Remember the good old days? Back when you could jump in your short, head to a picture show, have a dilly time, and maybe find some attractive folks on the make? Yes, the 1910s were certainly a wonderful time. Unfortunately, there were not any video games to be enjoyed. Except for one, that is: Bartlow’s Dread Machine. The splendiferous marvel of the electronic age!
Of course, Bartlow’s Dread Machine did not actually exist in the 1910s, but it absolutely looks the part. The talented devs at Tribetoy and Beep Games Inc. clearly poured all of their heart and soul into creating the game’s incredibly unique art style. It is easy to forget that what you are playing is actually a video game rather than a coin operated contraption of shining copper and grinding gears.
The polished and charming visual design extends into the game’s animation as well. Characters move along on wired poles, and have the slightest bit of whiplash when taking tight turns. Baddies crumble to pieces as they are defeated, and every weapon emits a pleasant trail of smoke from their barrels. Not to mention, of course, the splendid way that scenes are constructed before your very eyes. All of this splendid machinery complements the story as well.
You take control of a secret agent for the United States of America. As you are enjoying a fine day in the park, chaos breaks loose thanks to a group of heretofore unknown Anarcho-Satanists. These diabolical folks are responsible for the kidnapping of President Theodore Roosevelt. As one of the President’s sworn protectors, it is your duty to fight against the villains and their horde of monstrosities. You will do this with an assortment of unlockable weapons, and even some famous names from history – Marie Curie, Annie Oakley, and Nikola Tesla to name a few.
When it comes to the game’s shooting, you will find it to be a mixed bag. You move from scene to scene on little rail paths. Using one stick for movement and the other for aiming, Bartlow’s Dread Machine is a different twist on the twin-stick shooting genre. That twist comes from the mentioned pathways. This shooter requires a change in perspective. You will have to be quick on the draw since your movement is limited. This may sound bad, but it actually makes for great fun. Choosing the right path at the right moment in a flurry of incoming enemies is a delight. Where it all gets a bit rusty, however, is with the enemy projectiles.
As you rain hot lead upon your enemies, they eventually begin returning fire. You cannot dodge or evade in any way, but you can do a little spin that deflects projectiles. This spin must be activated right before you are hit with a projectile, and it does not feel good. The window of time you have to deflect is small, and it takes an unpleasant amount of time before you can spin again. In the later levels, when a complete hurricane of bullets can speed toward you, having this as your only option for evasion feels completely out of whack.
Your primary option for staying alive then: kill everything faster than it can kill you.
That would be fine and dandy if it were not for the fact that the game’s aim assist can often feel that it is working against you. On more occasions than I would like, I found myself struggling to point my weapon at what I actually wanted to be shooting. It was the most frustrating when it would lead to my death – specifically because Bartlow’s Dread Machine has a lives system. Three deaths on a level, and it is all the way back to the beginning for you. This can be absolutely crushing on some of the longer levels. It would not feel so brutal if you had the abilities to skip cutscenes, earn money for unlocking new weapons faster, or even change characters in between attempts. Sadly, none of this is the case. The fact that you have to start an entirely new game in order to change characters is a total drag. Each character comes with a completely unique and fun weapon, but I rarely felt the desire to try them out since it meant replaying through everything – unskippable cutscenes and dialogue included.
Though it will not win any awards for its gameplay, this game is a real treat. It encapsulates the heart and spirit of what wonderful things can be done with an indie game. Its rougher edges and rustier bits can be frustrating, but if you want to play one of the most unique titles of the year, then you could do a whole lot worse than Bartlow’s Dread Machine on Xbox One.