Bartlow’s Dread Machine, by developers Beep Games and Tribetoy, is a twin-stick shooter with a unique visual design. The game takes place in the early 1900s and considering the game’s abundant visual use of levers, tracks, dials, and even the animatronic character you navigate, it is meant to convey a piece of machinery that would be right at home during that time period. In fact, the game opens with one inserting a coin into an old-timey arcade machine which I outright love. The aesthetic even makes me overlook some of the game’s other flaws and recommend any fan of the twin-stick shooter genre add it to their must-play list.
The game’s story focuses on a Secret Service agent attempting to rescue President Teddy Roosevelt who has been captured by Anarcho-Satanists. The agent must travel to 6 distinct locations spread all across the US and beyond to rescue the President, and there’s even a mystery element using the character’s initially unknown backstory to tie everything together. In case it’s not immediately obvious from the description, the tongue is firmly planted in cheek in regards to the story, and it works. The over-the-top story and dialogue fit the visual theme well and instantly bring to mind the silent films of old.
Each of the game’s six locations has three or four levels the player must complete, and the vast majority of the levels, save the ones the player is navigating a vehicle, are crisscrossed with what is essentially a maze of railroad tracks that the player character must use for movement. It’s a mechanic, unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I’ve played rail shooters but never so literally. Thankfully, the enemies you face are also constrained to the rails, and the rails even create a strategy element on particularly challenging levels since one can create chokepoints and learn the patterns of enemy movements. I had to learn to use the rails to my advantage quite quickly. The game doesn’t hesitate to throw a lot of enemies at you, and I struggled to complete many levels on my first attempt.
Gameplay & Controls
The game’s limited movement and controls can be frustrating at times. Using a controller’s free-moving joystick to move around rigid paths can feel imprecise and so can aiming. Aiming in this game really requires a cursor in order to have any semblance of accuracy. I was playing with a controller, but think the game may feel more natural for gamers accustomed to using a keyboard and mouse. Another frustrating element can be an occasional shift in the camera angle. Sometimes the game will switch to a top-down view which can make the action hard to follow due to the muted colors of the characters, enemies, and tracks. Another shift in camera angle occurs at certain intervals when the game attempts to invoke the shooting galleries one may attempt at a fair which works a lot better and again serves the aesthetic.
The game uses a currency system as a way to upgrade your character, and the player will need to buy hats, weapons, and clothes in order to complete later levels. Each enemy the player kills drops pennies that quickly disappear, a little too quickly in my opinion, and on each loading screen is a store. You will definitely need to upgrade quickly. You only get three lives in order to complete any level otherwise you have to start at the beginning, which I found really frustrating at times. Some levels have many sections and multiple minibosses. I would have liked to have seen the game provide more weapons and health in between some of the more difficult parts because I found myself running on fumes towards the end of levels too many times.
I am happy to say the game provides a couch co-op mode. I didn’t have a chance to play the mode, but I am always happy when a game includes it since too many games focus only on online multiplayer. The game features numerous characters that one can unlock through progression by finding portraits hidden within the levels. The unlockable characters include Zombie General Custer, Marie Curie, and Nikola Tesla which all include special weapons and abilities and fit the motif very well. Though, I was disappointed one couldn’t change the characters or difficulty during a campaign. One must completely restart the campaign in order to change the character or difficulty.
Bartlow’s Dread Machine – Play or Skip?
The twin-stick shooter is a genre that’s been around almost as long as gaming itself. It takes a lot for any game to stand out in the genre, and I think the visual design Tribetoy and Beep Games used for Bartlow’s Dread Machine make it a must-play for any fan of the genre even if I would like to see some refinement and more features added in future updates.