Sometimes a game comes along that just speaks to you. A game that taps into that core essence of your being; that seems to know exactly what you are (or were, at one point) thinking.
I’m not saying MechaNika is that game, exactly. But it’s definitely close.
Introducing: Nika Allen, a 7 year old girl who is intelligent, a reader, good with mechanical things, and despises everything that isn’t awesome. That includes school, her family, and almost everyone around her.
Her goal is to build a giant robot that can lay waste to everything she disagrees with — which, I reiterate, is almost everything in the world.
To aid her, she has her trusty hip flask of cognac and cocoa, which she sips whenever she needs inspiration. This functions in-game as a hint system, and it certainly takes away some of the guilt of asking a game for hints when it involves watching a 7-year-old girl get momentarily hammered in order to gather her thoughts.
Nika’s world is drawn in a disarmingly cutesy style that reminds me of Swedish cartoons of the 80’s. It has an endearingly amateurish style, full of disproportionate bodies and faces, flat colors, and perspectives that don’t quite work.
Normally, I would find the visual presentation a bit garish. I never liked this style, at least not when it was paired with the sort of dumb-ass stories you’d normally find in children’s programming. But MechaNika hardly qualifies as children’s entertainment.
Not only do you have a borderline alcoholic underage girl with genocidal fantasies as your protagonist whose first obstacle is escaping a school walled in by an electrical fence and barbed wire.
The people she meet are just as off-beat as her, some more than others: Her grandmother, for instance, is estranged from her husband because he committed an “unforgivable act” in the past. When granddad is reminded of what that unforgivable act was (and it truly does qualify as one), he rushes over to apologize to grandma in person — with, let’s just say, unhappy results.
The game isn’t terribly long and is over in a couple of hours. While not explicitly clear from the game’s Steam page, MechaNika is actually part of an anthology of games — the “Psychotic Series” — which is to be continued with Agatha Knife, the game that developers Mango Protocol were showcasing at AdventureX this year.
In an effort to pad MechaNika out, Mango Protocol have populated Nika’s world with NPCs that provide some general distraction and a few laughs, but contribute nothing to the story or the puzzles.
While this is certainly an interesting way of making the game world feel alive, it’s also a bit of a red herring. As an adventure game player, you’re conditioned to think that every person you meet will inevitably turn out to be either an aid or a foil in your quest.
That’s not to say adventure games haven’t had “superfluous” characters in the past — but when they even go so far as to explicitly state that they have “a problem” they wish they could solve, when in reality you aren’t supposed to help them solve squat, it feels like the game is intentionally misleading you.
Oh, and having the developers themselves show up in the actual game and have the protagonist gush over what great designers they are (even though there has been no indication that your protagonist has the slightest interest in computer games so far) is a bit self-indulgent.
The worst criticism I can level at MechaNika is that some of the puzzles, particularly one at the very start, requires you to take a swig from the cognac-and-cocoa concoction in Nika’s bag. You know, the one I described as a “hint” feature earlier? Yeah. If you don’t, then you’re just going to wander around in circles until you stumble across what you’re supposed to do, because Nika provides you with no hints as to what she wants to do.
While there is no punishment for “sipping a hint,” it’s still weird to have puzzle objectives hidden behind a hint system. And the game does this repeatedly throughout, so you’d best get used to swallowing your pride (as well as the delicious burning sensation of cognac-flavored cocoa) by actively asking the game what it wants you to do next.
None of this prevented me from enjoying the game, however. As I said, I’m not a fan of the art style in general, but in the context of this game — a cutesy presentation that belies a cynical and sinister undertone, much like Fran Bow did — it somehow works. The puzzles themselves are not challenging; just the act of figuring out exactly what is a puzzle and what’s not.
And nothing — nothing — holds a candle to the cheerfully world-weary dialogue and the off-beat characters. There’s a delightful sense of anarchic “fuck it all” mentality going on in MechaNika, and the designers don’t seem to give a shit if they offend anyone. To them, it makes perfect sense for a family to board up a room in the house that was supposed to be Nika’s baby sister’s if not for the fact that she was stillborn, and having a kid in the playground offer to sell you, among other things, rifles and molotov cocktails.
So, major thumbs up for attitude and writing; a bit of a meh-thumb for puzzle design. If you’re disappointed with the world and feel like something needs to be done, look no further than MechaNika for validation.