What’s this? Another game set in the post-apocalyptic Sweden! A pixel art point-and-click adventure Whispers of a Machine, a joint project by solo developers of adventure games Kathy Rain and The Samaritan Paradox, follows in the trails of tactical combat of Mutant Year Zero and co-op survival shooting of Generation Zero that both depicted Sweden after a large-scale disaster. Here, the talk is about “Collapse” and Sweden, along with rest of the world, now lives in its aftermath. Every more sophisticated machinery, such as robots, is forbidden by law after mankind almost killed itself off by relying too much on technology. Tagged as a science fiction Nordic Noir, Whispers of a Machine is a very retro-conscious adventure game while it borrows its frigid ambience from the modern Nordic crime TV series.
Vera Englund, a young special agent for Central Bureau, arrives at Nordsund, a small town in a corner of a larger city disc suspended in the air. There have been two gruesome murders that the local police can’t solve by themselves. Nordsund residents and the few town scenes are the only provided cast and sets but as it turns out, the game doesn’t need anything more to effectively weave its murder mystery and a conspiracy of forbidden practices behind it. If that wasn’t enough for Vera, she also has her inner ghosts that burst out time to time as she deals with her findings, some that affect her at deep personal level.
I had to clear my eyes when I first saw Vera’s character portrait accompanying her lines. She’s a spitting image of one certain Fanni, my favorite Swedish top fashion model from the early 00’s! Not only does Vera sport once famous “Fanni crop”, a partially shaved and flopped hairdo, she shares similar characteristic features. Fan-, I mean, Vera has forensic augmentations that help her in solving crimes. Scan shows DNA and other residues from environments (and can be tagged with any found material to spot more of it), Biometric Analyzer catches people not telling the whole truth while Power Boost enhances Vera’s strength. When choosing between dialogue choices, Vera can be emphatic, analytical or assertive. Certain actions, like how some puzzles are dealt with, also boost these traits.
The game is divided into four days and by each morning, Vera gains a new augment as the Blue in her system, granting her superhuman abilities, energizes due to the excitement she lives through. Two of these additional enhancements depend on how Vera has talked and acted. First, I got an Enhanced Vision, allowing to see in darkness and spot further details, as I had been analytically throughout in my investigation. Other possible augments to get at this point are Amnesia or Energize, depending whether you showed more emotion or opted for an assertive stance. For the next additional augment, I gained Cloak that turns Vera invisible, while other enhancements could have been Mimicry or Mind Control. Last, Vera gets an ability to regenerate her wounds. Augment set-ups allow different solutions to several puzzles, adding to the replayability alongside netting all the achievements. On the whole, gameplay is solid and well thought-out, making the augment tools essential rather than just superficial gimmicks.
Piece by piece, as Vera digs deeper in her investigation, the game builds up the picture of murder victims and possible perpetrators. The few streets, sights and avenues of Nordsund become familiar as our detective jogs between them, interrogating the limited cast whenever there are new leads, gathered to and constantly updated in Vera’s notebook, to talk about. There’s no hurry as you can take your sweet time piecing together the chain of events that took place. The game doesn’t help the player too much, as there’s no hint system nor does the narrative give in too much. Solutions are in details, word plays, cross-references, and clues that are revealed through Vera’s augments.
Too often in adventure games puzzles are forced upon, making them trivial padding in the way of progress. Not here, as in a true detective style each puzzle, big or small, contributes to the story and drives it forward. Save for the museum button sequence that took me a few tries, brain teasers were all very comprehensible and logical, something that can be solved with a common sense, some basic deduction, good memory, and eye for details. The user interface is simple as it comes, with only one mouse button to do necessary actions with, while the items are dragged from the inventory bar onto the game screen for a hassle-free interaction.
As it turns out, the storyline is pretty transparent. At least I could saw the obligatory twists coming miles ahead, but sometimes it’s only good that things aren’t more complicated than what they seem. The game advances in an unhurried pace but towards the end of its eight hours or so running time, the plot thickens and tensions go off in come cool set pieces and special agent action where Vera’s sidearm gets its long due use. Also, if it has felt that the game downplays its key themes of AI development and transhumanism, they, too, are toned up and thrown at you to decide for yourself.
Behind the scenes, there are two movements, pro-AI and anti-AI, both of which has representatives in the small town of Nordsund. The game doesn’t show its own hand but wisely leaves it up to the players to make up their own mind. In the end, there are two big choices to ponder over and thankfully so, as you get to accent your own agenda instead of being forced into one. Without spoiling too much, I felt that choices I made lead to a coherent story arc which I was satisfied with. Canned entertainment, be it literature, TV or films, can’t afford the same luxury, leaving you sometimes dissatisfied with their outcome.
Overall, the presentation is neat. Characters look great and are convincingly animated and at long last we get a main character sprite who isn’t just mirrored as she walks to left and right. Expressive character portraits are skillfully drawn by a special guest artist Ivan Ulyanov. The background art is a bit too washed out, though. To keep up with the promise of Nordic Noir, settings should have needed deeper contrasts and a color palette tinted to shades of blue and grey. Voice overs, directed by Dave Gilbert of Wadjet Eye Games fame, are unfortunately pallid. There are story beats that could have used more excitement from the cast, especially from the lead herself, whose one-note delivery, while nice and gentle, flattens some of the revelations that should had been accented instead.
Whispers of a Machine doesn’t seek out to revolutionize adventure games as its ambitions are elsewhere. Mundane wisdom and a Nordic cool ambience raise the game above the average crop that nowadays litters the once-flourished genre. It successfully does its bidding in showing why point-and-click adventures are so rewarding. You don’t need lightning-fast reflexes or to read enemy movements to make headway in them. Instead you need to be observant, thoughtful, and smart enough to interpret clues. Whispers of a Machine is a perfect game for everyone looking for a cracking whodunnit backed up by some contemplative thinking.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.