If there’s one thing I absolutely love it’s nostalgia. Games that take me back to being a little arcade rat that pumped all his pocket money into machines scratch this itch nicely. We’re going back to when it was worth spending time in arcades because you knew that some of those cabinets would never be ported to anything else. So what’s all this got to do with the price of fish, then? Well, I’ve been playing Bartlow’s Dread Machine on Steam, and not only am I really enjoying myself, but it’s also speaking out to the fourteen-year-old me and I’m loving it. Incidentally, I’ve already mentioned this game, so for a slightly condensed version, you can look here.
So, Bartlow’s Dread Machine is a rail shooter in the truest sense of the word. You literally play a character, (or characters if you’re playing with a mate,) that’s moving about on a system of metal rails. We’re going back to the very early days of amusements with this idea, (no I wasn’t there, thanks for asking,) when we didn’t have cabinets with screens and you literally used mechanical contraptions to play. Think side-show games but more advanced and you’re kind of there. I’m mentioning all this not only to give you an idea of the feel of the game but to give a much-warranted nod to the developers who have not only come up with a unique idea, but one that’s rooted in history, and this has to be applauded.
In Bartlow’s Dread Machine you play as a government agent in a story that’s a bit … silly. I mean this in the best possible way of course but president Roosevelt has been kidnapped by an evil force and you have to grab your guns and go and save him. There’s a wall of undead and worse in your way so you’re going to have your work cut out for you if you are to complete your task. The plotline is a tad eccentric but if you’re looking for a new adventure you could definitely do a lot worse.
The best way to describe Bartlow’s Dread Machine is as a pop-up book on rails. The levels unfold around you in the most beautiful way as you play. The fact that your character is a metal mannequin just adds to the ambiance, making the whole thing feel like a moving puppet show. Even taking damage looks awesome because the enemies actually blow holes in you. Your little puppet looks progressively worse for wear the more damage it takes until it literally falls apart. I can’t stress my love for this enough. Everything is so cleverly and lovingly put together that it really has to be seen to be believed.
Level design is clever. It’s not just a case of shooting stuff on rails. Bartlow’s Dread Machine has some very well thought out puzzle elements that make playing through the game feel fresh even when the basics don’t change. I’m going to take an example of, and let me be very clear about this, FUCKING SNIPERS. So these sneakily placed, rifle-wielding gits will do a very good job at killing you. To prevent said death you need to hit switches that position targets that you need to ricochet bullets off so you aren’t standing in their sights. There is also a boss that uses these mechanics, so yeah, that’s fun too. You need to be accurate so just spraying and praying isn’t going to win out if that’s your chosen method.
The shooting mechanics in Bartlow’s Dread Machine are fun if a little frustrating at times. Did you ever play those side-show games at the fair? Where you have to shoot moving metal objects? Yeah, well that, is this right down to the pinging sounds they made when you hit them. The fact that your moving on tracks is fun too but takes a little getting used to as it restricts your movement a bit. Little nark here … it’s possible to not move quite far enough and get stuck between rails. This isn’t by any means game-breaking but it’s a royal pain in the rear when things are firing at you or chasing you.
The rail mechanic also makes picking things up tricky. The money bags that enemies drop disappear after a few seconds and because you can’t just run over and grab them often vanish before you can get there. I’d like pick-ups to remain on the field a little longer to give you a bit more of a fighting chance but that’s by-the-by. Money is important because upgrades that come in the form of hats, shirts, and trousers, aside from the obvious guns aren’t cheap. I get not maxing everything out in the first few levels but for balance give us less cash in bags we can get easily or make the timer longer and have them disappear. Basically, a fighting chance would be nice.
My only true complaint to this absolute masterpiece of a game, (and I don’t use words like that flippantly,) is the lighting. Sometimes it’s not immediately easy to see where the attacks are coming from as the enemies spawn onto the board in some areas by popping out of it. This means that you’re concentrating on one thing and don’t immediately see the more pressing problem that might be standing right behind you. There were a few times I missed what should have been really obvious enemies and my only conclusion as to why comes down to lighting. The lighting isn’t bad but in a sense, it’s sometimes too good that in making the level look gorgeous it hinders gameplay a tad. This didn’t spoil my fun and isn’t a colossal complaint just an observation.
One other little niggle is that perspective can change in Bartlow’s Dread Machine rather abruptly from side-scrolling to top-down shooting. This takes a bit of re-adjusting and when the world and its dog is trying to eat you can be a bit off-putting. I love the switches in view but please can I have a cinematic first to give my eyes a chance to catch up?
These really are tiny little complaints. This is probably some of the most fun I’ve had in a shooter in ages and I’m not sure I’ve ever played another one quite like it. The mechanics are clever, the graphics are awesome and the plot-line is bonkers. All this couples up to make a rather lovely experience. I will 100% be not only completing but unlocking everything there is to unlock in Bartlow’s Dread Machine. This includes new characters to play with, because who wouldn’t want to be zombie General Custar? Now, can we have a sequel please, and set it in space or something – thanks much!
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.
Story - 7/10
Look and Feel - 9/10
Challenge - 8/10
Fun factor - 8/10
Bartlow’s Dread Machine isn’t perfect but it’s pretty damn close. If you’re after an arcade shooter that looks gorgeous and immerses you in a great story that’ll bring you hours of fun this is a very good call. The big thing here is it’s novel and not just for the sake of being a bit different. This title is quirky for all the right reasons and you could do far worse than giving it a try.
Hailing from Southport England, Alex started his gaming career in the late 80s on a Commodore 64. Since that time he's either owned or played on virtually every console released. Alex happens to...