Inside Pulse 12

Review: Unmechanical: Extended Edition (Microsoft Xbox One)

Unmechanical: Extended Edition
Genre: Puzzle
Developer: Grip Games
Publisher: Grip Games
Release Date: 01/30/15

Two of the more interesting trends in gaming that have popped up in the last half-decade are that of creating organic puzzle games over their traditional counterparts and developing products with minimalist storytelling over extended textual nightmares. The two went together well enough back in the day with games like Another World/Out of this World and (to a different extent) Flashback, but both concepts fell out of favor when technology advanced to a point where more options were possible for developers. They’re making a comeback, though, partially due to big-name developers using the concepts in their own games and partially due to the fact that these concepts are much easier for indie developers to employ, since they don’t have multi-million dollar budgets, but do have the ingenuity to make something special (in theory). Unmechanical is one of the more recent examples of both of these trends, and its initial release in 2012 on the PC did well enough to help the game achieve enough recognition to see a console release. The console release, dubbed Unmechanical: Extended, promised new content and bonuses, and also has the benefit of releasing to platforms that aren’t quite as flush with indie content as the PC market Unmechanical was released into. This is a good thing, as Unmechanical: Extended has an even greater chance to stand out in a marketplace that’s not as full of games fighting for a place at the top of the pile, because as it happens, it’s a cute and charming game, albeit not an especially lengthy one.

On Silence and Beauty

There’s not an especially involved narrative to Unmechanical: Extended, in either of its two storylines. In the main storyline, you’re playing as a silent robot helicopter… thing that gets separated from its friends while flying around one day, and has to find a way out of its current predicament. In the secondary storyline, you and a friend are both silent robot helicopters who are pulled underground, and have to work together to figure out your predicament and escape. That’s about all the game tells you directly, so those looking for more narrative-heavy experiences won’t find that here, but there’s a lot the game has to say about its world if you’re willing to think a bit. Part of that comes from the surrealist presentation, as the game world is just weird, but it’s weird in a very specific way, featuring elements the player would recognize (flesh, hearts, electronics) but in fashions they wouldn’t (as part of an underground world). The other part comes from the fact that you’ll encounter things that tell the story of the world by way of simply existing, like other underground robots, alive or dead, which manage to convey much of what’s going on without any actual words being spoken. There’s still a lot about the world and the experience that’s left entirely to the player’s imagination, and much of what’s presented is a bit simplistic, but overall, there’s something to the experience that makes it interesting, and it manages to be unique and special through its minimalist story, simply through what it does and how it does it.

A good amount of how that story is conveyed comes down to the visuals, as you’d expect, and they’re very beautiful and horrifying, often both at the same time. The characters are essentially all blank slates, with emotionless robot faces that only really convey anything through turning their lights on and off as needed, allowing them to essentially be ciphers for the player. The world, on the other hand, is amazing, featuring an eclectic mix of beautiful and alien underground scenery, machinery of familiar and unfamiliar design, futuristic tools featuring bright colors and effects, and fleshy implements such as hearts and muscles. The game does nothing to explain these things, which makes them compelling and unsettling, and the game (to its credit) never tries to imply a specific emotional response at any point, leaving it to the player to form their own opinions. The audio also carries this concept, especially the music, which is an excellent ambient mix that’s not only well produced, but also incredibly fitting for the experience, if slightly overproduced at times. The sound effects also do a good job, largely through being minimal and effective when in play. Machines and environmental elements make noises as needed, and the robots make the odd static-tinged beeps, but otherwise there’s not much to the sound, which helps the immersion, oddly enough.

Puzzles, Organic and Otherwise

At its core, Unmechanical is a puzzle game, but even then, that doesn’t really explain what it does or how it does it. The game is, in theory, really simplistic; the left analog stick controls your little robot buddy as you fly them around the game world to inspect the various locations you find yourself in, while three of the face buttons act as something of a grabber mechanism under the robot. The grabber allows you to pick up basically anything the game allows you to, and so long as it doesn’t outweigh the weight the robot can lift, you can carry it with you to go to the location you wish to go to, as needed. One of the face buttons acts as a “hint” button, allowing you to see what your robot buddy thinks of the current situation in case you’re stuck and have no idea what you should be doing next. This is essentially the entirety of the controls; while you’ll see an upgrade later on in the core game that allows you to go underwater to solve some puzzles, that’s more or less all the game has to offer you insofar as mechanics go. The gameplay, in other words, is quite simple, so anyone can pick the game up and get to work with minimal difficulty, to the point that there really isn’t much of a tutorial, and you almost certainly won’t notice.

Unmechanical instead incorporates its challenge through environmental puzzles rather than through play mechanics, and this is where the complexity of the experience comes in. You’ll have to use your ability to move around obstacles to progress, as you’ll have to move things in the environment to different locations, flip switches, and more, depending on the room you’re in at the moment. The early puzzles actually do a lot to explain what you can and can’t do within the environment, as you’ll find that you can utilize bombs to blow up certain parts of the environment, use girders to hold down multiple switches at once and more in the early going. This is good, because you’ll need to know these things as you go on, as the puzzles become far more complex in nature the further you go. Puzzles can also span several screens at a time and require a decent amount of timing, depending on the area and what’s expected of you at the moment, and the game puts a huge emphasis on exploration, meaning you’ll often find that you won’t even know what to do until you’ve flown around a bit and taken everything in. The game goes out of its way to let you discover the environment rather than direct you to your next objective, and while this can be confusing at first, it’s actually pretty interesting to simply fly around and take everything in before you start working on a puzzle in earnest.

The main game, Unmechanical, will be familiar to PC players who’ve spent time with it in the past, as it’s functionally identical to the original. The Extended part comes in with a separate mission, which allows for its own saving and such, which is about half the length of the original game. For those wondering, the two games are roughly the same, but actually tackle the experience in notably different fashion, which makes them both worth experiencing. The original game tends to utilize all sorts of puzzles, both organic and more obvious (such as a sequence early on that requires you to play a game of Simon). Extended, on the other hand, tends to focus on organic puzzles over the duration of its runtime, meaning that the puzzles are more natural and focused on using the environment to your advantage rather than performing matching activities or moving weights or whatever. Both work fine and are fun to play through, but depending on the sorts of puzzles and innovations you’re looking for, you’ll probably find that at least one of them speaks to you as a player, if not both.

On Execution

Unmechanical: Extended’s one main flaw is that, while the asking price isn’t bad for what you get, it’s over in a hurry. The core game will probably take you around four hours to complete, with the Extended content offering another two hours in all, though I’ve actually seen the entire game completed inside an hour and a half. That by itself isn’t a big issue, as there are four total endings to see in the game, but even then you’ll find that the endings can be seen off of the same save, as the choice that allows you to see each ending happens literally at the end of the game in each case, so that doesn’t add much runtime to the experience. You can also pick up every possible Achievement in the game in one playthrough, including the Achievements that specify seeing a set ending, if you load up your last save and perform the other task to do so. There’s literally nothing to come back to once the game is done, as there is no content you can’t see or unlock in your core playthrough of the game, so for those looking for a game with additional play options, content, or value beyond the storyline, you’re not getting it here.

Beyond that, there are a few minor issues to work through that make the game harder to deal with, albeit in smaller ways. For one thing, the lack of anything driving the experience but the surrealist presentation can be problematic if you’re looking for something meatier. That might seem like a weird complaint coming from someone like me, considering I tend to cheer games like Shadow of the Colossus and Dark Souls for their lacking narrative, but those games not only have something to say, it’s something deep and interesting. Unmechanical is about weird robots in a weird world being abducted; while it’s pretty, you can sum the entire narrative of each up in two or three sentences, honestly. Because of this, you might find yourself fighting to plow through the game even with its short run time, because all you’re doing is pushing forward to see the next visual setpiece, and that’s about it. Extended does a little more conceptually with its environmental puzzles, which actually makes it feel more engaging and interesting given that it’s less inclined to throw obvious puzzles your way, but it’s also much shorter so that’s less impressive in comparison. Finally, on the Xbox One specifically, the game doesn’t do well with the system’s inherent “leave the game active if you turn off the power” setup; upon returning to the game, the next time the game tried to save, it got stuck infinitely saving and, when I came back to it again, couldn’t load the save until I completely uninstalled and reinstalled the game. This is a small thing, and quitting the game entirely avoids it outright, but if you’re the sort of person who just turns off the console when you’re done, it’s a behavior you’ll have to unlearn for this game.

If you can deal with no narrative to speak of and don’t mind that the game has nothing to come back to, Unmechanical: Extended is a joyful experience, full of beauty and thoughtful puzzles, that justifies its ten dollar asking price simply to experience it as much as anything else. The game is beautiful aurally and visually, and simple enough to play that anyone can do it so long as they’re willing to sink time into thinking through the complex puzzles set before them, and it’s not so long as to wear out its welcome in either mode. The game has a simple, childlike wonder to it that encourages exploration and forming your own impressions, as well, which is rare in gaming these days. The narrative is non-existent, however, and between the occasionally obvious puzzles in the core game combined with the short run time, lack of reason to return and Xbox One specific flaws can make it a bit more troublesome than it needs to be to complete. If you’re looking for something simple but thought-provoking, and don’t mind some obvious puzzles, Unmechanical: Extended is definitely worth its asking price, as despite its simplistic narrative and mechanics, it’s complex in its puzzles and encouraging in its design.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Unmechanical: Extended is an artistic wonder that’s quite engaging and well worth experiencing, if you’re willing to forgive it for its absent narrative and lack of replay value, or even if those elements are perhaps positive to you. The game absolutely oozes beauty in its visual and aural presentation across the entire experience, and its surreal presentation is complimented by its simplistic gameplay that emphasizes complex solutions rather than complex play mechanics. The experience emphasizes exploration and thought over all else, and it leaves you as the player to decide what you think of it over telling you about itself, which makes for an engaging and fresh experience that’s unlike most games you’ve likely experienced. On the other hand, the completely absent narrative may be a turnoff for some, as might the more obvious puzzles that pop up, the lacking replay value, or the odd save bug that forces you to quit the game if you don’t want to jack up the save state. For its asking price, however, Unmechanical: Extended is a surprisingly complex experience that implements simplicity in the right ways without making the experience dumber for it, and while it’s a little clunky at times, overall, it’s a worthwhile experience.