Clifftop Games' Whispers of a Machine is a capable, clever, and ambitious adventure game, but still feels like a niche experience lacking wide appeal.
There remains a surprising amount of depth and evolution for the adventure game to explore. Swedish studio Clifftop Games knows that, and whereas their well-received Kathy Rain didn’t quite reinvent the wheel, their follow-up point-and-click adventure Whispers of a Machine certainly tries to, especially in terms of its decision-based storytelling and puzzle-solving structure. In most respects it succeeds in this ambition, but remnant tropes and clichés in adventure games probably inhibit its potential wider appeal.
You are Special Agent Vera Englund, augmented with superpower-like cybernetic enhancements, and called on to investigate a murder in the sleepy Nordic village of Nordsund. Yes, strong Twin Peaks vibes are definitely present (there’s even a not-entirely-subtle “damn good coffee” nod), but Nordsund and the game in general has a strongly differentiated post-techno-industrial vibe to it. The wider world exists in an interesting state of flux based on tragic events associated with AI technology which has essentially outlawed its use, degenerating scientific advancement, despite the fact that government-appointed officials like Vera are allowed their specific AI-like powers to solve crimes.
Luckily, this manages to factor meaningfully into the gameplay. Starting off, players can use a biorhythm-analyzer which displays a target’s heart rate, an all-purpose scanner which analyzes forensic information like DNA, and a strength booster. Right off the bat, Vera is able to efficiently question a witness based on their reactions and collect DNA at the scene of the crime; the very first screen of the game functions as a solid tutorial for these out-of-the-box adventure game aspects.
Beyond these special abilities, a lot of Whispers of a Machine’s gameplay is of the keyword-driven dialogue variety, reminiscent of adventure game classics like Gabriel Knight 2: Sins of the Father. Speaking with the various townsfolk in Nordsund, Vera accumulates case details and topics of interest which are then jotted down in her notebook, and can be attempted in conversation with others to slowly unravel the bigger murderous picture of this small town.
It should be mentioned that the tone of the game can vary quite drastically, often feeling a little scattered and inconsistent. Vera is an officious agent who conjures up thoughts of a less empathetic Dale Cooper, but this can kind of skew in oddball directions. For instance, an eccentric merchant elicits a rather nasty, stick-to-the-facts version of the main character but, when clicking freely on various items in his shop, Vera is polite and even playful. Players are otherwise able to guide her tone and sensibility through dialogue options and, in a surprising turn for an adventure game, this leads to different augmentations, which then lead to different puzzle solutions. It’s based around a three-pronged system — empathetic, assertive, and analytical — but even this minor inclusion can greatly affect how puzzles and problems play out, all the way to the finale.
The graphics in Whispers of a Machine will seem familiar to any old hands at point-and-click adventure games, but they’re somewhat unimpressive within that niche. Characters are rendered in a chunky pixel style, though animations are a bit stiff, whereas the backgrounds are much finer in resolution but rather drab and light on detail. Most screens include a single errant bit of tiny animation to imply a grander sense of activity, but this rarely feels immersive, and comes off as slightly cheap. Other adventure game tropes on display include a fade-to-black which preempts Vera’s daily reports to her superior on the scene (a conversational summary of a game-day’s events would’ve been much more welcome), and there is that ever-present museum, a common expository plot trick that is rampant in the genre. Neither of these serve to compromise Whispers of a Machine outright, but it still would’ve been nice to see the game’s ambitious sensibilities extend to its other moving parts.
Of course, an adventure game lives and dies on its characters and story, and this one certainly has some smart ingredients in that respect. Vera is formal and a little defensive, but Nordsund’s other faces include a dark-humored medical examiner, a schoolteacher with a massive secret, and various other personalities that are more than they seem. As for Vera, her general demeanor could be considered something of a shield for a more meaningful tragedy, and the details of her cybernetic augs possess some surprises that play out well in the drama. Each character is fully voice-acted, but the quality can greatly vary, and players may find themselves briskly clicking through dialogue to hasten the plot.
Where Whispers of a Machine sags is in its general dearth of flavor text, and the fact that there is surprisingly minimal usage of the scanner feature. Frequently pulling it up when entering a new scene should elicit much more content than it does, but it’s only really useful in select circumstances, and it feels gimmicky at worst. The specific enhancements you obtain in each chapter based on various choices are suitably applicable, and it’s interesting to peel back how different scenarios play out with other augs.
Of course, recognizing those differences would require repeated playthroughs, and the removal of discreet save files gets in the way of that. Each playthrough creates its own save file, and players cannot shift back and forth — to see another ending or puzzle, you’d have to start the game over from the beginning and react differently. This makes sense, given the surprising complexity and paths available, even at seemingly insignificant points of the story, but it feels akin to the PS3 game Hard Rain, in the sense that most players will see how their particular narrative occurred and forever consider it canonical (though, it should be mentioned, Hard Rain did enable chapter selection after the story was initially completed).
When it comes to this genre, small changes feel grander than they should. Whispers of a Machine really does feel magical in hindsight, considering how a second playthrough could elicit utterly different scenarios and puzzles. It’s also nice to see a detective game where the main character isn’t tasked with rescuing every single cat stuck in a tree; a police officer replies to Vera’s questioning on an unrelated matter with something to the effect of, “Leave that to us, you have bigger fish to fry.” Clifftop Games shows confidence and wisdom in their handling of the adventure game niche, but Whispers of a Machine feels like something built for a very particular audience, albeit with careful attention to lesser-. It might not change minds for those who’ve bounced off of similar games in the past, but it’s certainly worth a look for fans of science-fiction, detective stories, and Telltale games.
Whispers of a Machine is out now on Steam, iOS, and Android. Screen Rant was provided a Steam PC code for purposes of review.