Bartlow’s Dread Machine – Tin men to the rescue – Early Access Impressions

Gare – Monday, August 3, 2020 5:41 PM
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When United States president Theodore Roosevelt is kidnapped by mysterious forces, it’s up to you, a stalwart little robot agent, to head out and save him – that’s the basic premise of Bartlow’s Dread Machine, a charming twin-stick shooter that’s just launched via Steam Early Access and is ready to take the mechanical world by storm. And here’s the best part: it’s actually really quite good.

A mechanical delight

What’s so special about it, then? Well, allow me to first explain how the game works. So, you’re placed in the role of what is essentially a toy soldier sliding along on a series of fixed rails while the game throws all sorts of enemies and obstacles at you. The right analogue stick lets you aim your gun in every direction, while the left stick allows you to move, and the right trigger button lets you shoot; in addition to all that, there’s also a separate dodge button that enables you to deflect incoming projectiles if pressed at just the right moment. And while all this may seem simplistic on paper, Bartlow’s Dread Machine makes absolutely sure that you’re never sleeping at the wheel, so to speak. After a rather lukewarm opening level, which more or less just serves as a glorified tutorial, the game immediately switches gears – excuse the pun – and begins bombarding you with new surprise mechanics in every additional chapter that gets unlocked, adding new layer upon new layer to an already very solid base. Melee grunts will soon be accompanied by sharpshooters whose pesky bullets will force you to keep moving and dodging like a pro. Some levels will throw explosives at you, others will have you shoot switches and solve puzzles, while yet others will pit you against deadly snipers whose only weakness are well-placed ricochet shots. Heck, there’s even a car chase at one point. The bottom line is that Bartlow’s Dread Machine feels like a proper little adventure, with twists and turns, ups and downs – and you can never quite tell how the next level will attempt to pull the rug from under you, which successfully prevents the campaign from falling prey to unnecessary repetition and tedium.

Not just for the hardcore

The game also hits a satisfying sweet spot in terms of challenge. Sure, having to constantly move and aim at the same time may take a little while to get used to, and certain later stages do enjoy testing the player’s endurance by leaning heavily into bullet hell territory, but otherwise the game is forgiving enough, at least on its default (Normal) difficulty. A relatively generous amount of ammo and health refill stations litter each level, plus, there’s usually a guaranteed checkpoint after every major battle. Also, while it’s true that you only have three lives to attempt a stage before having to restart it from the beginning (as opposed to a mid-level checkpoint), failure itself isn’t without its benefits, as you still get to keep all the money you’ve collected from defeated enemies, which can then be used to purchase additional weapons, armor and support items. These purchasable goods offer a variety of bonuses, including increased health, better damage resistance, upgraded fire rate and so on – in other words, the more you play, the stronger your character will become, making it easier to overcome levels that might’ve been too difficult earlier.

So far so good

All in all, my initial impressions of Bartlow’s Dread Machine are rather positive – in fact, I’d say the game is a very good example of how an Early Access launch should ideally look like. All the core mechanics feel polished, resulting in gameplay that boasts a sufficient amount of variety and offers a constant drip-feed of surprises that motivate the player to keep completing level after level. With this being an Early Access project, it’s nonetheless worth noting that the current build isn’t the finished product just yet: it contains roughly a dozen or so levels that shouldn’t take more than a few hours to complete, but there will be more to come in the upcoming weeks as the developers gear up for the game’s official launch this fall. Either way, I’m quite looking forward to finding out what the rest of the campaign will have in store for its brave mechanical protagonists.

In the meantime, you can check out Bartlow’s Dread Machine for yourself via Steam Early Access.

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