What is it: A point-and-click adventure about solving murders.
Reviewed on: Core i5-6600K, 16GB RAM, GeForce GTX-980 Ti, Windows 10
Expect to pay: $15/£11
Release date: Out now
Publisher: Raw Fury
Developer: Clifftop Games, Faravid Interactive
Link: Official site
Whispers of a Machine chases big ideas, one of which is teased in an early-game conversation between a teacher and her young students. Artificial intelligence is strictly forbidden, she warns, and the police will come for anyone who tries to make something that can think for itself. But what about my parents, one quick-thinking student asks. They made me, and I can think for myself. Are they going to jail?
It doesn't quite arrive at the philosophical weight it aspires to. Whispers of a Machine is a good adventure game, clever at times, but the heavy concepts it flirts with at the outset quickly give way to a conventional murder mystery in an unconventional setting: A vaguely post-apocalyptic world scarred by the long-ago, for-reasons-unknown collapse of the AI-driven computers and machines that humanity had grown to rely on.
As a result of that breakdown, the world is kind of shitty, although not necessarily any shittier than it's going to be in 20 years anyway. Work is communal, living quarters are cramped and spartan, and there's an air of oppression that hangs over everything. If nothing else, it's believable.
Vera Englund is one of this world’s most elite operatives, a special agent of the Central Bureau who's been sent to the remote town of Nordsund to investigate a grisly murder. But when she arrives, she discovers that one murder has become two, and then three—the situation is obviously more complicated than she expected.
Fortunately for all involved (except the bad guy), Englund comes equipped with a number of special abilities as a result of "taking the Blue," a slang term for being injected with a nebulous nanofluid that confers abilities like enhanced strength and a "forensic scanner" that can detect and analyze clues.
Later in the game she’ll also develop personalized abilities, which is where things start to get interesting. In the game's fiction, the Blue adapts to suit each user's needs. In practical terms, the choices you make in action and conversation will pull Vera's personality in one of three directions—empathetic, analytical, or assertive—which will in turn determine which enhancements she ends up with. You might be able to take on the appearance of someone else, or vanish from sight entirely; some agents can inflict short-term amnesia on NPCs, while others can bend them to their will with the mind-control whammy.
The RPG-esque character development is the most interesting thing about Whispers of a Machine, and the irony is that unless you're really paying attention you're quite likely to miss it. There's no indication that you developed this ability instead of that one—the abilities simply unlock, and you get on with your day. It’s a stealthy system that belies the game’s complexity, but I like it because it confers a more distinct sense that Vera is you: Instead of metagaming or mix-maxing or savescumming or whatever it is you do to reach an optimal outcome (and yes, I do it too), you get what you get. You are who you are.
Upping the stakes even further, Whispers of a Machine does not allow manual saves, so unless you want to horse around with manually copying and overwriting your save files, you own every decision you make, good or bad. Do you regret being a jerk to the weird robotics guy? Wish you hadn't chopped that dude’s finger off? (Yup, that's on the menu.) Feel like you should've been a little more forceful with the local constabulary? Too bad—if you want to do it differently, replay the game.
The flipside of that coin is that while Whispers of a Machine is short enough that a replay isn't a great chore, there's really not enough to it to justify a full second run-through. The central story is interesting but the game world is small and feels empty—there are virtually no characters in the game except those you need to interact with, who only appear when you need to interact with them—and there are no side quests or collectibles or optional extras.
What you’re left with is different ways of solving the same, relatively few problems: Depending on your augmentations, you might camouflage yourself as an NPC to get past a guard, or engage an invisibility cloak instead. And hey, maybe that's exactly what you're looking for in multiple runthroughs—you do you! For me, though, it's a little too thin for a do-over.
One thing I really appreciated about Whispers of a Machine is its snappy pacing. It unfolds over four days, each a segment of the mystery that ends with a recap of the day's events. Those end-of-day reports to my superior gave me a real sense of progress because they broke the game down into discrete chunks: I did this and this, and tomorrow I need to do that and that.
An automatic notebook made tracking the course of the investigation reasonably simple, and when you enter a location with puzzles that need to be solved, you’re not able to leave until they’re done. My initial reaction to that was irritation (I'm stuck! Let me out!) but I quickly grew to like it. As someone who’s spent a lot of hours in other adventures running back and forth across 27 different rooms trying to figure out what the hell I’m supposed to do next, I have no doubt that being kept in place to solve a specific problem saved me a lot of frustration.
Which isn't to say that there are no instances of Adventure Game Bullshit—there are, and they're fortunately rare but still frustrating. (No spoilers, but you definitely want to pay attention to the Codex.) There's also one way over-the-top moment of deus ex machina nonsense courtesy of Vera's nigh-magical nanofluid: She suffers an injury that by all rights should leave her dead three times over, but instead she walks away with a bit of expositional hand-waving about the Blue working overtime to keep her alive. Yeah, but you're not even limping, Vera.
The incident is ridiculous enough that it really stands out in a story that's otherwise nicely focused and engaging.
My biggest complaint overall is that I wanted more coherency from Whispers of a Machine. The world, littered with robotic detritus and reliant on alternative energy sources, promises an unusual and interesting take on a civilization that didn't end so much as grind itself into a hole that humanity may still be digging. But it's all sizzle and no steak. Sometimes that can work—the outstanding Primordia leaps to mind as an example of a setting built entirely on questions that still manages to feel complete—but when major elements stand out as seriously odd, I feel like there should be at least some token nod toward justifying them.
Why, for instance, is Nordsund built atop a massive pedestal that elevates the whole damn town hundreds of feet into the air? The surface of the Earth beneath it is perfectly nice, the atmosphere is safe, there are no Morlocks running around; it just is, and that's not really satisfying.
Neither is the multipart ending. It's fun to be able to determine your own end-game fate, but the binary choice that wraps up Whispers of a Machine falls flat because you either do the obvious thing that you've been working toward throughout the game (and, presumably, your entire career as an Agent), or the completely out-of-character, out-of-nowhere opposite, with only the most threadbare rationalization for doing so. It feels forced and out of place—an RPG-style ending tacked on to a game that's not an RPG, for no clear reason.
Most of my complaints arise from what I see as unfulfilled potential. A little more depth and detail would go a long way toward making the world feel not just believable but real and lived-in. But taken for what it is—a brief, entertaining point-and-click investigative adventure—I liked Whispers of a Machine quite a lot. Even though it stumbles as a 'big idea' game, it comes off well as a self-contained detective story with a sci-fi twist.
Whispers of a Machine is a bit like a good Law & Order two-parter from season four: not too long (five or six hours) and not too deep, but comfortable, fun, and easy to digest. Keep your expectations squarely in the middle and you'll have a good time.