Visuals makes for out-of-this-world game

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Amanita Design is a group of game developers who were brought to my attention almost accidently years ago. They made a little web-based game called "Samorost" that was gorgeous and nice in a way video games usually aren't.

A couple of years later, Amanita released "Machinarium," which, once again, is gorgeous and nice in all the ways video games usually aren't -- except even more so than "Samorost."

"Machinarium' takes place in a city populated by robots of all sorts. The art in this game is outstanding, looking nothing at all like any other game out there. It all has a rough and messy hand-drawn look to it, yet it is gorgeous.

Every bit of the game is filled with dozens of details that bring the world to life. The robots you encounter each seem to have their own little story that you only get a glimpse of, from the robot sitting in the café playing games to the very protagonist of the game itself.

Most of the backstory of the main robot is told only in flashbacks. The world and story have a strange combination of being simple and easy to understand, and yet you never get the whole tale. It makes the game feel both inviting and mysterious.

The world is made up of a series of puzzles. The little robot goes where you click, and can telescope up and down as well. Making the robot taller lets it reach things up high, and making it shorter lets it get into small areas and reach things low down.

Besides the direct actions the robot can take, you also have an inventory of items you collect. Some of the puzzles in the game involve using the right item at the right time. But unlike similar games, you'll only have about three or four items at most, meaning the game rarely devolves into using your items on everything until something happens.

Besides the inventory puzzles, the game has a good deal of more abstract challenges. These represent the various mechanisms you encounter in the strange city of robots.

I've played a lot of games with abstract puzzles like this, and "Machinarium" easily has the best balanced difficulty of any of them. The puzzles always felt just right to me, taking just enough time to feel like it took effort, but never making me bang my head against the keyboard.

OK, there were a few that were a bit annoying. But in any game of this sort, it's kind of a miracle that it was merely a couple of puzzles rather than most of them.

It's worth noting the game has a pretty good hint system. You can click a button to tell you what the objective is in every area of the game. If you need to ultimately cross a bridge, the button will tell you in the form of a little animation that you need to cross.

If you get really stuck, all the solutions to the puzzles are in the game itself, although you can only see them by playing a short but annoying mini-game. Remarkably, this system worked so excellently I only had to check any sort of guide about three times, which made the game a lot more enjoyable.

"Machinarium" is a one-of-a-kind work of interactive art that's exactly the right sort of easy to play. Unlike many games, it doesn't feel like you're jumping through pointless hurdles because "that's the way games are." It feels like each component was crafted as part of a larger whole.

"Machinarium" is a game for PC, Mac and Linux platforms. It costs about $10 to download from Machinarium.net and other game download services. Machinarium.net also has a free demo available.

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