Crymachina is a laser-tag ballet of marrow-curdling mechano-carnage. Picture Swan Lake with lightsabers. The Nutcracker on ice and steroids. An endless waltz of terrifying hardware and grim circuitry lightmapped like cold ghostly glass. This is the impression Crymachina left me with. Then again, what do I know? I’ve mercifully never been to a ballet, I hardly even understand what laser tag is, and I’ve only played the first 20 minutes of Crymachina. Let me put it this way: I’m not exactly a controller rumble fan. Feels uncomfortable, too intimate, gross almost, like slipping into week-old bathwater. Typically, I turn the rumble off and keep it that way. So my sampling of the opening segments of upcoming ARPG Crymachina, courtesy of publisher NIS America, was the only instance in a long time that I’ve played any amount with the rumble on.
I liked it.
I liked a lot of what Crymachina appears to offer. For example, the story is instantly compelling. Narratively, the start of the game is kind of like learning how to swim at the Olympics. I had absolutely no idea what was happening at any given moment. A lot like real life, in hindsight. It was awesome. Crymachina opens into an uncomfortably immaculate hospital room, a sterile nightmare whiter than wicked bone. In this laminated wonderland, a young woman’s sickbed becomes her deathbed as she curses the world and flatlines alone. Seconds later, she reappears elsewhen as a prim humanoid robot, exoskeletal and sleek, almost too cool, like something Apple could be designing right this second in a timeline where Tetsuya Nomura is God. Her surroundings are unfamiliar and impossible, but somewhere deep within her wire-sinewed innards, her mind, at least, has remained intact. It attempts to rationalize the situation. “Even for a deathbed fever dream,” she remarks, “it’s weird.”
But this is no dream, and to my mounting delight, it got weirder. At this point, the game forgoes all narrative formalities to toss you straight into a tutorial stage. For clarity’s sake, here’s the setup up front. Crymachina takes place in an inhospitable future long plummeted from the precipice of apocalypse. Sometime in the 21st century, a rampant and fatal disease, observed suddenly and widely, whirlwinds into world war. One near omnicide later, the final scraps of civilization enact a last-ditch plan for survival. They launch Eden, an astral ark designed to safeguard their digitized minds and equipped with eight “Dei ex Machina,” godlike, artificial, auto-evolving lifeforms who cooperate through separate means towards the common end of someday reviving humanity.
Flash forward 2,000 years. One of the Dei, sovereign to all the rest, mysteriously vanishes. Lacking their linchpin, the remaining seven descend into civil war. Even amidst this potentially extinction-initiating chaos, the Dei remain programmed to obey their human masters. Resurrect a conspicuously capitalized-in-game “Real Human” and, even absent their leader, the Dei will cease warring and reunite under one will. Such is the scheme of Enoa, an angelically accoutered Deus in charge of “psyche reconstruction” and desirous, apparently, of peace.
Impelled abruptly into the enormity of these stakes is robotic heroine Leben Distel. Reconstructed by Enoa from the virtualized memories of a 17-year-old, Leben harbors high innate potential to become a Real Human. Her job, Enoa explains, is to use her new robo-form to attain Real Humanity, put a stop to the infighting, and restore harmony aboard Eden so that they can all get back on track to reviving everyone. One tiny wrench: Leben has disavowed the entire human race and wants nothing to do with its salvation. She makes sure Enoa knows it: “[W]hy would I want to bring humanity back, anyway?” Awesome. In case it wasn’t obvious, this really isn’t who you want in charge of saving literally every remaining person.
Unless you’re me. Then it’s exactly who you want. Those unenthused by such impossibly teenage bundles of sleeve-worn angst as Squall Leonhart or TWEWY’s Neku Sakuraba should note two important points: (1) Leben’s particular strain of misanthropy seems rather subdued, at least at first, and lends the game’s premise delicious irony, and (2) we can’t be friends. Because I love this type of character. The nihilistic defeatism? The unrelenting pessimism? The edge-lordly negativity insisting defiantly that, no, it wasn’t a phase, Mom, from the other side of the literal apocalypse? Not merely irresistible: ambrosian. Leben truly is, as the kids say these days, and I mean this with utmost sincerity, and let me accentuate this, and I cannot begin to stress this enough, just like me for real.
Except for the part about being a mind-shreddingly cool robot relentlessly administering instant death in a cruel future, I guess. Because that’s the thing: regardless of her own feelings, Leben must fight. Reborn into a world of conflict, she has no choice but to join Enoa’s entourage of Real Human candidates in battle even if she isn’t convinced the future she’s working towards is worth anything at all. Accompanying Leben on this mission are big-sisterly movie buff Mikoto Sengiku and gentle, wheelchair-using Ami Shido, two others similarly resurrected in the hope of achieving Real Humanity. The cutscenes I experienced featured their character artwork prominently, with semi-animated portraits decorating the corner of text boxes.
Crymachina’s character designer is Rolua, whose work has appeared in several mobile game titles, vtuber-related material, and recently in an end card for the latest Gundam series, The Witch from Mercury. Voice acting is in Japanese. Cutscenes so far offer a rich glimpse at the characters and the ethereal dream-belly of Eden, where Leben and company must enter combat. Their — and the player’s — immediate goal is to earn “ExP” (pronounced “e-cross-p”), the only proof of Real Humanity the wayward Dei will recognize. Yes, Crymachina plays the metafiction card with an early and heavy hand. Cautious as I am to compare it prematurely to such modern “meta-ludic” classics as NieR: Automata or 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, I can’t deny that Crymachina invites itself to the same party, a feverishly arranged festival of familiar sci-fi motifs bedrocked by a subterrain of playful self-reference.
Though late to that particular scene, Crymachina does not arrive empty-handed. Its premise is pregnant with the enticing probability of spending a bunch of hours hacking and slashing half a dozen delinquent demigods and their hellish hordes into compliance, and Crymachina delivers. However, those expecting an interconnected world of action-roleplaying should steel themselves for cold reality: the game’s action arrives in the form of sequestered stages. You see, Crymachina positions itself as a spiritual successor to 2018’s Crystar — kind of a baller, zero-chainsaws-given move to be honest, considering the latter got pretty ruthlessly dunked on upon release, including by us. Maybe Crystar was better received in its home country; I don’t know. Anyway, though developed by Aquria (responsible for most of the Sword Art Online games) as opposed to Crystar’s Gemdrops, Crymachina follows the same basic blueprint as its predecessor. As in Crystar, discrete action stages are interspliced with slivers of momentary peace in a menu-based hub world. Crymachina’s is called the “Imitation Garden,” a virtual arboretum of Enoa’s design. Here, you can level up your three playable characters, read an in-game encyclopedia, listen to music, switch difficulty modes, experience slices of the main characters’ lives between missions, and more.
Then you embark for the stages, where the game’s combat — plus a bit of light platforming — takes place. Battles are a visually verbose joy-tornado of retina-defibrillating deathrays. Murderous machine freaks seek to extinguish your life. You desire to disembowel them of their ExP. Combat commences. You are outnumbered; they are outmatched. Neat rumble design lends a touch of the tangible to your apex-predatory victory as you cage and unseam foes in close-range combo strings, watching as they explode numbers like deranged piñatas stuffed with winning lottery tickets, all of them yours.
A lot goes on simultaneously in Crymachina, most of it stylish. The tutorial stage I played introduced elements one at a time to keep things legible. Character movement and combo attacks strike a gymnast’s balance between snappy-responsive and weighty-satisfying. Proper hitstun appeared present and accounted for, though I disclaim myself if there’s anything wonky about it that my slim playtime
or my own ineptitude at analyzing action combat design kept me from noticing. I played Crymachina on the PS5, an in-development build of the game not fully representative of the final product; it ran dreamily. I cannot speak to the game’s performance on other hardware. Controls are incredibly intuitive and utterly devoid of character, the millionth overlapping coffee stain on the crusty, unchanged undershirt of the modern AA~AAA action/adventure/RPG spectrum; at least your hands already know how it pilots, I guess.
Besides short-range combos, there are apparently long-range attacks that switch the game into a sort of TPS-ish mode, though I didn’t get the chance to try these. I did get to sample the “Auxiliaries,” though. These are sub-weapons activated by the shoulder buttons and obviously osmosed from NieR: Automata’s pod modules (and therefore the first NieR’s Grimoire Weiss). They hover to the left and right of your character like option ships in a shmup and are capable of many different skills. Other elements of character-action flair include launchers and flashy finishers, both mercifully simple to execute, at least at this early stage — Crymachina seems to straddle a comfortable middle on the action–RPG seesaw.
This tutorial stage that I got to play, wherein Leben was learning the ropes from Enoa after being tossed into this new and dangerous world, ended with a glimpse of some of the different Dei. After I took down a few waves of eldritch grunts, Ecclesia, the Deus responsible for maintaining order in Eden, descended and casually began shooting laser spears at me. So much for the job description. A total combat noob, Leben was woefully underprepared for the challenge. Luckily, Mikoto swooped in to save the day. Now playing as her, my task was phasing through Ecclesia’s plasma onslaught with a dodge step. Nail the timing on the dodge perfectly to trigger a slow-motion effect à la “witch time” from Bayonetta or “flash move” in the latest Ys games, a brief window of opportunity to hammer a few combos home.
My bout with Ecclesia was cut short when another Deus, the whale-shaped and -sized Logos, showed up, leading to a string of setting-establishing scenes the content of which I have already described. With no more than the tutorial stage under my belt, I can unfortunately only speculate about the harmony and depth of Crymachina’s systems and mechanics, but the groundwork certainly seemed solid. Similarly, only time will grant us answers to the other questions with which Crymachina’s slick, show-off-y, screen-splashy, lightshow of an enticingly irresistible sci-fi clusterscramble of an introduction leaves us, including but not limited to:
Is the “real world” of Eden just another layer of some larger mega-Matrix? (Cause it seems like it is.)
Will Leben ever come around to people and give humanity another chance before it’s all too late? (I hope not! Remember: “I love this type of character.”)
How does the photo mode stack up? (Yes, it has a photo mode — because roleplaying the archived memories of an edgy misanthrope ghosted into the shell of a post-armageddon murder-toaster in space does not necessitate that you unfetter yourself from the formidable allure of the virtual selfie.)
Perhaps most important of all, why isn’t there an ASMR-themed trailer for Crymachina in which the excessive, nigh-effusive praise with which Enoa lauds the viewer for performing the most simple of life tasks (eating, sleeping, existing, etc.) serves only as a distressing, acid-stinging reminder that I, an ostensibly grown man, am both flagrantly incapable of the most basic degrees of self-care such as keeping myself fed and rested and practically medically unable to put even the slightest smithereen of effort into literally anything???
Crymachina is out for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Switch, and Windows via Steam on October 24th in North America and October 27th in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. We thank NIS America once again for the chance to preview the game prior to launch.