Sidescrolling puzzle games are truly a dime a dozen these days, and we’re getting to a point where it’s hard not to wince every time a new one is announced. That's not to say that a strong selection of these games haven't been knockouts — Braid, Limbo, and Fez, for example, have been absolute homeruns — but even so, it’s tough to deny that the genre is becoming overcrowded. Released for PC a few years back, Unmechanical has just propelled its way onto the Xbox One, and it’s got a whole bunch of exploratory puzzling in tow. It also has the subtitle “Expanded” worked into the name, and with it comes a console-exclusive chapter to provide something fresh for returning players. The question is: should you play it?
In Unmechanical: Extended you take control of a nameless flying robot and guide him through an underground system of tunnels, pipes, and industrial-like areas. There isn’t much context to what your agenda is other than to solve physics-based environmental puzzles and keep making progress, seemingly to escape. As you delve deeper and deeper into the mysterious subterranean network, you’ll stumble on mechanical structures and even a hint of organic matter that adds intrigue to the proceedings, posing questions about where it is you actually are. Even though Unmechanical might not provide the answers we were hoping for in the end, this is one 2.5D puzzler with a journey that we found immensely satisfying.
The gameplay is so accessible that you can actually play with one hand if you desire – we often did. Either one of the joysticks can be used to move the robot through the environments, and, outside of using the Y-button to provide hints, the only other command available is a gravitational beam that allows for small rocks, metal beams, and other objects to be carried around. Additionally, the beam can even be used to pull levers and activate switches. This is how you’ll solve the many puzzles and earn passage to new areas. Whether it’s reflecting lasers through a series of mirrors to power a door, or jamming gears/cogs with metal rods, making use of objects laying throughout your surroundings is the name of the game. While we never encountered any real brain-busters, we found majority of the puzzles to be clever and thought there was a great deal of variety from one to the next.
One thing that we really liked about Unmechanical is that there’s no real danger to be found. There are no timers, no enemies, and nothing that deals any damage. You’re free to move along at your own pace, and the only concerns you’ll ever deal with are: Where do I go, and what do I need to do to get there? Anyone looking for an action-oriented adventure like Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, should look elsewhere: Unmechanical doesn’t cater to you. Although it’s largely linear at times, this is a game about exploration and discovery, isolation and intrigue. Like Limbo and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, it’s the type of game that's about the experience, and it doesn't waste your time or stretch its ideas thin for the sake of bloating. We like that. But it should be said that, because there aren't any collectables or secrets areas to find, there isn't much replayability here.
When it comes to the presentation, we were a wee bit worried upon starting a game and being greeted by a poorly-textured and fuzzy-looking forest. Oddly enough, once you’re dumped into the underworld below, which happens just a few seconds in, everything looks much, much better. The scenery is densely layered, with an effective sense of depth, and the vast caverns and claustrophobic passageways are atmospheric and absorbing. Sometimes it can be tough to distinguish what’s in the foreground, background, or directly ahead, but it’s a very minor inconvenience when it occurs. On the audio front, the music is commonly solid, but there are a couple instances where a stellar song kicks in during a transition into a new area, and it’s attention-grabbing in the best kind of way.
So what makes Unmechanical: Extended different from the version that released through Steam back in 2012? Well, there’s a new, console-exclusive chapter available from the main menu, and it adds about an hour value to the package. It’s the same basic premise – escape from an underground facility – but this time you and another robot are captured, and you must find them before making your way to the surface. The puzzles here are more ambiguous and a little bit more unintuitive than they are in the main game, but overall this is a serviceable addition. Our biggest complaint stems a short chunk of the episode that only allows you to fly for so long before shorting out and temporarily losing power. Because there are no hints or text to teach you how to operate within these circumstances, trying to solve puzzles with these restrictions can be both discouraging and aggravating. Fortunately, once you’re on the other side of this section, it’s pretty smooth sailing.
As far as other changes go, the developer has said to also have tweaked and refined other areas of the game, but because we have no history with the Steam version, we can’t verify or confirm what’s been done. We can say that everything certainly performed as it should for us.
Fumbling with the physics is possibly the closest thing to a loose screw in the main game, and that requires nothing more than a small degree of patience. That's not to say that Unmechanical is perfect, it's certainly not; but it's so consistent and smooth that the itty bitty bumps in the road barely cause this sturdy machine to shake. We'll admit, we were skeptical about whether or not the enigmatic adventure would be compelling enough to hold our attention all the way through. Turns out, since we were glued to the screen for the entire three or so hour runtime, our concerns were nothing but wasted energy.
Unmechanical: Extended is a delightful adventure that can be best summed up with one word: consistent. While some might find the length to be a little on the short side, we appreciated that our time wasn't wasted on unnecessary bloating or mechanics shoehorned in merely for the sake of variety. The puzzles are clever, the environments are absorbing, and there's enough intrigue to keep your curiosities engaged from start to finish. If you're on the market for an afternoon's worth of casually-paced entertainment and want to put your problem-solving skills to the test, then you should gear up for a bit of Unmechanical. It respects both the genre and your time, and for that — along with plenty of other reasons — there's quite a satisfying experience to be had.