Submachine 8, EzloSpirit’s review

(This review is also an article, entitled “Submachine 8: Well-Planned,” that I wrote for the next issue of my school’s newspaper. As such, its format is a little different from the standard format of in-depth reviews on this blog. It also has a different, sillier mood.)

Submachine, which has absolutely nothing to do with guns, is quite possibly the most renowned point-and-click series of the twenty-first century. It has been compared to the TV series Lost, with its incredibly complex and slow-progressed plot, its sense of “What is going on here‽”, and its incredible ability to make players—not to mention its unnamed, unseen protagonist—completely, totally, utterly, and redundantly lost.

Submachine is a point-and-click science fiction/puzzle series with elements of the escape genre that is primarily available for free online on the Adobe Flash platform through various Flash gaming websites. Its “basic” premise is that there is a network of places called submachines that was being explored by a team of scientists, most who went missing or died, under the leadership of a mysterious man named Murtaugh, who has the ability to create portals that can be used to travel to different places in the Submachine Network (or Subnet) but damage reality when created; because of this power, Murtaugh’s former colleagues somehow buried him alive in a lighthouse, but he managed to escape and start a team of scientists that would explore the Subnet, but unfortunately for them, Murtaugh went a bit crazy and killed a whole bunch of them and began searching for a way to pursue those who had buried him alive to take his revenge. (*wheeze* *wheeze* *wheeze* Whew! Sorry! I’m okay, now.) Confused yet? Don’t worry. That’s normal, no matter how many times you’ve played through the existing installments in the series. And…even with all of that having been established over the past seven games, it is still unclear what the goal of the protagonist is!

Few questions are answered, and an ungodly number of new ones are opened up, in the latest Submachine game, Submachine 8: The Plan, which was released on the official series website, Submachine World on September 29. The game begins after the protagonist has traveled far outside the Core of the Subnet via one of Murtaugh’s “Karma Portals” at the conclusion of the previous game (aptly subtitled The Core), and now he/she is…well, on a catwalk of some sort…somewhere.

The game ups the ante and brain-pain by introducing the Seven Layers. Apparently, the Subnet has seven layers of reality—seven different “dimensions,” if you will—so that there are seven completely different locations existing in the same place at the same time. These layers are navigated using an also aptly-named device called a Navigator that allows the protagonist to pass between them.

Sector 9 (whatever that means), which is where the protagonist has found him-/herself, is composed of a 9-by-9 grid of, well, game screens, and certain screens (or groups of screens) within a given layer are orphaned from the others. So how can they be accessed? That’s right: by passing to another layer, moving to the equivalent screen on the grid, and then passing back. Unfortunately, each consecutive layer is inaccessible until a device is activated in some way in each preceding layer. It’s not always so clear how to do this, but it doesn’t take too much effort…to figure it out; doing the activation itself is not such a simple matter.

Navigating the game is difficult enough. By the time the protagonist has access to all seven layers, you, as the player, will need to be familiar with the layouts of seven different areas and which layers should be visited to enable access to different screens in other layers. Meanwhile, you are picking up items and other things that will allow you to advance and eventually activate every layer device and then grant the protagonist access to a place in Layer 5 called The Temple, thus completing the game. (I couldn’t possibly explain it any better! Again, it’s like Lost; you have to actually play it to understand it as fully as is humanly possible!)

I fell in love with the Submachine series earlier this year, using walkthroughs to enable myself to actually progress through each frustratingly-puzzling game (in a good way) and see what happened next in the intricate plot. One of my favorite aspects of the series is its dark, foreboding atmosphere that makes you feel very much alone—there are no characters who are actually seen, as the games’ world is seen through the protagonist’s eyes—and therefore want very much to keep moving so you can maybe get closer to civilization of some sort. That atmosphere is as present as ever in The Plan.

This installment is a stand-out among its predecessors with regard to its gameplay; the Seven Layers hook makes for some headache-inducing puzzles and problems that make you work both the logic and memory centers of your brain more than any Submachine has before. As in the rest of the series, you really need to think outside of the box to advance, a staple of Submachine that almost defines it.

While it does little to advance the plot like the past four games have done, Submachine 8 preserves the series’ sense of wonder and awe. Mateusz Skutnik, the mastermind behind everything Submachine, has such a wild and intelligent imagination that I would be lying if I said that he couldn’t possibly be some kind of genius. I would never have the capacity to create such abstract, clever tasks, and while games have used the parallel universes thing almost to the point of cliché, to include an astonishing seven parallel “universes” was a very bold move, and it is done seamlessly.

I can’t write a review about a Submachine game without mentioning the music, called “ambients” by the creator and the game’s fanbase. Once again produced by New York-based group Thumpmonks, The Plan’s music is appropriately haunting and mysterious. Very ambient!

This eighth game marks the first time that a separate “HD” version of the game has been released alongside the usual free browser version. This version of the game can be played offline and in full screen, and it also includes the ability to save one’s progress, which is absent in the browser version. Possibly best of all, the download comes with the official nine-track soundtrack in MP3 format! The HD version costs a measly $2, so if you like the game, purchasing the HD version should have little impact on your wallet, and it helps Mr. Skutnik fund his next game, which will probably be Submachine 9: The Temple, due for release next year! (Then, again, The Plan was originally slated for release in 2011.)

If you like surreal, mind-bending, puzzling games, then I can not recommend the Submachine series to you any more highly, and that, of course, includes The Plan. If you are a sci-fi nerd like myself or a brain-teaser/puzzle enthusiast, even if you are not much of a gamer, you will also most likely appreciate the masterpiece that is Submachine 8. The game continues the mystery and subtle suspense that the first seven games and four spinoffs so perfectly established. The Seven Layers mechanic is executed fantastically. And the atmosphere is beautifully haunting. So what are you waiting for? Go play Submachine 8: The Plan right now! Actually, wait, no. Like with Lost, you should probably start at the beginning! Submachine 1: The Basement is available on the series website, along with the rest of the games. Check them out at Submachine World!

Gameplay: 10/10
Design: 10/10
Graphics: 10/10
Replay Value: 9/10
Soundtrack: 9.5/10

Overall Grade: 9.7/10 (A+)