When it comes to the gaming genres that dominate the mainstream sales charts, it’s rare to see a puzzle game break into that list of big hitters. Exceptions such as Portal or The Witness come along once in a while but it takes a very promising concept to capture the attention of the gaming community. However, since we laid eyes on Maquette, a game published by a publisher that I personally put a lot of stock in, Annapurna Interactive. We agreed that this game had the potential to be an exception to the rule and combine the artsy stylings of their previous properties like What Remains of Edith Finch or Gone Home along with a brilliant puzzle concept.
Maquette uses a technique that has been gaining traction within indie game development called fractal game design. A technique many will be aware of thanks to The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. This essentially means creating stages that repeat themselves, changing in scale but allowing you to have the same effect in each. Honestly, it\’s very difficult to explain without visually showing the puzzles here but rest assured. On paper, this concept has the legs to provide some of the most inspired puzzles in gaming history. However, would Maquette, the confirmed PS Plus free game for March, be able to deliver on its promising concept. We find out in our review of Maquette on PS5.
Firstly, let’s get the presentation out of the way first. Annapurna Interactive has gathered a reputation for publishing games that are visually stunning almost exclusively. So it was no surprise to find that this game was no different. The game opens up with a long and winding path which gives you an idea of what to expect in terms of art direction for this title. The aesthetic is modeled as if you are wandering through a sketchbook, which is fitting based on the events of the story. Cut scenes are filled with progressively elaborate illustrations, floral patterns, and the like. Each area is visually very well constructed, suits the themes of the story for each stage and overall, does a stellar job of inviting players to explore the zany and fantastical world that the developers have concocted. In short, the game looks brilliant, as predicted.
What really caught me off guard though, was the quality of the audio within this title. The voice acting within this title comes from some very tenured actors who have worked on projects such as Black Mirror, The Mandalorian, Jurrasic World, American Horror Story, and Fringe to name a few. Plus, the two actors in question, Seth Gabel and Bryce Dallas Howard are actually married in real life. So the chemistry between the two is electric throughout. Every line that’s delivered is with nuance and has levels. It’s refreshing to see such talented voice acting outside of mainstream titles and long may it continue.
Then to continue the praise for the audio in this title, the game also provides its own unique soundtrack of original compositions. A feat that is admirable in its own right but then when you add that each song is brilliant, it takes this effort to a whole new level. Presentationally, this game is a masterclass in indie game development. However, the gushing tap of praise for this title really runs dry from here on out.
A Flying Start
We move onto the core gameplay. Now, I have to give credit where credit is due. The first half of this game does a very good job of showcasing why this fractal concept has the potential to offer a truly spectacular puzzle gaming experiences. Through carefully crafted puzzles with clever solutions, the game gets off to a flying start. It never holds your hand but once you establish that the miniature area in the center of the map is your key to progression, you soon begin to put the pieces together.
Admittedly, the mechanics that involve grabbing and moving objects are stiff and awkward. Plus, the adaptive trigger resistance that is present when moving an object toward and away from oneself seems very unnecessary. Yet in the initial stages, I was willing to overlook this due to the merit of each puzzle. If you knew the solution, enough tinkering would get you to your end goal and wrestling with the controls was a small price to pay. However, in the later chapters, this all changed.
Runs Out of Ideas
The initial three stages are the highlights of this game. Everything after is a chore. The player will have to endure one chapter that essentially is walking from point A to point B. Sure, I understand that this is to provide a chance for exposition and narrative through the text that litters the walls as you walk, and maybe I would have been more receptive to this had the story been gripping, but we will get to that later. This begins the gradual decline that sees the game run out of steam.
The next stage includes some genuinely infuriating platforming coupled with the need to use the borderline broken item moving mechanics and the last stage offers ’puzzles’ that are difficult but for all the wrong reasons. The best example being a stage that asks you to match symbols on a totem to the miniature version. However, even with a considerable effort to see the shapes, they are so difficult to make out. Not to mention that the two are basically identical in shape. I’d love to write this off and say it was my poor eyesight but I can say with some certainty that even those with 20/20 vision would struggle here.
To sum up the gameplay experience, it starts promising and declines rapidly as you progress. To the point where the end game feels like an unfinished level. The last two stages still feel like they are in their alpha state. The implementation of the mechanics feels rigid and uncomfortable, the puzzles become less clever and more arbitrary and in the end, a great concept ends up feeling hollow and not fleshed out to the fullest.
A Bland and Boring Tale
An argument that many will make for this title’s shortcomings, is that the puzzles and gameplay only serve as a vehicle to drive the story. This is something that may be true and if the story was in any way impactful, maybe I could have accepted this. However, Maquette’s story that somewhat mirrors the same vibe as ’500 Days of Summer’ starts on a flat and lifeless note and continues in this vein right until the conclusion.
Aside from the rehashed and predictable nature of the narrative. One could overlook this if only the characters were written well. The key to this story succeeding is providing a narrative where no member of this relationship is truly at fault. Providing two characters that are equally likable and giving the player the impression that they could be playing as either party. However, the game only ever achieves the latter.
Players will struggle to connect with Kensie throughout this story as she exhibits some behaviours that are clear signs that the relationship was doomed from the start. She doesn\’t tell her friends about Michael, she is incredibly self-involved and she is emotionally removed from the relationship for the most part. Michael has his own flaws too, but it\’s far from equal and this creates a dynamic that hinders the success of this narrative. Overall, it’s predictable, plays host to weak characters, and never ramps up to an emotional finish. Annapurna games are usually titles with a great narrative. You can usually bank on it and this was a real letdown.
Race to the Finish
The game does have some other aspects that add to the rather flat holistic gameplay experience. There are a series of achievements that players can tackle to challenge themselves. These are essentially time trials that ask the player to have a mastery for each stage and the janky mechanics to clear each stage in a time that would initially have been unthinkable. It is fun to break down the finer details of each stage and speed run to the finish line. However, this additional replayability does little to make up for the overall disappointing gameplay.
Overall, Maquette is a game that aims to offer a revolutionary concept, great visuals, impeccable sound, a killer story, and fun gameplay, all in one neat package. However, despite ticking some boxes, the project has clearly proven itself to be too ambitious for developer Graceful Decay. We commend the presentation and in some areas of this game, you see just how clever and fun this game could have been.
However, thanks to a lackluster storyline, janky controls, unnecessary Dualsense functionality, and a gradually deteriorating quality of puzzles throughout. Maquette becomes another puzzle game that was too clever for its own good. Is it worth a go? If you pick it up on PS Plus in March for free, then yes. For the tunes and getting to witness fractal gaming in action alone, this is worth a bash. However, for others who will have to pay the price of admission. We would honestly say steer clear.
Summary: Puzzle your way through a modern-day love story in this strange yet beautiful game.
Genres: Puzzle, Adventure, Indie
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5 (Review Version), Microsoft Windows
Developers: Graceful Decay
Publishers: Annapurna Interactive
Initial release date: 23 Feb, 2021
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