Bartlow’s Dread Machine Review — One Gear Short of Great
Bartlow's Dread Machine is a solid bullet-hell shooter with an excellent look that's held back by a few curious design decisions.
Bartlow’s Dread Machine is an inventive take on classic bullet hell gameplay. The game takes on the look of an old-school parlor game; however, it’s not just the look that Bartlow’s seeks to emulate. Even your gameplay faces the same restrictions that an actual parlor game would. You’re controlling a physical piece on a track, which dictates your movement. It’s quite the trick, and it makes Bartlow’s Dread Machine stand out within the genre.
The teams at Beep Games and Tribetoy have crafted something that is, at times great. The game looks phenomenal. The music perfectly fits the vibe. And, most importantly, the gameplay feels good. Plus, they constantly throw new mechanics at you to spice everything up, but also only do the gimmicky stuff once. This means you’re seeing new stuff all the time, and none of it feels stale because the game doesn’t overstay its welcome.
So “why isn’t the score higher?”, you might be asking yourself. And the answer is pretty simple. There are a few things from both a systemic and level design perspective that keep me from bumping up my grade any further. But first, let’s talk a little more about what Bartlow’s Dread Machine does right.
It cannot be overstated how well the team nails the aesthetic they’re going for. Even as you play, you can see the physical gears turning behind the scene to make the game move along. I really love how your paper-craft character gets filled with bullet holes as you take damage. It’s all so perfectly done that I’d almost recommend picking the game up just to see it in action for yourself. And the story is downright bonkers. You play as a member of the secret service trying to save President Teddy Roosevelt from a group of Anachro-Satanists. As you might expect, it goes places.
The moment-to-moment bullet-hell gameplay is pretty solid, but it’s the mechanics of the game emulating a physical machine that takes it over the top. You and your enemies can only move along a track, meaning you can’t just dart around the battlefield as you like. Instead, you have to quickly plan your movement to make sure you’re not locked into a corner. As you go, you’ll face off against several enemy types that force you to change up tactics.
Speaking of changing things up, the devs do a good job of tossing new, one-off mechanics at you quite often. You might find yourself fighting off a giant tentacle monster one mission and then playing a short Space Invaders hybrid in the next. I won’t spoil them all for you, but know that the new mechanics introduced keep things fresh throughout. On top of that, you can unlock new gear and weapons between missions to improve your loadout.
So, Bartlow’s has a great look, solid gameplay, and a genuinely crazy story. What’s the problem? It all comes down to a mixture of difficulty and gameplay systems that left me feeling a little down on the game as a whole.
In my first run through the game, I played on normal with the base character; as you progress through the game, you’ll unlock new characters with their own unique starting gun and stats. Unless I’m missing something, you can’t switch between characters (or difficulty) without completely starting over. This is important.
Toward the tail end of the game, there is a big difficulty spike. Now, I hear what you’re saying: “people who write about video games are bad at video games,” am I right? And maybe that’s true. Maybe I just suck at Bartlow’s Dread Machine. However, the rest of the game was challenging, but certainly doable on normal up to this point.
Then, I spent around two hours slamming my head against this pope-shaped wall. After that, I went to the Steam forums to see if anyone else was having this problem and saw that I wasn’t the only person struggling. So, I decided to swallow my pride and start over on Very Easy difficulty.
For this go-around, I decided to try out one of the unlockable characters. She was able to easily make her way through the full campaign, especially because your gear and weapon unlocks carry over from save to save. However, even on Very Easy, I hit that same roadblock.
On the lower difficulty, everything else was a total cakewalk. Not once was I even close to death. But it didn’t matter. I still couldn’t beat that level. So, I decided to give it one last chance with a new character. I found one who has a gun that lets you hit more than one enemy at once and went through the entire campaign again. Finally, I beat the level. And the rest of the game was, again, a total cakewalk.
Now, I don’t know if it was the gun or my new gear, or just me getting better at the game, but it definitely felt like there’s something off with this specific level. Maybe the devs are planning on you playing through the game more than once. With your unlocks carrying over, that would make some sense. But then it’s strange to make this one section so difficult, even on easier difficulties. And the fact that you can’t change characters makes the whole thing even more frustrating.
Look, I don’t rate my experience with Bartlow’s Dread Machine lower because I (and a few new Steam pals) had a tough time with a boss. Instead, it’s the weird decision to force me to replay the entire game to change characters. If the idea is that I’m supposed to unlock the higher-level gear to get through the tougher parts, that’s impossible unless you start over or just grind out the same levels over and over again. You simply don’t earn enough cash in the course of the campaign to unlock the big-ticket items.
In a lot of ways, Bartlow’s Dread Machine feels designed completely around early access. The game originally launched with just three of its six worlds. So, people who like the game may have played it over and over again, unlocking gear along the way.
Each time they added new content, there were new characters to unlock and play with. However, as a one-shot experience, it fails to deliver all the goods. My hope is that they iron some of that out post-launch because, if they nail progression and take away the ability to switch agents from mission-to-mission, they’ll have a great game on their hands.
Bartlow’s Dread Machine is a good game; don’t get it twisted. If the art looks good to you and you want a bullet-hell title that keeps you on your toes, you should consider giving it a playthrough. However, a few odd design choices keep it from being great.