More Oil Needed

HIGH Fantastic style, surprising story.

LOW Act 5.

WTF Being attacked by shrimp and dynamite.

I’ll admit that Bartlow’s Dread Machine pulled me in on style alone. The look — akin to an antique parlor game with tin characters — was such a striking difference from recent titles that I definitely wanted to experience it. Following my instinct like this has usually served me well and brought me to several hidden gems. This, unfortunately, is not one of those times.

Bartlow’s Dread Machine is a twin stick shooter where players control a government agent who must rescue president Roosevelt from anarcho-satanists. Players will travel around the world fighting evil like risen zombies and civil war skeletons while trying to prevent world domination.

Players move along ‘rails’ in each level and shoot their way through enemies, which gives Bartlow’s a unique spin. Players can’t move around levels freely since the game tries to emulate old clockwork technology and limits characters to being on tracks. Having said that, enemies also have to move on the same tracks, which requires the player to use a bit of strategy in order to plan out their movement. It all feeds into the visual style — the metal tracks with pieces moving along them, and gears in the background turning to show how the machine is ‘working’. The music for each level nails the same ‘antique’ atmosphere.

From a mechanics standpoint, it’s possible to experience some solid action even with the limitations of the track keeping me on predefined paths. Avoiding one set of bullets, reflecting another shot back at an enemy and then firing to take down multiple enemies feels great.

Bartlow’s Dread Machine also includes one-off mechanics to keep things fresh. One had me hitting tentacles to make a boss enemy vulnerable, while another had me ricocheting bullets off of signs in a puzzle section. These mechanics don’t get re-used, so the variety in encounters is good. Players can also buy different weapons and there are a lot of unlockable characters that give their own twist. Marie Curie brings a spread shotgun, and Nikola Tesla (of course) packs a chain lightning gun, for example.

Unfortunately, the economy feels out of whack. Prices of guns and armor jump so significantly from one to the next that there were some items that I didn’t have enough money for after completing the campaign. The guns I could purchase were stronger, but didn’t have nearly enough ammo to counter how much health enemies in new levels had. While everything that is unlocked stays unlocked from campaign to campaign, the grind to get some of those items is brutal to say the least.

Regardless of what items I had available to use, Bartlow’s struggles with difficulty. Out of the total time I played the game, half of that time was spent on just one level. The developers follow the old rule of letting the player have X number of lives before starting a level over, but each level has several sections and if the player dies at the boss, they need to re-do the whole level over again — especially irritating when the game isn’t great about telegraphing which attacks are one-hit kills. It feels like a lot of time wasted.

The controls also complicate things. It was a struggle to hit enemies because the game wants players to manually aim shots but also offers an auto-aim function. Having both of these systems in place made me miss more than I hit as Bartlow‘s constantly tried to split the difference between them.

Bartlow’s Dread Machine has a great set of bones. The concept and the core mechanics of being on rails are a great starting point, and the story (which I have not spoiled here) was surprisingly effective. However, the key phrase here is “starting point”. Despite its appeal, there’s a lot of polish that needs to happen before I would be able to recommend this one to shooter fans.

Rating: 5.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Bleep Games and Tribetoy, and published by Bleep Games.  It is currently available on PC and XBO. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the XBO. Approximately 12 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. About 1 hour was spent in multiplayer mode.

Parents: According to  the ESRB, this game is rated E10 and contains Fantasy Violence and Alcohol References. One character drinks, and the game is about shooting zombie government agents, deranged seafood, and deadly machines. Characters explode in sparks and machine parts. Maybe not approved for very young audiences, but approved for most.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All information is provided via text, but there is no option for resizing or altering text. This game is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: Controls are fully remappable.

Eugene Sax
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