Bartlow’s Dread Machine released on July 30, 2020 on Steam Early Access. As is the case with Early Access games, it’s far from perfect. Strange design choices and inconsistencies bog down Bartlow’s Dread Machine, tainting an experience that otherwise embraces a unique aesthetic.
The game stays true to the title. Your mission as a secret service agent to save Theodore Roosevelt from a terrifying yet unknown fate contextualizes everything, but the story is told uniquely through a machine’s point of view. Tracks limit the movement of you and your adversaries but provide just the right amount of freedom to allow for fast-paced combat.
Small visual details immerse you in this new reality. Upon losing health, your character gradually develops holes, sparks, and other mechanical imperfections. When you die, your body breaks into several pieces, all of which are sent scattering across the ground. As you travel, the world will be built before your very eyes. When you find health, you’re sucked below the machine and spit back out looking brand new. When you open ammo drops, a large metal bullet on a pole ejects from the crate to show you’ve opened it. The environment gets destroyed as if its all artificial. This list goes on. Aesthetically, there was a clear direction, and Bartlow’s Dread Machine nails it on the execution.
From a design perspective, the teams at Tribetoy and Beep Games dropped the ball in a few key areas, most of which orbit a central issue with checkpoints. The game takes on a contradictory nature in the way that it rewards and punishes you. Checkpoints are sometimes in odd places that don’t fully reward you for progressing. Additionally, punishments for failure weigh much heavier and often render your checkpoints useless.
Within each level are several checkpoints – some of them are physical checkpoints that you reach like flags in Super Mario Bros., and others are artificial, such as different phases of a boss fight. However, the checkpoints can feel oddly placed. There could be a checkpoint right before one section of a level, and immediately following the checkpoint is a conversation between two characters. What does that mean? Every time you die and have to return to that checkpoint, you’re forced to rapidly click through the conversation again. These strange choices extend to boss fights. Logically, each phase of a boss could be a checkpoint. However, sometimes boss checkpoints range from one phase to three phases, forcing you to repeat parts of the boss fight that aren’t necessarily the parts that you need to repeat and do better on.
In addition to the checkpoints, you’re given three lives per attempt. If you die three times in the same level, all the checkpoints are reset and you have to do the level all over again. While at first glance this seems like a decent way to keep combat tense, it just leaves you repeating the same parts you’ve already beaten. Designing a game in this way results in a large portion of the player’s experience and impression of the game revolving around mindlessly doing the same level several times. Simply put, the lives are just unnecessary. The only valuable thing they do is allow you to fail and use money to buy extra items to help you in your next attempt. The truth, though, is that items are expensive enough that by the time you can afford more, you’ve already played through the level enough times to beat it. If they got rid of lives and just kept restarting players at their checkpoints, that would be more than enough to make combat tense and interesting.
Bartlow’s Dread Machine establishes itself as a fast-paced, shoot ‘em up-style game in the first level, so it’s odd to see departures from this as you progress. In the middle of a standard level, you’ll suddenly find yourself in a situation that requires a slower, methodical approach, and it’s extremely jarring and causes you to lose health, which we’ve already established is extremely valuable unless you want to repeat the whole level over again. These slower moments are typically accompanied by some sort of puzzle. Strangely, the identity of Bartlow’s Dread Machine is clear, yet it tries to go a different direction with puzzles. When you look at some of the most popular and successful shmups, that’s often the hill that the game lives and dies on. You don’t run into puzzles in DOOM or Enter the Gungeon. Even some of the first games that could potentially be referred to as shmups stay true to this, including Asteroids and Space Invaders.
Unfortunately, the controls are wonky during combat in its current state, so you can’t escape inconsistencies outside of puzzles either. From what I could tell, it feels like there’s a depth issue with the game. It can’t seem to determine how far into the game you’re aiming, so you may be trying to fire straight to your right, but depending on the camera angle it may think you’re trying to fire at a deeper location, so your bullet won’t go where you intend it. Overall, it just doesn’t seem optimized very well for PC. Moving around can sometimes feel much like playing Pac-Man with an original Atari 2600 joystick; sometimes you’ll try to turn but end up continuing forward instead. Sometimes there will be two turns close to each other and you’ll intend to take one and end up taking the other. While the issue is minor in the moment, it’s frustrating in the grand scheme of the game.
There’s a lot of work to still be done with Bartlow’s Dread Machine, and it’s tough to say how much of this they’ll even be able to realistically fix within Early Access. However, It’s definitely not a lost cause. There are quite a few minor improvements to be made that could potentially take the game to the next level.
This impression is based on the PC version of the game. A code was provided by the publisher.
Brandon is a young writer who loves going deep into games to explore meaning, purpose, and life. He believes that there’s nothing better than getting lost in a world full of characters to love and lessons to learn. He has a special place in his heart for single player games such as Mass Effect and Life Is Strange, but he also blows off some steam playing some of his favorite multiplayer games, like Paladins.