Review – Retro Machina
Developer: Orbit Studio
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One & PC
Genre: Isometric Puzzle Game
Release Date: May 12th 2021
I recently got to play Retro Machina for review and it was a bit of a mixed bag. The game is developed by an independent studio from Brazil called Orbit and, (as the game’s title would suggest,) it takes many cues from games of the past in its mechanics and aesthetic.
The story in this game was never going to be akin to something like The Last Of Us, but I was still surprised at just how paper thin it is. Essentially, you play as a robot that has been deemed defective and are jettisoned away from the product line on which you were built to serve on. Once you are cast out, your mission is to fix yourself and get back to where you belong.
That is all that there is to it, so overall the plot is pretty unremarkable here. However, as I said, no one is going to buy this game expecting a deep and complex narrative, most people will probably instead be sold on the game’s aesthetic. There is more to uncover regarding the plot through collectibles, but be warned that it does require a lot of extra reading.
The design choices and style of this game are definitely what give it its charm. The robot that you play as is very similar in design to that of Clank from the Ratchet & Clank series, however he is sadly lacking Clank’s dry wit. One of the game’s primary mechanics also consists of smashing objects to gather gears, again almost exactly like Ratchet & Clank.
Just because Retro Machina shares some of its DNA with other various series, that isn’t to say that it is without its charm. The hand-drawn backgrounds that provide the environmental backdrops for the game are beautiful and the overall aesthetic of the game as a whole carries a tone reminiscent of classic children’s stories. This is likely because the art style is inspired by the illustrations from science fiction books from the twentieth century.
The sound design in the game is another stand out element that really helps to confidently sell the feel that the game is trying to capture. From the game’s musical score to its sound effects, everything carries a distinct feel of hopeful nostalgia tinged with a hint of melancholy. The audio aspect also pairs with the game’s visuals extremely well to create a well-crafted sense of cohesion.
In terms of gameplay, the game is pretty deceivingly complex. When I was first given control of the main character, I immediately started spamming every button on my controller to work out the game’s control scheme. What I discovered was that this game’s control scheme consists of two buttons: dodge and attack.
My first thought was, “this game has light platforming elements, so where the hell is the jump button? They are probably going to introduce that function later in the game.” Nope. It turns out that Retro Machina is a puzzle-platformer without a dedicated jump button. I found this to be an extremely odd choice. In a game like this, you do not want to feel like your character’s feet are nailed to the ground.
Eventually, we are given use of half of the shoulder buttons, which are used to control other robots in the game. Each analogue stick is used to move each respective robot and this leads to some Portal-esque puzzle solutions that were initially fun to solve. The more that you progress through the game, the more complex these puzzles become.
You will probably notice that I said above that the game’s puzzles are “initially fun to solve.” This is because after a while the game becomes increasingly frustrating. Not even in the vein of something like The Witness, where the puzzles become frustratingly harder to solve, but instead in Retro Machina they are frustratingly unclear.
Do you remember playing puzzle games back in the day, where the game wouldn’t give you any sort of direction or hint to solve an annoyingly convoluted puzzle? You’d spend hours wandering around the environment just hoping that you’d get lucky and accidently find the key item that you needed to make progress. Well, if that feeling is what the ‘Retro’ in the game’s title is referring to, then they certainly nailed that aspect of things.
Before too long, it becomes excruciatingly tedious to try and make progress in the game and you quickly get fed up of looking the gorgeous environments and hand-drawn vistas that were initially breath-taking. This is a shame, as it means that the puzzle aspect of the game, (AKA the game’s main function,) ends up taking away from the other positive aesthetic aspects of the game.
The rest of the gameplay that isn’t spent endlessly wandering about vast environments looking for a rainbow coloured tablet is spent bashing other robots. The combat mechanics in the game are extraordinarily basic, with just one single button being utilised for combat.
As there is only one attack button, you can forget about using any combos in a fight. Most fights are made up of you spamming that attack button as enemies come towards you and that is really all that there is to the game’s combat mechanics. You can use the shoulder buttons to control enemies during a fight, but frankly that ended up becoming confusing after a while and I usually just resorted to spamming the attack button in every combat scenario.
It really feels that the combat element was something that was tacked onto the game for the sake of it. As if Orbit thought that they had to have some sort of fight mechanic in their game, so they dedicated one button to serve that purpose before being done with it.
In summary, I would struggle to recommend this game. If it wasn’t as frustrating, then I’d say sure; there are far worse ways to kill a few hours on a boring afternoon than firing up this game. However, having completed Retro Machina for review, I know that this game is much more of a commitment than that.
Therefore, I cannot, – with a clear conscience, – recommend wandering endlessly through huge environments with no clear goal or indication of progress for hours on end just for the sake of witnessing the game’s charming aesthetic. That said though, I am curious to see what Orbit come up with in the future and I will be keeping tabs on the company’s next project.
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