Value doesn't mean the same as quantity.
We're conditioned to believe the opposite. New Game Plus modes and open worlds sell premium titles, while downloadable marketplaces thrive on bang for your buck. Hell, when I was a lad, I never paid £40 for a game that provided any less than eight campaign hours (since I earned less than minimum wage, that's how the maths added up). Sometimes, though, you've got to remember that a game - any commodity, in fact - can be good value just because it's superbly made.
Unmechanical lasts four hours, tops... but they're four of the most compelling, maddening and flat-out enjoyable hours I've spent playing a game this year. What started out as a student project has coalesced into something rather special indeed (they often do), and it will cost you less than a premium cinema ticket.
I've lost count of the number of times I've described an indie game's premise as "disarmingly simple" or "charming," but I fear that I need to do so again. An adorable hovering robot gets sucked into an underground labyrinth, and has to escape using his sole skill: the ability to lift small objects with a tractor beam. Rather than bombarding players with new ideas every ten minutes, Unmechanical joins the elite crew of puzzle games that make the most of a good idea; developing a simple concept into an exciting and varied experience throughout a linear selection of 2.5D rooms.
Unmechanical's puzzles start very physical, in the sense that solely being able to lift stuff lends itself to some physics-based object manipulation, pressure pads, switches and other similar contrivances. Drop rock on switch. Move on. But wait... what happens if you have to press three buttons... with three rocks... that aren't actually heavy enough in their own right? You'll frequently need to think, not just outside the box, but outside the immediate area too. Besides these plentiful physical challenges, you'll also come across memory puzzles, mirror/light beam reflections (a highlight), 'simon-says' sections and even the odd reflex-based encounter - though Unmechanical is primarily based on logic over twitch. If you find that Unmechanical asks too much of your reflexes, you're almost certainly going about it in the wrong way.
It even has a 'Eureka Moment.' I know that all good puzzlers need several of these important flashes of inspiration, but I'm being totally literal here: Archimedes himself would be proud of one particular solution.
Interestingly, Unmechanical doesn't succeed because it's particularly innovative (chances are that you'll have encountered similar puzzles in any number of brainteasers). It's just - as mentioned - brilliantly made. Challenges are taxing without being obnoxiously left-field, playtested to perfection and sat on one of the smoothest difficulty curves I've ever experienced. Manipulating objects feel weighty without being cumbersome, movement speed is neither too slow nor too fast, everything feels just right. It's an absolute joy to play, to the extent where you'll likely be inexorably sucked into completing the whole thing in a single compulsive session. Like the mechanics, a four-hour runtime is just right too, satisfying yet punchy.
Much needs to be made of the visuals, powered by the ever-reliable Unreal Engine. The great thing about UDK (and Unity, to be fair) is that you can pretty much guarantee that skilled developers will make the game look good and run smoothly with relatively little effort compared to using a bespoke engine, thus allowing them to lavish the bulk of their attention on gameplay and art style. Unmechanical is utterly gorgeous, providing sumptuous animated 2.5D backdrops to behold, thematic variation between zones and a jarring blend of technology with oozing, pulsing biology. There's always eye-catching interesting to look at, conspiring to draw you in yet further with the puzzle design. Those b*stards - I had things to do, dammit. The hovering, floppy-limbed robot himself is also one of the most adorable protagonists of all time, and I wonder how long it took for Talawa to get the eye position and facial expression halfway between vacant, determined and utterly dejected. Or if I'm just reading too much into it.
That said, Unmechanical has its low points and does a poor job at intuitively directing the player at times. I'm not looking for a game to hold my hand, but having to remember which doors you've already passed through in a circular hub area is rather annoying, especially since the order in which they unlock bears no resemblance to where you place the keys. Despite being extremely linear, a couple of infuriating backtracking sections feel like unnecessary, pointless busywork, and one of the puzzles is rather oblique to say the least (in the vaguest possible terms, it involves several critical elements that look like scenery objects, and powers up a machine whose identical fellow isn't attached to a similar device yet is active nonetheless).
I also rather assumed, perhaps unreasonably, that Unmechanical had a much deeper subtext underpinning it. Indeed, that's one of the main reasons I continued playing. The juxtaposition of clanking machinery and pulsing biology, not to mention a massive beating heart (I daresay that you'll have noticed it in the screenshots) seemed to hint at something more lurking just behind the scenes, perhaps some thought-provoking themes, symbolism or plot beyond just an anonymous robot's escape from an underground labyrinth. Sadly, this isn't really the case: interesting scenery elements are exactly that, nice to look at, but otherwise just window dressing. A 'multiple-choice ending' also resolves itself in one of the laziest ways possible.
This observation wasn't anywhere near critical enough to warrant deducting a point, and 'narrative' means different things to different people. But while the hours fly by, there's little to look back or reflect on, and a slight twinge of disappointment once it's all over. Unmechanical is brilliant fun while it lasts and more than justifies the price tag, but could have been so much more with just a little more thought.
Either way, just go play it already.
- Compelling, mechanically nigh-perfect puzzling
- Brilliantly-designed and balanced puzzles
- Devastatingly handsome
- Poor signposting
- Doesn't innovate (you'll have seen many of these puzzles before, only worse)
- Unsatisfying resolution
The Short Version: Unmechanical provides four wonderful hours of mechanically-perfect puzzling, trapping you willingly in its gorgeous labyrinth for the duration. Despite a couple of issues and a slight lack of real innovation, Unmechanical joins the wealth of fantastic student projects that evolved into excellent games, and provides an experience that's more polished and balanced than any number of big-budget titles I could mention. It's time (and money) well spent.