By Isaac Espinosa
President Theodore Roosevelt has fallen into the clutches of an otherworldly force, and it’s up to you to save the United States by ridding it of the scum! Bartlow’s Dread Machine is an action game developed and published by Beep Games, Inc. and Tribetoy. In game environments that looks like artifacts from the past, you must take up arms, fight back and protect the President and the country!
Bartlow’s Dread Machine starts as a typical rescue mission. Roosevelt’s mysterious abductors have turned the citizens of New York into their corrupt minions. As the sole soldier who hasn’t been turned evil, it’s up to you to take up your rifle and travel across the United States to put a stop to the dangerous evil-doers’ plans. Along the way, you learn how much influence this gang of dastardly kidnappers has on the American people: reviving spirits of the dead to take you down and even burning San Francisco to the ground, ending the lives of countless innocents.
The journey will be dangerous, but it’s the only way you can protect your nation. This simple story, combined with the games aesthetic – it’s reminiscent of a 1970’s action puppet show in the way the blocky little figurines move across the levels – adds a level of charm to Dread Machine. You feel as if you’re watching the action through an actual machine, which I’m sure was an intentional design choice.
There are many different aspects to the gameplay of Dread Machine, so it’s probably best to begin with what happens before the battle gets underway. At the start of each level, you have access to many different loadout options that can be unlocked with money, which you receive throughout each level. These different equipment choices come in the form of pants, suits, accessories like elixirs or bandages, and, most importantly, weapons. The pants and suits act as armor for your avatar, giving you boosts that will aid you in your adventure. Some effects that you may find useful are HP or giving you more defense against the enemy attacks. As for weapons, you have plenty at your disposal for taking care of the enemy, like shotguns, pistols, miniguns, and so much more! I found the strategy of buying upgrades very satisfying since it made me think about which ones would be useful to me and also not put a dent in my in-game wallet.
As to the levels themselves: Each of the worlds in Dread Machine, which range from New York to the Wild West, has four separate levels. The fourth part of each world tends to be reserved for its bosses, preventing you from advancing onward in your journey. All of the levels have the same goal of surviving through the level and reaching its endpoint. But all of them have their unique designs and intricacies, making it feel as if you’re traveling through deeper parts of the in-game universe.
Each level introduces a new puzzle that’s used to take down a certain enemy or open up a path. These puzzles can include shooting levers to activate certain traps, or ricocheting your bullets off of targets to eliminate a bad guy on a higher plane than the rest of the enemies. It’s all very well thought out, but also straightforward so that players don’t get confused by the complexity. Dread Machine truly excels in guiding players through puzzles while also allowing them to figure out the more intricate puzzles on their own.
Dread Machine is not without its faults, however, one of them serious enough that it makes the game difficult to play sometimes. See, there are a lot of sections in Dread Machine where enemy rushes become more frequent and more numerous. They happen on almost every level and can lead to you becoming cornered if you don’t deal with the enemies quickly. Maybe this is player-specific, and my inability to handle that many enemies at once might not be an issue for someone more experienced. But it honestly does feel unfair at times, especially when the enemies end up becoming much stronger, and more fast-moving, which makes it even harder to deal with them. Add to that the enemies that can shoot at you from a distance and pick off your health, and you have the recipe for a game that can be overwhelming to newcomers.
Despite this problem I had with Dread Machine, it’s clear its positives outweigh its flaws. From its complex but understandable level design to the charming and unique visual design choices, every part of this game was made with passion and soul. And it’s an experience that’s worth the time it takes to master it, even though I couldn’t.
Bronx native Isaac Espinosa is a senior intern at the New York Videogame Critics Circle. Recently, Isaac was named the Circle’s first assistant mentor.