Video games have a way of capturing feelings that aren’t as easily duplicated in other mediums—at least not in the same way. There’s no other type of media that can represent bleak loneliness the same way video games can. Maybe that’s because it feels like you’re there, in that post-apocalyptic civilization, sifting through the ashes, reading the stories of the dead as you come upon them, usually in the places where they lived and worked. Retro Machina is a game that embraces a post-human landscape—one where robots are the only custodians left, working the decaying and empty final city of man.
Retro Machina is an adventure game with an emphasis on exploration and puzzle solving. You play as a robot that is deemed defective, and rejected. Determined to fix yourself, you explore the last human city in hopes of being fixed. Marked as a malfunctioning robot, the robot workers and protectors will try to destroy you. To survive, you have to fight back, and even control other machines. To progress through the city you’ll have to find passageways, overcome obstacles, solve puzzles and find keys to open doors or lower bollards that bar your traversal.
Armed with your wrench, you’re not exactly helpless against robotic attackers. You can attack, and dodge roll. Abilities like the energy smash does an area of effect attack to damage several enemies at once, and the shield prevents you from taking a hit you would otherwise. While there are roaming enemies to dispatch in Retro Machina, battles are most often fought in waves while you’re trapped behind a forcefield or other obstacle until you defeat the entirety of them. You have the ability to take control of enemies, and that includes combat where you can use their abilities to your advantage. If the robot you’re controlling takes a hit, you are damaged and vice versa, so you can’t exactly fight via proxy without getting a little singed yourself. Robots you can control have a range of different abilities and attacks, with some even able to support you by shooting a repair beam—better they repair you than your enemies. While controlling enemies in battle is fun, I most often found myself fighting the old fashioned way: smash with my wrench, and dodge out of the way. Combat in Retro Machina is a little tedious, and unfun, with remote controlling enemies more of a novelty or a way to heal than a way to cleverly dispatch your foes. The remote robot control mechanic is best employed in Retro Machina’s many puzzles.
While Retro Machina contains a fair amount of action, I would argue that it’s just as much about its puzzles. Retro Machina has a good amount of variation when it comes to its puzzles, with one major theme being remote control. Use robots as drones to stand on pressure plates or otherwise reach areas that you wouldn’t be able to. While Retro Machina has some clever puzzles, none of them are especially difficult. Sometimes a puzzle can’t be completed until you explore or unlock another area to access a mechanism that may have been previously accessible, and therefore, exploration also plays a major role in gameplay.
While there are definitely objectives to achieve, you don’t have quests to complete or quest markers to chase after. Instead, you’re left to wander the lonely world of Retro Machina for the next way forward, puzzle, or key. The world of Retro Machina feels empty and dead, which I suppose is appropriate considering its post-apocalyptic setting. Exploration is both haunting and beautiful. Retro Machina’s future is a little bit like Fallout’s, stuck in a 1950’s aesthetic. As you explore and progress through the city, you’ll find clues as to what life was like for its human inhabitants, and the nature of the fate that befell the once prosperous city.
Retro Machina does a lot right, and it’s hard to find faults in it. I dislike Retro Machina’s combat, but it’s mostly passable. I wish it was toned down, or the focus was more on the puzzle solving and exploration. And while Retro Machina’s world is pretty, with a lovely art style, it manages to be dull, with few exciting revelations to discover. Retro Machina is also a strangely bleak game, which is one of its best features—and it has an almost meditative, yet haunting soundtrack really hammers in that feeling of what was lost—and what might be recovered.
Retro Machina is available today on Steam.
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