Whispers Of A Machine Review: An Exercise In Subtlety, With Excellent Results

Consider me a fan of Clifftop Games after this one.
9
  • Android
  • iOS
  • OS X
  • Windows
  • Puzzle
2019-04-17
WhispMac Title
Whispers of a Machine is an exceptional narrative-driven mystery game, and that is coming from someone who loathes the genre in general. Rawfury

(This review is as spoiler-free as possible; however, certain characters or elements of the game may be discussed which are not immediately introduced into the game.)

Although I could say that I can certainly enjoy games across all genres, there’s two in particular that I dislike the most: point-and-click games, and puzzle-type, mystery-solving games. So, when I say that Whispers of a Machine, a point-and-click adventure murder-mystery game, is one of the best titles I’ve played this year so far, that’s saying something.

That’s not to say I’ve never enjoyed games belonging to those categories before either. Just recently, I’ve finished and thoroughly enjoyed Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments, which is an adventure-mystery title. This is in spite of what I’d consider to be heavy jank and lack of technical finesse that will put off some players. One of my most favorite titles is also Grim Fandango, or what I’d consider to be the only point-and-click adventure game that everyone who calls themselves a fan of video games should play. In addition to personal preference, I think that those two are the exceptions because there is a good quality that bound all its parts together, creating something truly magnificent: a good, cohesive story.

In a way, this is my gripe with both mystery and point-and-click games. Both of these rely heavily on delivering a good story that needs a strong foundation to lean on. Oftentimes, some titles can drag on for too long, and you will find yourself wondering if some of the choices you made in the game counted for something (I’m looking at you, Life is Strange). Despite this, it all comes down to personal taste. It just so happened that I cannot excuse stories that seemingly go on forever and have inconsequential actions. I also hated that trope of saying what actions were remembered, or will be consequential in the future – it’s bad foreshadowing that ruins the moment-to-moment appeal of these games, which I argue should play out without the player ever knowing what actions correspond to their respective effect.

Maybe this is why I liked Whispers of a Machine so much. It walked a balanced tightrope act of good storytelling that didn’t drag on for so long. The game also told the narrative without ever saying what will be the consequences afterwards, unlike some point-and-click games that came before it. Best of all, it presented a believable and honest dialog free from fluff and disingenuous foreshadowing that ruins weighty scenes – and all of this is accomplished for under $15.

Story, themes and setting

WhispMac Vera
You play the game as Special Agent Vera Englund, a cybernetically-enhanced investigator for the Central Bureau. Photo: Rawfury

You play the game as Vera Englund, a cybernetically-augmented detective tasked with solving a brutal string of murders in a town called Nordsund. The game’s world is a distant future where artificial intelligence has been outright banned, possibly due to a conflict set decades or even centuries ago. I don’t know if this is a common trope for some, but I enjoyed this setting, as it’s strikingly familiar to the Wild West, the only difference being that the world has moved past technology after running into trouble with it.

Vera is an agent of the Central Bureau, which is a kind of unified police force with a higher authority. Being a member of this Central Bureau also gives Vera superhuman abilities in the form of a nano-substance called Blue.

Not all is how it seems, though, as the murders you have been sent to investigate might be a part of a bigger plot at hand. Delving deeper into the story suggests that it somehow involves cultists that worship AI and want it to be reborn in this world. At the other end of the horseshoe sits an opposing Christian sect that holds a significant amount of power over the anti-AI sentiment. It’s kind of cliched as far as murder-mystery types go, and I am certain I’ve watched episodes of Elementary relating to this story before. Story wise, Whispers of a Machine is pretty straightforward. In fact, I gleaned several of the game’s big twists before they happened, but that shouldn’t matter anyway, considering I’m of the opinion that the way you tell your story is of equal importance to how unique it is.

This is no biggie, however, as Whispers of a Machine quickly sets out to set itself apart from its contemporaries, often with the use of subtle storytelling and employing ‘show, don’t tell’ strategies. Whispers of a Machine makes it known that the murders and their motivations are at the very center of the story, not the setting and its rich history behind it. The story doesn’t stray too far from its focus and practices restraint in what it reveals, what it puts under a spotlight and what it leaves running in the background.

WhispMac AI
Children, always asking the hard-hitting questions. Photo: Rawfury

Whispers of a Machine puts some thought into the artificial intelligence question, and the very question of humanity. In stark contrast with the rest of the genre, it doesn’t try to hammer these questions into you with useless exposition; rather, you see the discussion evolves from the characters’ actions and motivations. It’s a great theme to blend into the background, particularly for the setting. You know that humanity emerged victorious with regards to the purge of AI, but you can’t help but wonder what it cost them. It’s a topic that, even though saturated now, flourishes here, due to the fact that it’s just a small tangent compared to the smaller story the game is set in.

This segues into something that drew me in immensely: the atmosphere. Nordsund is a small town, away from the city, yet you can see in its many sights and people that they were also affected by history, just like everyone else. Small details in the background, both visual and aural, compliment the tightly-weaved storyline without overpowering it to the point where you completely lose the plot. Whispers of a Machine juggles all these elements into one very well-packaged narrative that will surely entertain avid fans of the genre all throughout their playthroughs.

Characters, dialog and voice acting

WhispMac Dialog
Quality over quantity, in terms of Whisper of a Machine's characters. Photo: Rawfury

Whispers of a Machine features a relatively small, yet well-spoken cast of characters, each with their own motivation and background. You interact with these characters repeatedly throughout the span of the game, and not one of them feels unnatural or forced.

I like how the characters also achieve some semblance of a counterweight to the story’s setting, complementing the main narrative while grounding its setting to the matter at hand. This makes it feel like a tale that naturally developed due to the world’s history, instead of a story set in this period because the developers wanted it to. The dialog is very subtle, and very well written without coming off as too simplistic. The characters get their points across in ways unique to them, and this works pretty well considering the cast is kept relatively small. A common issue I find in these types of games is the introduction of more and more characters, most of which do nothing but just add a certain thing to push that is tangential  to the main story.

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The morbid Dr. Perrson with his dry wit. Photo: Rawfury

I did find myself wanting more from the voice acting, though. It’s sometimes noticeable, since the game clearly meant to portray three different personalities for Vera, and you will notice in some cases that her tone and inflection was made to be a sort of general tone without much done to reflect what personality she is going for. It may be because of budget constraints or whatever, since I think that it would’ve done wonders for the game if the shifting personality of Vera was also reflected in her dialog outside of the choices she makes. I can’t complain too much though, since by the end, I’ve grown somewhat accustomed to it and shifted my focus towards the dialog boxes rather than her voice. The rest of the cast did great as well, especially the character of Valter, who provides some comedic relief from the rather grim story. I also thoroughly enjoyed the morbid Dr. Persson, and Gabriel the policeman seemed very well written as an experienced policeman who is very much out of his league.

In short, Whispers of a Machine features a cast of characters all related to the plot one way or another that even the red herrings make sense in the bigger picture. The effect is instantaneous, as you will be able to tell who is who from what the other characters are talking about. It’s this effective way of subtly introducing characters in the story that makes Whispers of a Machine an experience that doesn’t grow old quickly.

Art and sound design

WhispMac Edge of Town
One of the prettiest sights in the game. Mind the drop. Photo: Rawfury

Whispers of a Machine employs hand-drawn pixel art that is incredibly gorgeous and full of soul. Like everything else in the game, it complimented the story very well, giving incredible depth and bearing. This game is very much like a painting, only instead of having the scenery be the colorful essence of the masterpiece, it is instead the rich and sturdy canvas that supports the beautiful and engaging story. The sprites are very well-detailed, and it works this into the game mechanics well. Subtle elements that you might think to ignore prove to be important to your investigation, and you will find yourself sometimes missing key details due to how blended they are into the environment. While some will call that poor game design, I actually think that it adds another layer of nuance into this already rich and complex game, since you have to contend with the additional difficulty of looking for the answers in your investigation.

It also gives a lot of attention to the little stuff, the details, and the mundane day-to-day things that add to the background lore of the setting. The game is somewhat inspired by Nordic culture, as evidenced by the names of the characters. It makes sense to pepper in some very intricate Nordic details into the world design as well. The runes, the architecture, the clothes, and even the mostly decommissioned bots that litter the game’s world all owe some inspiration to Nordic design. What’s surprising is it manages to do so, again, in a subtle manner where you sometimes have to look twice in order to notice.

The sound design and music are nothing to scoff at too – the music is very masterfully interwoven with all the other game elements, and helps strengthen the story rather than burden it. Gentle melodies often accompany you in the more relaxed areas of the game, while tense and built-up music can be heard for the more stressful parts of the game. The inclusion of audio tapes is also a welcome addition, and some of them are very important to your investigations. Sound design is often overlooked, and you will do well to remember that Whispers of a Machine employs some fancy tricks in some of its puzzles. Consider that a hint when you play, by the way.

Game mechanics and intuitiveness

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Vera has access to several augmentations powered by Blue, including a forensic scanner. Photo: Rawfury

Gameplay-wise, Whispers of a Machine is simplistic and very easy to pick up, but it does work to its advantage seeing as you will want to focus on the story more than the game mechanics. As a point-and-click title, it’s self-explanatory. You just point to where you want Vera to go, or investigate, and click – voila! The bulk of the game revolves around investigating various locations in addition to the string of murders that occur, and you are tasked with exploring the small town of Nordsund to do so.

As a Central Bureau agent though, Vera has access to some augmentations that ultimately help you in your quest to uncover the mystery of the killings. This can be employed at any time through a tab on the lower right of your screen. With the enhancement provided by Blue, Vera can analyze crime scenes using a forensic scanner, glean vital statistics off other characters through a biometric analyzer, temporarily boost her strength using muscle boost and three more abilities, which I’ll omit for non-spoiler purposes.

The HUD, which is perhaps your most important tool, is very clean and user-friendly. At the lower left corner, you’ll see the personality pyramid and what path you are currently taking, whether it’s empathetic (Baldr), assertive (Tyr) or analytical (Frigg). The game presents dialog options in some parts of the games to ascertain your personality. This is not the only way to glean your personality, though. The way you complete your investigation matters as well, and there will be several opportunities for Vera to figure out clues and move your mission forward.

All of this is done with very little subtext, and is probably the most genius design that Whispers of a Machine employs. The game never tells you outright that the action you are about to do will heighten a particular personality trait; rather, it tells you once you did an action, plus in the overall context of the action. This kind of subtlety of letting the players know for themselves what actions they are taking gives an amazing layer of intricacy to the game’s depth. It’s probably one of the reasons why I loved its story as well, as it immerses you in your choices, and presents you with them in such a way that no answer is the one right answer. Every choice leads to the case being solved in the end, no matter what personality trait you take. However, the conclusion of Vera’s story depends largely on the choices you make.

Length and replayability

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Whispers of a Machine takes place over the course of four days. Photo: Rawfury

While you can complete your first playthrough in around five to six hours, there is a certain amount of replayability, even if you already know how the mystery plays out. It’s well worth it to try a new personality path once you’re done with the first one. I did the analytical path on my first run, and now, playing through the empathetic route, there is a significant amount of change in how your investigation plays out to warrant a second playthrough. I feel like this is one of the game’s core strengths; a relatively short playtime for every run makes it easier for another playthrough after. It’s a design that worked to its advantage big time.

Overall

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It took me six hours to get back here, the game's starting point, for another playthrough. Photo: Rawfury

If you have one chill afternoon to spare, it’s relatively short yet sweet, and is a good entry title for those looking to get into murder-mystery types. For me, this game is an example of a good indie done right: a narrative-driven experience where your choices matter, where the story is first and foremost and doesn’t drag on, where characters are strongly written and where the setting and art design elevate it all. I give massive props to its developers Clifftop Games and Faravid Interactive, as well as publisher Raw Fury for taking a chance on this exceedingly well-made title. Whispers of a Machine is a triumphant exercise in subtlety that compliments each element involved, and combines them all for one of the best point-and-click adventure games I have had the pleasure of playing.

(Review copy generously provided by Raw Fury; review of the game is based on the Steam version, with a total playtime of about six hours.)

REVIEW SUMMARY
Whispers of a Machine
9
An Exercise In Subtlety, With Excellent Results
A very strong point-and-click mystery title that excels in every area, and where each element subtly complements the short but bittersweet narrative.
  • Exceptional narrative that never drags on for too long
  • Intuitive gameplay, for a point-and-click title
  • Amazing art and sound design
  • Good character dialog
  • Rich, evocative setting
  • Point-and-click may not click for everyone
  • Voice acting lacking in some areas
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