Review: Mechanism – Mesmerizing Mechanical Mess

Mechanism, a game developed in Unity by a single developer named Alexander Goodwin, is a conundrum. It’s a melange of genres, ideas and mechanics that don’t mesh properly together in the end. The game begins in a promising manner, presenting you an interesting premise wherein you take control of a small unnamed robot on an important quest. Your goal is to fix the eponymous mechanism, in order to contact the unnamed source of a contagion called “The Phlegm.” The vagueness of it all drew me in, as I hoped to find a riveting tale at its core, but in the end I was only disappointed.

The game is about exploration and finding things out on your own. Similar to point-and-click adventure games, you are given very little direction on what to do and how to do it. The only hints you get appear in loading screens and special creatures called hint snails for which you need to find and give mushrooms. Once you give hint snails the amount and type of mushrooms they request, small snails will appear around the area, and talking to them will give you a small hint. Other than that, the world is also littered with blinking white outlines of items that require you to bring that actual item in order to activate something. For example, a platform may have a blinking outline of a medium sized gear which you will need to find. Once you find that gear, you will need to carry it to the platform and only then will it activate and you may operate it as a lift.

The game requires that players keep track of all the unused items and the items they still need to get. If you find a door that needs a keycard and a gear, you will need to be on the lookout for both of them as well as other missing items. This is a great system on paper as it conveys the tasks you need to achieve visually. The issue is that the game sticks to realism and decides that you are only allowed to carry two items maximum at a time. In one instance, there is a very dark room with an enemy and a door outside of it that requires four batteries. Three of the batteries are inside the room with the enemy. Thus, in one hand you will carry a source of light and in the other a battery and repeat this action until you can open the door. Furthermore, the enemy in the room is extremely simple, just following a set path.

You rarely know which items you need in advance, forcing you to slowly backtrack to pick up an item. The game has a helpful machine you can use that resets the locations of items in case they were incorrectly used or happened to disappear. Due to the janky physics, these may happen often. The game also has a separate machine to keep items locked in place, so if you exit the game they will remain where you left them.

Every time you die and respawn or reenter a location all of the electrical switches, which you turn on by using an ability, are reset, and you have to turn them back on. Because of the backtracking and how often you may need to reset, the game becomes highly repetitious. Both to the game’s benefit and detriment, the game is small with only three main areas: a house, its basement and some nearby apartments.

The game’s main mechanic is that of The Phlegm. The Phlegm appears as black goo, moss or spores and as the different enemies you encounter. If any part of your hitbox enters into the hitbox of The Phlegm, which at times may be a little wonky, then you will start to be corrupted by it.

There is equipment you can find throughout the game that will lower the corruption rate. You can see how corrupted you are by the amount of black goo on you and also by opening the robot’s status screen. The status screen also shows you the world’s contagion percentage and how much metallic nuts you have, which act as a currency to fix or buy certain things and can be found easily while exploring.

Being corrupted has two distinct effects. The first is that your hands will start to tremble which will cause you to drop your items. This system is an irritating one as it adds nothing interesting or challenging and only slows down the gameplay. The only thing the trembling mechanic does is slow you down a little, and every time it happens the same message appears on screen, even when you are not holding any items. Additionally, although you may think healing yourself by standing near a special item will stop you from trembling, your hands will still tremble. The second effect is that the game will now spawn Catchers. Catchers are tall creatures with TV heads that stand around and wait for you to pass by, at which point they will pick you up and carry you to a different area called the Unconsciousness. You can scare them off by using your burst of electricity.

The Unconsciousness is the game’s most interesting aspect. It’s a misty, ominous area consisting of cliffs, trees, and many Catchers. In order to safely escape, you must either find a luminary – a small ball of blue light – or a red ring which will lead you to one of three important items. You must carry these items back to the mechanism, and they will aid you during the game’s single and final boss. If you are caught in this area the world’s contagion level is raised and more black goo will appear. Safely escaping lowers the contagion level.

While this may sound very interesting, in reality, the Catchers’ AI is too simplistic and they are so easy to avoid that it is unlikely you will be caught by them. The area also further adds to the tedium of the game by requiring you to go back into it in order to get some items or lower the contagion level. It stops feeling like a tense chase and more like an assignment you must complete.

The game features some nice atmospheric music and even shows the name of the track when it starts playing. However, each piece only plays once without looping, and when it ends, it just cuts to silence. Many elements of the game also lack proper sound effects, which makes them feel unresponsive. On the other end of the spectrum are the spider enemies. Once they begin screeching at you and chasing you they will never stop until you change areas.

The game’s strongest asset is its aesthetics. The environment design is top notch and genuinely fascinating at times. Though there may be some minor graphical glitches here and there, such as walls disappearing, these do not take away from how gorgeous the game is. What does hurt it is its performance issues and an assortment of glitches. These range from a monster in the basement that respawns even after you killed it to the game just not functioning properly, forcing you to exit and reenter. The game is being updated, so some of these may be fixed in the future.

The game’s most enigmatic aspect is its story. While it is clear that most of the aspects of the game are metaphors, it is difficult to point to a single conclusive explanation to what it all means. Is it a metanarrative on how ideas are created? The achievements seem to imply this, but not much in the game supports this reading. Both the good and bad endings, along with the game over screen, only give tiny hints to what the overall narrative is. Most of the elements in the game seem like they could lead to an interesting story, but none of them are properly explored. The only thing I was left with was too many questions and no real answers.

This may seem contradictory, but I don’t think Mechanism is a bad game. The game is mediocre with many design choices that hold it back, and yet I never felt like it was a waste of my time. While it is clunky and extremely repetitive, it is also very serene and slow. I found the search for what to do next both frustrating and engaging. The puzzles are never complex, and only require you to pay attention to your surroundings. By doing this the game pushes the player to look at its fascinating world and search for clues while also making the player ask what is actually going on. Sure, there may never be conclusive answers, but that does not stop you from theorizing what it all means. To conclude, if you are searching for a simple, minimalistic puzzle game that is more of a meditative experience than a challenging one, and you are able to overlook the glitches and occasional monotony, this game might just be for you.

Ofir reviewed Mechanism on PC through Steam with a code provided by the developer.