A tinkerer once made a maze. To test it, he sent a little mouse to work their way out. You are that mouse, and Maze Machina is quite a clever, vexing little contraption: simultaneously stressful and accessible. The design is brilliant and such fun to play, but the margins for error are also pretty tight, at least in the modes with turn pressure.
Tinytouchtales has been a quality outfit for years now, with the games it produces being basically guaranteed day-one purchases for myself and quite a few others. In this respect the latest is also certifiably good, but it should additionally be praised for its juxtaposition of incredible simplicity and unflinching difficulty. It’s even more pared-down than you’d think, yet chock-full of interactions and interesting edge cases.
So far, Arnold Rauers’ niche has always been single-player turn-based solitaire games, with the other big ticket games (Card Crawl, Card Thief, Miracle Merchant) utilising cards (check out the best mobile card games for a few more gems). Well, Maze Machina is solitaire all right, but it uses a randomized board of items, not cards. The goal is straightforward: grab the key and make your way to the level exit as quickly as you can. To accomplish this, you have to use items. The tile is the effect, the location is the device; just as with Michael Brough’s Imbroglio. If the mousy protagonist is on a dagger tile, then the dagger can stab enemies. That’s the game’s first key proposition: position is everything.
Movement is the other proposition. By swiping in any of the four cardinal directions, every figure on the board that can move, will move in that direction with a few minor exceptions. (The game credits Threes! for this mechanic). The figures that don’t move will use an item on their space, if possible. That means you, of course, but all of the automatons standing in your way as well. It’s fiendish how often this mechanic is difficult to manipulate to a specific end.
Early levels only have a few enemies, but the later ones have five, and they stay true to their automaton nature: when destroyed they come back often (though not always?). The game wants you to find an elegant solution and not just browbeat your robot foes into submission. On that note, it has an energy system, with each move costing one stamina and a hunk of cheese replenishing said stamina every third level. ‘Elegance’ forever means the fewest moves, prioritising repositioning effects over direct battle.
The full variety of items is a doozy. Quite a few of them are weapons, with various hit ranges, priority effects, and other quirks. Some are for repositioning enemies or items. There are trap helmets, thieving masks, and mirror items, which actually want to provoke a fracas. Most difficult of all are the random or hidden effects, because although they are difficult to discern they must nevertheless be factored in. Each level feels like an elaborate multivariate deathtrap where one false swipe can mean your poor heroic mouse is stuck spending twenty turns or more getting out.
In this way the game is closer to the type of Solitaire you’d read about in Hoyle’s book of games and bust out a pack of Penguin cards to play. In solitaires of old, fail states abound. The state of play can get wretched very quickly. Maze Machina has quite a few combo effects and unusual timing structures, so it requires very clear-sighted forecasting and strategic planning. The difference between a good plan and a sloppy one is not numerical, it’s binary. You will fail, as I have, if you play haphazardly relying on a few favorite tricks or stacking combos to bail you out. Excellent play here means minding the boring elements every bit as much as the flashy ones.
Modern videogames have gamed human psychology by attaching numerical values to anything and everything: health, rarity, currency, even free time itself, are all conventionally made fungible by rendering them as numbers. Not so with Maze Machina, which cares about effects more than numbers. A single hit destroys almost any object or entity, there are no additional unlocks or grind and the whole game is available to play without extra investment or progression.
It’s refreshing and hardcore, and to this reviewer the most fun game to fail at repeatedly. Normally I’d bounce off a game after having so little success, but I can clearly see what it wants from me: deliberate, total consideration of every possibility. My normal pattern is just to brutally find the cleanest, best path from A to B but that approach is such a bad fit for Maze Machina.
It has quite a few play modes, so to relax and practice my technique I switch from the standard mode to Limit, which puts a hard cap of 250 turns. Draft is also a refreshing twist, giving a choice between new rules which take effect every few floors. The mechanical theme is present in the art, animations, sound effects, and music throughout. It’s cohesive and slick. There is a richness, both in the number of ways to play and artistic vision that enriches the play experience. The automaton theme also emphasises how heavily turns revolve around programmed series of actions, like a Rube Goldberg Machine.
I must again reiterate how bad I am at this game. I can recognise good plays with 100% benefit of hindsight, and occasionally even set them up in advance, but I cannot for the life of me get to that mythical fifteenth level. This is fine! Great, even! I’m shocked that none of my previous puzzle experience is proving very useful (we’ve put together a list of the best mobile puzzle games if you need to hone your skills), and I’m grateful for the chance to learn a new system from scratch. I do suspect some of the variance can genuinely ruin a run, but without a more perfect understanding I’d be rightfully accused of sour grapes (a.k.a. mad because bad). I hate this game! I can’t escape it! 9/10 would embark on this embarrassing, compelling learning spree again.