Retro Machina explores the classic sci-fi trope, can robots be designed with free will or can they obtain it on their own? Developers Orbit Studio combine equal parts combat, exploration, and puzzles to create an enjoyable isometric sci-fi adventure that explores those questions in a semi-light-hearted and not-too-serious way. Since you are in control of the SV unit robot, the protagonist takes on your own free will, but the story that is mostly doled out through readable collectibles explains the entire situation. Should you help the friendly-looking robot discover his inner self and the mysteries of his world or leave him on the scrap heap?
The game begins by depicting a robot attended assembly line. The identical SV unit robots are all working in unison, getting the job done until all of a sudden one of them gets distracted by a butterfly and just stares off into the distance. Is it daydreaming or is there an error in its code? Alarms sound and a large overseer robot tells the little one to get back to work, but you are now in control and you can make your escape. This escape doesn’t last long and the robots in charge decide that SV (the robot is never named so I will call him SV during the review) is junk and proceed to expel SV from the robot utopia city of Endeavor. After going through an intro area you find yourself in a small hub area that contains three doors to the three huge levels that make up the game. You can only enter one area at a time and the first one is Atomic City.
As you play, the game has some short, lightly animated cut scenes, but as I said before, most of the story comes from the files you find around each level. If you read them as you find them a lot of them provide exposition to the areas you are exploring. For example, the first level, Atomic city, is in ruins with foliage overtaking parts of the city, and you learn that is because there was a war over diminishing resources needed to create the robots. You might think that this normally wouldn’t cause a war, but by reading the files you’ll also learn that human society was completely dependant on robots. They performed all sorts of important and menial tasks. This also explains the presence of a lot of the different robot models in the world, all of which have been given orders to destroy poor little SV.
The gameplay follows a fantastically implemented trinity of design, employing equal parts combat, exploration, and puzzle-solving, and combining two of the elements together in many instances. The combat by itself unfortunately is one of the weaker elements of the game. SV has a basic attack consisting of a wrench swing that can be combo’ed for a few sequential hits, but his swinging arc is painfully small, meaning you have to get close enough to count the enemy’s screws to make contact. He also has a dodge roll that has a split second of invulnerability, which should have been slightly increased to be a little more forgiving. There are three special moves that can be unlocked in the basic upgrade system, and these make combat a little more enjoyable. Fortunately, the game is very lenient in its checkpoint system. Each time you load into a new section of a level a checkpoint is created; in addition, when you die in one of the various combat arena sections you load back in at the start of the arena, allowing you to flee or trigger the arena’s start again (which closes off the section until the enemies are defeated).
What bridges the gap between all three gameplay elements is the robot control ability. SV can emit a radio frequency that is visualized on screen as a green projectile arc that will target whichever robot you are facing – this targeting system can be frustrating at times when two robots are close together. You control the other targeted robot with the right stick and RB initiates their attack or function. I rarely used the robot control feature during combat though because when the robot you are controlling takes damage SV takes damage as well. This mechanic is critical in the puzzle-solving aspect of the game and is introduced by allowing you to take control of a little Bugtron that is able to crawl through small openings. A lot of the early puzzles involve moving various robots you are controlling onto pressure pads to allow you to move forward and vice-versa for them, but there is a decent amount of variety like navigating two separate areas at the same time.
As you advance further into the game you’ll encounter new robots that are needed to solve that area’s puzzles or just traverse through a section. In the second level, Marine Nation, there are Frogbots that are controllable on land and in the water and are able to move floating platforms around for you. Later you find yourself approaching an area that is pitch black, but by taking control of an Electrocube you can trigger its electro attack next to a generator and the lights will come on temporarily. Most of the traversal/puzzle-solving robots will attack you if you aren’t controlling them, so be careful. And don’t get the brilliant idea like me of destroying one while you are in control because it will hurt you as well. Another aspect of the game that combines multiple parts of the gameplay is the boss fights. They have a nice variety to them overall, going from a “traditional” combat-focused fight to ones that combine combat with the puzzle mechanics you’ve learned throughout the levels.
The exploration aspect was one of the big draws for me. Retro Machina is an isometric view game, and in most cases when you go behind an object in the foreground it becomes transparent. This allows for many secrets to be hidden throughout the levels and you have to keep your eyes peeled for signs that one might be close, like a missing guard rail or barely visible platform hidden behind something. SV’s exploration capabilities are expanded early on in the game when you find air thrusters that were designed specifically for SV units (you can learn why by reading the notes). This allows for you to shoot across short gaps from platform to platform or over the numerous holes in the ground created during the war in Atomic City.
Initially, I was very excited because I thought this game might be a Metroidvania. There had been numerous spots I had already passed that I couldn’t reach until I acquired my air thrusters. As I played the game I was expecting new traversal mechanics to continue to be introduced, but alas, they never are. Each of the three levels is huge and filled with collectibles and upgrade cores. There are four types of upgrade cores and two types of database collectibles to discover: Files and Images. Finding them all is very difficult. Each level has a cool-looking isometric map that can be viewed while you are in the level and they are somewhat helpful in finding a potentially hidden area, but what would really have been nice would be some sort of indicator for how many collectibles/cores are in each level. There are achievements related to each of the six hidden items and working my way back through all the levels just for that doesn’t sound too appealing, though this is partially due to the long loading screens triggered when you switch to a different section of a level (I am playing on an original Xbox One console, so I’m sure the X/S series are much faster).
The art style in Retro Machina is what initially caught my eye and made me want to play the game. At first glance, it has a sort of art-deco style, but I learned that the designers were heavily inspired by the work of Jacque Fresco, a famous futurist designer, and after looking at his work I can definitely see the inspiration. Each of the three levels has its own unique design elements and if you read the database files you find, you’ll get a better understanding of some of the details within each level. The art has a hand-drawn look to it and really stands out, especially during the more cinematic moments of the game when the camera pans out. I also like the details they added like the clouds floating by in the foreground and the occasional piece of debris sailing by in the wind. Another aspect I liked was the pixelated font they used and the green screen computers; however, at some points the font was way too small and there’s no font size adjustment in the options menu. All in all the art design fits really well into the game and the civilization that was present in the game seems to be similar to our own 1940’s and 50’s so the design choices make sense for that aesthetic.
A lot of the time when playing games I don’t pay much attention to the music unless it really stands out. Retro Machina features a synth-heavy soundtrack that has a synthwave quality to it. The first level’s track sounds sort of ominous and mysterious, hinting at the adventure that awaits SV, and the second level’s music is similar. The track in the third level was by far my favorite as it has an amazing synth hook that made me feel like my journey was coming to its culmination. The sound effects are well done too, I like the different sounds the robots make and the sounds SV makes running on various surfaces.
It took me about ten hours to complete Retro Machina; however, I wasn’t able to find all the collectibles in that time and I have no idea where to look for what I’m missing. Hopefully, some kind soul will make a guide so that I can find them all and get all the achievements in the game.
Overall I really enjoyed my time with the game, as I said earlier I think the designers did a great job combining the three aspects of gameplay, which kept everything feeling fresh. The combat can feel a little basic at times but the fun puzzles and exploration of the fantastically designed levels make up for it. Anyone interested in helping a robot learn about itself and how the civilization that designed it fell apart by exploring three vast isometric levels should give this a try.Become a Patron!
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.