STAFF REVIEW of Bartlow's Dread Machine (Xbox One)

Tuesday, October 20, 2020.
by Adam Dileva

Bartlow's Dread Machine Box art Old-timey: “old-fashioned or reminiscent of the past.” This is the first word that came to mind when trying to come up with the best way to describe the latest twin-stick shooter by Beep Games. Bartlow’s Dread Machine is a reminder of how far technology has come, not just in our electronics, but toys as well. My grandma would tell me stories about some of her classic toys, made of tin and metal, full of gears, sprockets and cogs, as many electronics that we take for granted today were just in its infancy. Times were simpler back then, as were the things you played with growing up.

Growing up, there used to be this one old classic game in the arcade I used to frequent where you put in your money and you could move the helicopter up and down with the joystick. This was an old-timey game though, so the helicopter was actually attached to a metal rod and your joystick moved and rotated gears, which in turn maneuvered the helicopter. This is the basis of Bartlow’s Dread Machine, a game with the same classic type of design, crafted of metal and gears that was clearly created with love and care.

You play a secret service agent that’s in charge of protecting President Theodore Roosevelt. The president is kidnapped, so it falls upon you to save him and return him safely back home. This isn’t your typical presidential kidnapping though, as you’ll be facing off against a slew of monsters and the terror group known as the Anarcho-Satanists. You’ll start your rescue mission in New York but will end up travelling across the United States and other worldly places spanning six chapters, broken into a handful of levels each. Oh, and you’ll also come across other famous historical figures along your journey as well. I couldn’t make this up if I tried.

Silly plot aside, the core gameplay is essentially a twin-stick shooter. You know the drill, moving with the Left Stick and aiming with the Right. Rather than your standard twin-stick though, there’s an interesting twist on the gameplay that makes it somewhat on rails. Because Bartlow’s Dread Machine is actually based on one of those classic old-timey arcade games described above, your character is actually bound to specific predetermined lanes and path that they can traverse. Think of the pathways that Pac-Man can go down and across, and it’s much the same.

As you maneuver through each lane and 90 degree turn, you’re able to freely aim in any direction and shoot the onslaught of enemies trying to stop you. I’m unsure if there is any aim assist though, as many times I’ve wasted tons of bullets trying to shoot someone quite close to me, unable to hit them at the desired angle I intended. Even in the later stages with lots of experience under my belt, I still had issues now and then hitting exactly what I was trying to, seemingly missing by a hair nearly every time. Of course though the enemies don’t have the same problem, so be prepared to get shot at many times, as you can dodge bullets, but only on the predetermined tracks you’re stuck to. While there’s some sort of deflect or dodge-like move that you can use, it never really worked reliably for me and I ended up forgetting I even had the ability to do so.

As you progress from the left of the screen to the right, the stages you play on usually conforms or changes right in front of your eyes, but in the same old-timey style that the rest of the game adheres to. Sometimes tiles will rearrange, flip or rotate and really culminates in the unique boss fights, where sometimes the perspective changes, but you still always shoot on a 2D plane. There are a few sections that have some puzzle elements to them as well. For example, you might be blocked by a locked door, so you’ll have to shoot through a window to an angled metal plate to ricochet your bullet off of to hit a lever. These puzzle sections can be a little confusing at first, as they aren’t slowly introduced, and one level you’ve suddenly got a handful of these to deal with out of nowhere.

There are checkpoints strewn throughout the stages, resetting you there should you die. Lose all your lives and it’s obviously game over. You’ll also come across ammo crates that refill your primary gun and health to restore your hitpoints. All of these need to be passed by or through to flick the lever as you go through the lane they are situated on; another neat touch that adds to the genuineness of the old-timey machine backdrop.

As you kill enemies, they will drop money bags where they died, so you must make sure to collect them as quickly as you can, as they will disappear after a short time. This collected money goes into your stash that can be used to purchase new clothing, weapons and items between stages. Different clothing items will give you bonuses to ammunition, defense, speed, offence and more, so you can build your character however you like provided you can save up enough cash to purchase the items. The items become extremely expensive later on for the top-tier gear and will require a lot of saving up. Once I was confident in not dying as much, I swapped to a different set of gear that allowed me to carry more ammo and fared much better overall.

There are multiple characters to choose from in the beginning and you’ll find secret ones along your way, but the problem is that you’re locked into that character you chose in the beginning unless you start a new game completely. These hidden characters add some bonuses and try to give some replayability, but once the credits ran for me once, I was done with my time in Bartlow’s Dread Machine.

The visuals in Bartlow’s Dread Machine is absolutely fantastic. The classic old-timey theme is done to perfection, as everything looks and feels authentic to those classic machine games from the era. Animations are subtle but also add a lot of flair, such as levels reorganizing, the long metal rod moving your car up and down the chase sequence, or even your character’s arms or legs slightly whipping back and forth with the sudden jerk in movement as you maneuver the laneways. The audio is just as fitting, having that classic player piano soundtrack; you know the style, with the piano that plays itself based on the roll of paper that has specific holes cut out of it to determine what key plays and when.

Once you’ve completed a few levels, not much changes aside from a few new enemies and the odd puzzle here and there. The boss fights can be fun and challenging, but there’s really no replayability unless you really want to do it all over again with another character. While it has its flaws and is not your typical twin-stick shooter, Bartlow’s Dread Machine is utterly charming with its old-timey aesthetic design, regardless of how often I may have become frustrated with it.

Overall: 7.0 / 10
Gameplay: 6.0 / 10
Visuals: 9.0 / 10
Sound: 6.0 / 10


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