Before the modern digital arcade game, there were mechanical and electro-mechanical arcade games. Dating back to the late 1800s, these games comprised of levers, gears, pullies, and other mechanical systems to allow users to manipulate physical pieces on a machine using controls such as dials, pullies, handles, or levers. These games were relatively short and often focused on measuring strength and other physical traits.
Eventually, these evolved to more “video game” type tasks like who could race a fireman up a ladder the fastest by turning a dial or even shooting targets with a pellet gun. In fact, many of the games you see at fairs and exhibitions use some of the same premises as these early games. Fast forward to the 1960s and companies as Namco and Sega started developing electro-mechanical games for malls and department stores.
Our Bartlow’s Dread Machine review takes a look at a new game from Tribetoy and Beep Games that tries to simulate these mechanical games of old, and it does it quite well. In fact, I would go so far as to say it’s a must-play for any gamer, just because of its uniqueness. Read on for our full review (note: we reviewed the Xbox One version)!
In Bartlow’s Dread Machine, you play as a Secret Service agent during the Roosevelt presidency. In the opening sequence, Roosevelt gets abducted by Anarco-Satanists. NOT THE ANARCO-SATANISTS! 😉
At any rate, after his abduction, you, as a lone Secret Service agent, must track down the culprits and rescue your beloved President. It is a pretty simple story that takes you across the continent and through six different locations, but it does fit the game mechanics well.
Each location has three or four levels to get through. A full playthrough takes about seven hours or so, likely longer harder difficulties.
A twin-stick shooter, the game is designed in the style of early mechanical games (as mentioned above). This definitely lends itself to an old-timey feeling and reminds me of some older fair games.
At any rate, instead of being able to free roam or side scroll, you must navigate your character along a track using the left thumbstick. You are often presented with path choices, some of which end up in dead ends. While you are on a track, you are also limited to how far back you can go so proceed cautiously. There are checkpoints along the way, in case you should lose one of your lives. The right thumbstick allows you to aim, while the right trigger shoots your weapon.
While the movement is limited, aiming is not. More than a few times, I felt like I was playing on of those shooting games at the fair where you aim and hit red targets to make an object do something. And it’s not just straight shooting either. Sometimes you have to look for a lever to shoot to proceed, ricochet a shot off a panel to complete a task or kill enemies, and even dodge dynamite — just to name a few.
Throughout the game, there are ammo pickups, health pickups, and even character unlocks like Zombie General Custer, Marie Curie, Nikola Tesla, and more. To collect these, simply navigate along the path past them. Kills grant money in the form of pennies that you collect after you pass through the dropped money bags. You have to be relatively quick though as they disappear after a set time. You also earn pennies at the end of each level for chains, accuracy, and kills. Occasionally debris falls across the pathways as well and you can move through it, pushing them aside.
The game does mix things up a bit as well. In addition to the character on the track shooting levels, there are also your obligatory boss fights and even interesting driving levels. For those, your vehicle is attached to a metal rod and you have to dodge obstacles while shooting enemies. There are even levels that start to scroll as you enter a stage and you have to skeddadle your way through them lest you run out of space or time.
Most of the game is in a side view but occasionally it rotates into a top-down view. At first, the switch is a bit jarring and takes getting used to but the more you play, the easier the switch gets.
When you do run out of lives, you have to restart the level. However, you get a chance to visit the Mercantile in order to purchase upgraded weapons or clothing that will help you with better stats, more health, faster shooting, and the like.
Finally, there are five modes to play: Very Easy, Easy, Normal, Hard, and Impossible. Normal is a bit of a challenge and you will die, but I found it nicely paced and not too frustrating.
One thing I did find, however, is the extremely long load times when first booting up the game. It takes a few minutes, easily, even on an external SSD which is much faster than the internal Xbox One X hard drive.
As mentioned in the previous section, movement is limited to a track system. The entire game has an older time feel to it, almost steampunk at times but with a very mechanical feeling. When each level loads, or when you die, the level builds itself using gears and pulleys, adding to that mechanical feeling.
There are some fun little “treats” if you will along the way. When you get low on health, your character sparks — much like a failing mechanical component might. Once the enemy starts shooting at you, your character even gets holes in him or her when you get shot.
The game takes place both outside and inside in various locales and the lighting effects are equally well done in both. The first level you go inside, I was super impressed with the lighting when you fired your weapon.
All around, the graphics easily convey the feeling the game is trying to portray.
Like the graphics, the sound design in Bartlow’s Dread Machine fits the game perfectly. From the upbeat soundtrack with its sense of urgency at specific spots to the sound effects, everything is bang on (literally). The creaks as you travel along the tracks, especially when experienced with headphones, really pulls you into a different era of gaming. While it sounds great on a good surround sound system, the subtle sound effects are really noticeable on a good headset like the Audeze Mobius.
Bartlow’s Dread Machine also features local couch co-op play! Nothing really changes over the single-player experience and it is even more fun having a teammate along for the ride. I would have expected the players to jam each other up but the game does allow you to pass one another along the track.
Available for both the Xbox One and PC via Steam, the game will set you back a mere US$14.99 on either platform. While the replayability might not be there (although a fresh run through with Zombie Cutler was fun), it is worth playing at least once.
Bartlow’s Dread Machine is a breath of fresh air with its unique take on arcade shooters. The fact it draws inspiration from what could be considered the father of arcade games translates well into the modern age.
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Bartlow's Dread MachineUS$14.99
- Great design
- Interesting gameplay style
- Fantastic soundtrack and sound effects
- Local co-op
- Character upgrades
- Can't change characters mid-game
- Long initial load times
- Some levels are way easier than others