Review: Whispers of a Machine

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Review copy provided by developer

There are plenty of adventure games that take on big topics, and others that stick to small-scale dramas. It’s not all that often that you find both in the same package, but that’s what you’ll get here. Whispers of a Machine starts out from the humble beginnings of a murder mystery in a remote Nordic town, and ends with some hard questions about humanity’s troubled future. And the way it gets there is entirely through the unfolding drama, without leaps of logic or scenarios wildly out of depth. If you’re fine with the scope, then you’re sure to find an engrossing and satisfying adventure here.

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Decades after the collapse of our extremely online society, the world has attempted to carry on without the aid of artificial intelligence. In the small town of Nordsund, a string of brutal killings has brought Agent Vera Englund from the big city to sort things out. Little does she know that these crimes are poised to raise some terrifying specters of the past, and one very close to her, as well. Over the course of four days, Vera will learn about the citizens of Nordsund, the secrets of their community, and the different powers at work against each other. When all is said and done, she’ll have some difficult choices to make with the forbidden knowledge she finds herself with.

As a point-and-click adventure, this one is very much built around the investigation in the style of classics like Gabriel Knight or Broken Sword. You’ve got a trail of clues to follow, one that leads through plenty of items, dialogues, and puzzles. It’s a familiar structure, examining crime scenes for meaningful objects and revelations to fill your notebook with, and then grilling citizens on the points you’ve raised to find your way to the next puzzling obstacle. Pretty much all of your roadblocks have logical solutions, though some run afoul of that classic adventure game problem of requiring you to play out more steps in the solution than it took you to puzzle out in your head.

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One reason for this is the rather unique structure the game has for your investigative tools. Vera is not entirely without technology to help her, for she is loaded with nanomachines, son. These give her access to some clever mechanics like a smart scanner you can sweep scenes with and load with evidence to search for matches, or a biometric scanner that lets you detect lies in testimonies, among other tricks. You’ll gain additional powers during your investigation, and some of them are based on how you approach your tasks. Whispers of a Machine has three dispositions it tracks you on, assertive, analytical, and empathetic, based on your dialog choices and actions. Whichever way you’re leaning determines how your powers develop, which can mean forceful, direct tools for assertive types or subtle, sneaky ones for analytical folks.

To accommodate these options, challenges in the front half of the game tend to be wide open in terms of how you can approach them. There are at least three distinct ways to handle every major situation, with your choices affecting your disposition. Some of them go off in surprising directions, such as skipping one dialog scene by laying a trap for a character or just outright shooting them. However, it should be noted that these choices don’t have huge storyline impacts, and only really effect your future options through the powers you receive. The back half of the game has far fewer dialog choices, and the puzzles are no longer as open, with their solutions built around the specific powers you acquire. It’s still cool because there’s one scene that can be solved at least six different ways based on the augments you got, but obviously you can only get the resolution for the augments you have in that playthrough.

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Still, it’s not often you get a point-and-click adventure with this much replayability, and you might want to go through it again anyway to catch the nuances of the story. The excellent writing works in a lot of worldbuilding regarding the collapse and the arc of society in its wake. The characters are all fully realized, even the ones that don’t get much screen time, and the voice acting is great for a project of this stature. Coupled with some lovely pixel art and understated sound design, this is the Platonic ideal of an indie point-and-click. It’s not the biggest or most complex adventure you’re going to play, but it’s got all the parts for a solid journey of six or seven hours. An engrossing story, innovative mechanics, and charming presentation make Whispers of a Machine a title you really shouldn’t miss.

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