"...my time with the game was often delightful, full of fun twists and turns as I learned tantalizing details of this strange, low-tech future."
Short stories in video games are underrated.
There are times when you don't want to play an 80+-hour collectathon RPG (not including side quests). Instead, you may feel like experiencing a well-told story in a short time frame. And that's precisely what many indie adventure games have been delivering the last few years. Clifftop Games has followed up their well-received adventure game debut, Kathy Rain, with an ambitious new title, Whispers of a Machine. It unfortunately doesn't quite living up to its fascinating premise, but it's still an enjoyable time for those who want an engaging short-ish story set in an intriguing world.
In sci-fi, Nordic noir adventure game Whispers of a Machine, you're Vera Englund, a tough-as-nails/kindhearted/by-the-book (depending on the choices you make) special agent from the Central Bureau. Sent to solve a murder in the quiet, remote town of Nordsund, she discovers minutes after her arrival that there has been a second murder. This leads her and local law enforcement on a desperate search to uncover a small-town conspiracy and catch the killer before they strike again.
Whispers of a Machine takes place in the future, years after a world-ending calamity involving AI, and most technology has reverted to mid-20th-century levels. CPUs are functionally illegal and looked at suspiciously by the general populace. The only advanced tech is found in Vera's blood. As a special agent, she is cybernetically enhanced by nanotech called "Blue" that grants special abilities. From the start, you have access to an internal biometric analyzer, environmental scanner, and increased strength. As the story unfolds, your in-game choices determine the other Blue upgrades you unlock, giving you new ways to complete puzzles. If you are super polite, you can unlock the ability to take on the appearance of other characters. If you're super assertive, you can learn to mind control the townsfolk to get them to do your bidding. It's a fun role-playing spin that offers character development in a way not seen in most adventure games.
While this mechanic does incentivize multiple playthroughs, Whispers of a Machine's replay value is nowhere near, say, that of classic Lucasarts adventure Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. There, the entire middle section of the game would be wildly different depending on the choices you made. Here, you simply have access to different solutions to puzzles that bring you to the exact same spot. There is a major divergence at the end of the game, giving you access to different endings, but you will get there regardless of the choices you've made and abilities you've accumulated. Though my choices felt important in the moment, they turned out to be meaningless in the end. (Such is life...) That said, my time with the game was often delightful, full of fun twists and turns as I learned tantalizing details of this strange, low-tech future.
The puzzle and inventory systems are streamlined compared to many adventure games. There are the usual "rub one item against another"-style puzzles, though the number of items in your inventory is generally restricted to fewer than five. Instead of trial and error, logic is necessary to solve some of the trickier puzzles, like deducing passwords to computer terminals and security access panels. These are the only parts of the game where I felt at all challenged: trying to figure out how to move forward as a cursor blinked at me expectedly.
The pixel-based graphics of Whispers of a Machine are lovely. Everything from the design of the painterly backgrounds to the polish of the character portraits reminded me of classic Sierra adventure games. Characters are well animated and all look unique, with even the most generic NPC sprites being recognizable at a glance. There is so much lore hinted at through the varied environments of Nordsund, much of which is unfortunately unexplored, despite lots of intriguing locked doors and hot spots that seem to serve no purpose whatsoever.
For example, there are non-functioning elevators everywhere in Nordsund, including in your quarters. From the first minute you start playing, you expect that these will lead to some incredible revelation. Maybe an underground series of tunnels? An AI-worshipping society beneath the city? A fast-travel network? But nope, there is no payoff. These elevators remain firmly shut, teasing you about a mechanic or story point that may have been cut in development. The elevators are far from the only Chekhov's Gun that refuses to go off in the plot, leaving you with a sense of unfulfilled anticipation.
There are also few surprises inherent in the narrative. It is an effectively told detective story with familiar beats that can be guessed right from the start. From the series of murders to the well-worn archetypes of small-town figures to the inevitable betrayal, there is rarely a moment where you feel uncertain about where the plot is heading. That isn't to say that the story is poorly told. In fact, between the well-written dialogue and solid voice acting, Whispers of a Machine keeps you engaged from beginning to end. I just wish there were more places where my narrative expectations were subverted.
In the end, Whispers of a Machine simply tells an engaging detective tale about a series of murders in a small town. While it doesn't break any new ground with its narrative, it makes for an enjoyable time as you explore Nordsund and learn about the people who live there. There is some real innovation in how your dialogue choices impact your acquired abilities, giving the game more replay value than the average adventure title. I enjoyed my brief foray into Nordic cyber-noir and hope that the developers keep making titles that push the gameplay conventions of the genre. Their sense of ambition seems to grow with every game, so keep your fingers crossed that their next title will break some new narrative ground. The gameplay potential is certainly there!
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.