So. Erm… yeah. Unmechanical, a game created by what appears to be a variety of student teams; developed by Talawa Games, published by Teotl Studios, something’d by Future Games. I was planning on reviewing Unmechanical this week, after receiving a gift of it from Friend Des. And I still will, don’t worry, it’s just… I can’t use my normal Indie Wonderland approach in reviewing Unmechanical, because doing so would almost certainly spoil it immensely. And I don’t really want that on my conscience.
Well, I guess a statement like this is pretty telling, huh? Yes, I enjoyed Unmechanical a lot. One of my reasons for writing these indie game reviews is to give more exposure to those games I feel are worth it, and Unmechanical fits that category pretty neatly. At the same time, I recognize that probably not everyone is going to like it, and the last thing I want to do is encourage blind buys that backfire. Hence, I’ll try to write something; just keep in mind that due to Unmechanical’s… let’s call it delicate nature, it’s going to be a little less long and structured than my usual fare.
Pretty much everything I want to say in one go, I guess
The first sign that Unmechanical is not like other games is when the game starts by just starting. None of that fancy sponsor-namedropping or options-menu nonsense here: the first time you start Unmechanical, the first thing you will see is a field of grass with a few small, round, helicopter-propelled robotesque creatures flying over it.
Suddenly, a pipe reaches up from the ground and snatches one of the robots from the air! The view then goes underground, where the robot’s movement through the pipes (I assume) is used as a framing device to display the requisite logos…
…and show the closest thing to an ancillary splash screen the game will ever have.
Finally, Little Robot Guy splashes in a pool of water, floats out, and comes to rest on a nearby rock. A thought bubble springs to life over its head. ‘F1′, it asks?
This is all the mandatory instruction Unmechanical will ever give you.
Sure, you can ask for more: the F1 key calls a thought bubble again, which shows a schematic overview of Little Robot flying up a bit. Press it in different places, at different times, and you’ll get different hints. Because that’s what they are: hints. Nothing more.
But controls? Straight, direct, ‘press-X-to-not-die’ control prompts? No. You figure it out. The initial movement controls are not hard to figure out; I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to reveal that the propellor-headed robot, who was shown flying in the intro cutscene (such as it was), can fly. Little Robot does more than that, though, and you’ll have to sort that out yourself. The game doesn’t tell you, and neither will I.
There’s an in-game menu, but that doesn’t contain much. Sound and video options, luckily. The menu seems an afterthought, a sparse bone thrown to the notion that you might be unable to finish Unmechanical in one sitting.
The ‘main’ menu, which pops up if you start the game after already having made progress, is similarly bare-bones.
One could be forgiven for thinking Unmechanical was meant to be finished in one sitting. One could be forgiven for thinking this because it’s almost certainly the case. Unmechanical is a short game: the time between my first and last screenshots comes out to about two hours, fifteen minutes. Game length is a worthless measure of game quality, of course: better to phrase it that I started Unmechanical and didn’t stop until I was finished. There’s two reasons why that might be the case, and they are both correct.
I havent’t really spoken at all about the game proper, have I? I kind of don’t want to. Unmechanical is one of those rare games where the journey of exploration, both narrative and mechanical, is the whole point. Let’s try, regardless: Unmechanical is a mostly 2D physics-bazed puzzler with a strong focus on exploration and environmental storytelling. You, Little Robot, have various, evolving ways of getting around and interacting with your environment. It’s almost like Half-Life, in that regard: much more is conveyed through the (frankly gorgeous) environments than through any official briefing or spoken dialogue, and your character appears mute. Of course, everything appears mute in Unmechanical, but that’s beside the point.
Another way Unmechanical is reminscent of Half-Life is in the way it often gives you the idea you are allowed, free even, to tackle any given puzzle the way you want it. There is almost never a sense of ‘how do the developers intend for me to solve this puzzle’, but almost exclusively ‘how can I best proceed here’. I’m still not entirely sure I didn’t bypass some of the obstacles in unintended ways, though I probably didn’t.
Unmechanical’s selling points are its graphical fidelity and its physics system, and both work beautifully. I can’t really comment on the sound design, except that (unlike so many games I know) it uses silence, occasionally, to salient effect. Everything on-screen is a treat to look at: the backgrounds look great, detailed, hand-crafted, and the mechanical foreground ‘creatures’ you meet are alive in their movements small and large both. And the animated setpieces, including the suprisingly dark end-of-story elements, range from amazing to merely good in the one-word descriptors I would choose, for lack of a better vocabulaire.
And the physics system… but then again, I don’t want to tell you too much about that, do I? This is exactly the kind of game the concept of ‘mechanical spoilers’ is intended for. To learn how to play is the objective of every new puzzle. All I will say here is that I’ve had two things happen in object manipulation, and one of them — a beam that got stuck — made total sense in the situation. It just works.
Unmechanical’s short length and spoiler-sensitive puzzle nature mean I can’t really go into much more depth than I already have. And, fittingly, the game sometimes feels as vague as my review does right now. There are certainly moments you can feel lost, when the little thought-bubble hints are unclear and confusing and you find yourself bobbing against everything and nothing to provoke a reaction. But those moments were rare, for me. For the rest, Unmechanical is a cleanly directed ride that keeps enticing to just go through the next hatch. Just to see what’s there.
Unmechanical is probably not for everyone. But if you have a few bucks and between two and four hours to spare, I nevertheless blanket-recommend everyone to play it. It’s cheap, simple, short and easily digestible, and it’s highly likely you’ll be glad you played it afterwards. Get it on Steam, as most things can be gotten, or on GoG, GamersGate, or even OnLive if that’s your fancy.