After previewing the first quarter of Whispers of a Machine, I couldn’t wait to jump back into Faravid Interactive and Clifftop Games’ newest offering. Would Vera be able to catch the murderer? What led to the collapse of AI technology? What happened to her boyfriend? With these questions and more, I dove back into the world of Nordsund.
The plot of Whispers of a Machine starts off fairly simple, as Central Bureau investigator Vera Englund is called out to the remote town of Nordsund to investigate a murder, while two more promptly follow it. However, far from being a typical murder mystery, she ends up being pulled into a conspiracy involving forbidden AI technology, terrorist groups, and a deviant church. There are plenty of interesting plot threads and topics that are brought up through the course of the investigation, but the game fails to capitalize on these. Instead it’s brought to a rather cliché ending, with a villain so obvious they might as well be wearing a nametag saying "Hi! I’m a murderer!"
Interesting Premise, Poor Execution
Taking place after the worldwide collapse of AI and the ban of any technology requiring CPUs, the game brings up interesting points such as AI/human hybridization, a potential technological singularity, and the continuing role of technology in people’s lives. Unfortunately, the game’s writing is weak, and these concepts end up being explained via info-dump, and not really discussed again. There is plenty of room for discussion and nuance pertaining to the subject, particularly in today’s tech-happy world, but as Vera is a fairly strong believer in the Third Decree, the technology ban, no real conversations are ever held on any of the subjects, except with extremist terrorists.
Besides technology, the main theme of the game is family and more specifically parenthood. Again, however, these topics are somewhat glossed over, only being brought up in passing conversation or with Vera’s hallucination of her dead boyfriend. Her fixation on the topic of motherhood is never properly integrated with the rest of her character, as her introduction and interactions with other characters are never given proper emotional depth. The plotline feels like it’s been poorly tacked on to try and make her character more interesting, but it falls flat on its face.
The characters were mostly flat and bland. As stated, the villain was extremely obvious, and the rest of the characters were just boring, with the exception of Valter, who was quite interesting but never used to his full potential. It was clear from the outset that his small robot Nisse was not a ventriloquist dummy but was actually a robot with AI. Examining the plot through the light of a sympathetic character and a useful robot could have been an excellent perspective to bring depth and compassion to the story, but until the end he kept up the charade.
Andersson and Gabriel, the two police detectives who Vera interacts with, both seem married to the job but are at least passable police officers. Vera herself seems to take on additional personality characteristics as the plot requires. While she is mostly no-nonsense and analytical, but still kind, her hallucinations with her dead boyfriend seem to bring out an overemotional side that doesn’t quite click with the rest of her.
Some Logical, Some Illogical Puzzles
The game’s puzzles were extremely hit or miss. Some puzzles were standard adventure game inventory puzzles, and those held up fairly well. The most interesting mechanic of the game, which comprises the majority of the challenges, are the bio augmentations that Vera has. She’s enhanced with nano-bots, and you start with a set of three standard augs. As you progress through the story, you can choose to put Vera on the Empathic, Assertive, or Analytical paths, each of which have a different set of bio-augs to unlock.
The augmentations themselves were fun to play around with and exciting to unlock. They add replayability to the game, as each path unlocks different augmentations and different puzzle solutions. However, the way they are integrated into the puzzles isn’t always logical or fun. One puzzle in particular led me to great frustration as it was not properly hinted that you were even supposed to use your ability to begin with, let alone on what. In order to ascertain a certain location, you are supposed to use your supersight to look at a map that someone is holding from far away. Except that you're told it's a map maybe once, and there's still no logical train of thought that would connect finding a super duper secret hideout to it being written on said map. By people who knew it was super duper secret. And who were explicitly trying to keep it a secret.
Whispers of a Machine Final Thoughts
The artwork of the game is done in pixel art style, and the character portraits are absolutely gorgeous. Backgrounds, however, were nothing stunning and the dreary color palette of the city became more monotonous than immersive. The washed out and barren post-techno look only goes so far.
Voice acting is top notch, and with voice direction by Dave Gilbert that’s par for the course. My favorite performances were Ivy Dupler as Vera and Andy Mack as Valter and Nisse, who both showed incredible range and depth of performance. Also notable were actors from the usual Wadjet Eye stable including Andy Chmelko and Shelly Shenoy.
Overall, Whispers of a Machine was a passable game but disappointing. It promises a huge and intriguing plot with plenty of philosophical and ethical problems to debate and discuss, but ultimately ends up failing to properly capitalize on its unique premise due to poor writing. Excellent bio-augmentation mechanics were hampered by poor puzzle design, but voice acting performances went a long way to selling the characters. While Whispers of a Machine is definitely a head above the swarm of adventure games being released these days, it doesn’t measure up enough to be a true gem of the genre.
This review was conducted on Steam with a copy provided by the developer.
- Interesting Premise
- Great Voice Work
- Beautiful Character Portraits
- Fails to Capitalize on Premise
- Some Plot Threads Feel Tacked On
- Scenery is Monotonous, Not Immersive
- Poor Puzzle Design and Hinting