – a great experience – can be found in the simpler things. Made on the Unreal Engine, their downloadable PC game Unmechanical is just that – simple.
Contrary to some beliefs, simple does not mean a game has to be unpolished. Quite the opposite in fact. Unmechanical is a beautiful puzzle game set in a 2.5D world. While the foreground is in two dimensions, there are vast areas and stunning levels of detail in the background. Through the five or so hours of gameplay, Unmechanical takes our unnamed flying robot from being lost from being deposited in an underground cavern to strangely biological segments and beyond. The story is simple: keep moving and exploring.
Traversing and interacting with this world is as simple as its premise. To move around, the single-copter bot can be controlled by the standard WASD or arrow keys. Along with moving, the only interaction mechanic is a tractor beam with a short range located directly underneath our bot which can be activated with the space bar or left mouse click. This singular ability to interact with the environment creates a surprisingly large number of varied puzzles.
Solving various puzzles to progress from one area to the next gives the player a great pace and rewarding sense of accomplishment. Without any instructions or tutorial, Unmenchanical represents an age of video games where players learn and expand their understanding of how the world works through their own experience. In a generation accustomed to tutorial introductions and flashing signs, this method might not appeal to everyone. Simple puzzles in the beginning slowly introduce new ways the singular ability can be used. It’s amazing the variety and complexity this one mechanic allows the developers to build.
The theme of minimalism is constantly on display through the simplistic controls and lack of narrative or text. In fact, the only on-screen text or indication at all are the small images that give basic hints to solve the immediate situation; this one image usually gives a broad enough clue that the solution still requires some thought. There are occasions when this hint feature results in a question mark or simply fails to convey any meaning. These moments come infrequently, but usually when a hint would be very useful, and the lack of one becomes frustrating staring at the puzzle.
Raising rocks and rebar aren’t the only way to interact in this mechanical world and solve puzzles. The tractor beam can also activate switches that open new areas to explore. Like a Metroid styled game, these new areas introduce abilities. At one point the ability to travel under water is granted; however, the new abilities are otherwise new ways to interact with the world.
The puzzles are the real stars of Unmechanical. There are a variety of different types of puzzles and solutions. In some cases a puzzle has one solution; in others, there could be multiple ways to progress. Despite the minimalistic approach, no two puzzles feel alike thanks to the different environments and slight variations.
The new areas unlocked and the new interactions also introduce new style of puzzles. Not content with utilizing weights, Unmechanical introduces power switches and in many cases start to require multiple steps to complete. Some of the most frustrating puzzles are the ones that are straight-forward and the goal is in-sight, but the mechanic causes a failure. These moments don’t happen often but in a game only clocking in at around five hours spending twenty to thirty minutes trying to solve a single puzzle you know HOW but just can’t do can test any players patience.
Solving the puzzles themselves aren’t the only source of frustration; there can be times when you’re at a loss for where to go next. Eventually the hidden path or missing switch is found but usually more by luck than design. Considering the care that seems to have been taken with the art direction and clever puzzles, this lack of level design can detract from the smooth progression. An on-screen indication would have been appreciated at times. In solving some puzzles, the background can offer contextual clues the help mechanic can’t otherwise give – so directions shouldn’t have been so frustrating.
While it never plays a large part, the story can be compelling if perceived. The world itself is the story – in its environments and backgrounds a sense of back story. Exploring and unlocking new areas takes the player through factory-like conditions towards the ultimate goal. What that goal is lies in the final decision where two choices are offered resulting in two endings.
While some of the puzzles can be frustrating for their mechanics – if I never see another magnet puzzle it’ll be too soon – Unmechanical will help stimulate a pleasant afternoon. A sense of brevity from the short game time is left when the credits run abruptly. A few more hours could have shown even more great puzzles and lessened the relative frustration compared to the overall time played. If the Unmechanical had lasted longer the frustating moments might not have taken up so much of the overall time. As is stands the overall impression after playing leaves a mixture of great moments scared by the marks left when the desk hits your head. There are high points, but not enough to bring you back for another play-through; being able to reload after you beat the game to see the other game ending choice was a brilliant choice.
The musical score and sound effects deserve a nod of their own for continuing the simplistic approach while appropriately capturing the various moods the environments evoke.
Despite the frustration, the journey instills a sense of accomplishment and understanding without ever using a line of dialogue or heavy handed cut-scene. For this aspect Unmechanical deserves to be played, if not studied by those hoping to design their own gaming experiences. With a few improvements, the game truly could have been great.