If there’s one thing I’ve learned from popular media over the last 30 years, it’s that, at the end of the world, all that’s going to be left are cockroaches, twinkies, and robots. If the new game Retro Machina is to be believed, the end of humanity will also include plenty of puzzles and adventures to boot. Are you ready to set off on a new expedition, or will the journey short-circuit before ever taking flight?
Imagine waking from what felt like an endless slumber, only to realize that you were suddenly losing your mind. In Retro Machina, the poor, little misguided gizmo’s breakdown manifests in him suddenly leaving his job, setting off in search of his missing marbles, and a route to return to his “normal” life. Considering the bot’s rapidly declining mental capacity, it’s especially ironic that a core mechanic primarily revolves around puzzle-solving. Go figure.
Mindless brawling… literally
While the unnamed protagonist is on the hunt for a solution to its upcoming rampancy, he has also taken to beating the ever-loving shit out of any gear-munchers that cross his path. For some reason, it seems like the rest of the world’s robotic inhabitants are in on the secret that our guy is on the lam. As such, they go out of their way to ensure our lives are made as miserable as possible. Why these angry androids were being so hard on this little guy is a bit beyond me, but rest assured that after about 15 minutes of raining down hellfire and destruction on their enemy brethren, their anger might have been a bit more justified.
The most compelling aspect of Retro Machina isn’t even the main campaign as much as the side/background narrative, which is unearthed over the course of the game. Found objects and random data logs can be pieced together to help explain the events that lead to the world now being devoid of any carbon-based beings. If I’m being totally honest, I found the hunt for side story almost more rewarding than the vast majority of the in-game action. The approach of slowly trickling foundational narrative throughout the campaign is extremely rewarding, albeit delivered at a pace that was a bit pokier than I would’ve preferred.
Something that caught me off guard was the extremely dated look of all the robot units. When I say “dated,” I’m not necessarily referring to weathered equipment as much as the designs themselves, which feel dated. Imagine what Hollywood thought futuristic robots would look like in the 1960s and 1970s, and this would line up with a decent portion of the character designs. That said, I wished enemies had a bit more variety in combat because, ultimately, most conflicts played out like a standard brawler more than an adventure game.
Controlling the masses
While Retro Machina isn’t going to win any innovation awards, there was one mechanic that I loved right from the jump: remote control. You can possess and take control of most digital units, as long as they’re close enough in proximity. Once you’ve latched on to a specific adversary, it can be controlled using the opposite control stick as your avatar’s. This allows for control of both units simultaneously, and also adds the enemy’s attack to your arsenal, temporarily. Even better yet, if you control a medic unit, it can be used to heal you, instead of the opposition. These teamwork scenarios form the backbone of the puzzle mechanics as well, but more on that later.
Combat itself is a fairly generic affair. Your avatar has what appears to be a wrench that he swings about like he’s playing whack-a-mole on a coke bender. Additionally, there are several unique super moves including the likes of an electric staff attack that electrocutes and disables all adversaries in direct proximity, or a shield that can absorb limited amounts of damage. A dodge move rounds out the arsenal, if you could call it that. As you can imagine, this left quite a bit to be desired in the combat department.
Countering the rather monotonous skirmishes, the world and environments of Retro Machina are beautiful, yet haunting. So much lush detail has been squeezed into every element that appears onscreen. The hand-drawn aesthetic makes the game feel like it’s far more detailed than it has any right to be. This perfection rolls over to the visuals in cut-scenes as well, where the art style takes center stage. But it doesn’t lack in the substance department, either.
If there is one primary complaint, it has to revolve around the puzzle mechanics. While many of the challenges were legitimately fun, I found that many of them were essentially overlong and too interweaving. That’s right. I’m complaining about the puzzles being too goddamn tedious. I appreciate how much time and effort went into nesting puzzles together to build upon each other throughout your time on a particular stage. The problem with these is that it felt like they were often laid out to intentionally introduce constant backtracking, thereby padding the runtime.
Another issue that I encountered as soon as I unlocked flight was the time-honored tradition of top-down games controlling like dogshit in platforming scenarios. The angle of the camera made it incredibly difficult to gauge both the heights of platforms and the distance between them. Essentially, the net result was me falling to my demise. A lot. We’re talking “dying any time I had to take flight” levels of frequently. Fortunately, Retro Machina’s checkpointing does a fantastic job of ensuring death doesn’t necessarily guarantee endless repetition.
One last trivial nit-pick was the seeming over-reliance on kill rooms. You would cross a certain threshold and suddenly walls or obstacles would appear out of the ground, usually trapping you within a claustrophobically small space. Enemies then spring the ambush, followed by several additional waves of adversaries to dispatch. While they weren’t exactly the worst aspect of the design, it certainly felt like these happened far too frequently, further leaning into my length-padding theory from earlier.
There are many elements of Retro Machina that help set it apart from the crowd. Key pieces like a compelling story, interesting puzzles, and beautiful, immersive worlds will undoubtedly impress. Unfortunately, some of the puzzles felt a bit over-engineered for my tastes and the combat began to grind my gears after an alarmingly short amount of time. This bot may have a bit more wear on the tires than you may like. Your mileage (in this case, quite literally) may vary.