by Thomas Mikkelsen
reviewed on PC
As hard tech is banned, biotech transforms the world
Pixel aesthetics have the power to send those of us who remember it back to our childhoods. The nostalgia is even stronger when the overall style creates an immediate connection with a specific title you loved. Agent Englund’s leather trench coat created that instant connection to Beneath a Steel Sky’s Robert Foster for me. If you’re eagerly awaiting Beyond a Steel Sky, the recently announced sequel to the 1994 classic, Whispers of a Machine should reduce the shaking for at least a little while.
As your train pulls into the station at Nordsund, a small town high up on a raised platform, the contrast between pre-collapse affluence and post-collapse desolation is apparent in the shanty town that has been built on top of what amounts to nothing less than a marvel of civil engineering. Considering that Nordstrum is a small town in the middle of nowhere where everyone knows everyone, it makes you wonder what the bigger towns in this world look like.
The Collapse is a point in history where AI and humanity collided – a world war between AI and those who supported it and those who feared it. Fear won. All processors are banned by law in this vision of the future and owning one is a federal offence. This has not stopped the advance of technology, however, as biologists imbue special agents such as Englund (you) with a mysterious substance called “Blue” which gives them special abilities. These abilities are determined by one’s personality and you will gain more powerful ones as you progress. These will depend on your dialogue responses.
You were called in to assist in the investigation of a murder that took place a few days earlier, but as you enter the town, a fresh crime scene awaits your attention. Two murders within days of one another in a town that never sees such crimes suggests something bigger is at play than the fatal spousal spats that plague even the smallest of communities. As a recent graduate, you have already earned your first two augmentations, Scan and Biometric Analysis.
Scanning allows you to search for specific known traces in the environment. For example, examining the first body gives you not only the DNA and fingerprints of the victim, but the approximate shape and size of the murder weapon. These you can then use in other environments to see what the victim touched, where they slept etc., building up an image of who they were.
Biometric Analysis monitors a person’s heart rate as you converse with them allowing you to pick up on anomalies that indicate they may be hiding something. You can then press them on those issues, knowing full well that they have tried to conceal an uncomfortable truth.
Three other abilities will be unlocked as you play the game and those will depend on three personality traits determined by your responses. You can play Agent Englund as either empathetic, analytical or assertive in certain situations. The game is split into four days, and you may choose to mix traits between days to get different combinations of skills if you wish to do multiple playthroughs. I got all empathetic because I’m a nice person, but to each their own...
When the hero spoils the tension
The story and characters of Whispers of a Machine are captivating and I found myself spending time talking to everyone about everything even thought I had already got what I came for. The game is very well written apart from one minor gripe I had with it. On some occasions, Englund’s monologue is a bit too on the nose. She’ll blurt out a line that makes the solution so obvious that it takes away from the feeling of having discovered the solution by yourself. That is a very important feeling to adventure game players, so having her essentially tell you the answer before you have had time to get frustrated and slam your head into the keyboard (another emotional state we adventure gamers relish) is a bit frustrating. Frustration caused by a lack of frustration… we really are a quirky bunch, aren’t we?
Whispers of a Machine’s artwork and setting are so reminiscent of Beneath a Steel Sky that one can easily imagine this story taking place in the same universe, some 82 years after Beneath a Steel Sky’s population revolts against the AI we met in Revolution Studios’ classic. One could even argue that as Revolution takes the Steel Sky series into 3D, Whispers of a Machine will serve as a better second course to point-and-click fans than Beyond will.
A must-buy for adventure fans
I find myself left with daydreams about the world of Whispers of a Machine. What other stories lie untold, what other marvels will biologists discover even without the aid of processing power, and what defence would the world’s inhabitants have if a faction were to revive the AI for their own ends?
If you enjoy classic-style point-and-click adventures that make you think – which is the reason we play them, I know, but I mean more so than usually – then Whispers of a Machine is a must-buy for you. You’ll probably have to look into a walkthrough at some points, but when you do, you’ll bash your head against a wall thinking “how did I miss that!?”
Great story, interesting characters, good voice acting, serious narrative with sprinkles of humour.
Occasionally over-direct hints.