The Watchmaker Review
The Watchmaker is a puzzle adventure game with a fascinating premise. You play an inventor named Alexander whose creations have turned against him, causing the flow of time to twist and warp to a fatal degree. Now, he must fix the flow of time before he’s rocketed to an early grave. If your regular gaming escapes leave you with a dread deficiency, then The Watchmaker will utterly turn your crank. Otherwise, prepare to sweat.
I’m enchanted by this game’s central conceit, though the execution leaves me somewhat dissatisfied. The problem with a huge countdown being strapped to your back is one of stress. Knowing that you’re minutes away from expiration puts you on edge, so to speak. This leads to stupid mistakes, which you truly can’t afford when playing a puzzle game with such nebulous boundaries and win conditions.
To that end, exploration-type puzzle games tend to be saddled with less than laser-precise controls. The Watchmaker is no exception. Like my rising sense of panic, the controls led to a few costly errors. Mostly I zigged when I should have zagged, leaving me plummeting to my doom. Other times my attacks would activate a moment later than they should have. This was less consequential than was expecting, as it’s unclear what certain enemy attacks do, other than advance your age.
Constant Feelings of Dread
In fact, as far as I can tell, everything you do causes your age to tick up slightly faster than normal. Running and jumping are fine, but using any of your special moves takes a year off of your life in an instant. This steep cost, when combined with the cool-down connected to some skills, leaves you reticent to use powers that you absolutely need. Assuming you ever figure out the right place to use certain abilities. Along with your costly powers, the aging system leaves you tethered to your checkpoints. While they’re scattered rather liberally around each level, the checkpoints only rewind your life back to 70 years old. Once you hit 90, you immediately die. Combined with the absolute necessity of your powers, you’re left with a constant feeling of escalating dread. If this is the sort of feeling you crave from the puzzle games you play, then The Watchmaker will please you immensely. Personally, I need a little more breathing room when I’m racking my brain for solutions.
Putting aside my grievances for a moment, The Watchmaker is utterly committed to its theme from top to bottom. Alexander collects watches, taking care to ensure that each piece is in perfect condition. The enemies are mostly ticking mechanical constructs that look like they were built from discarded clock parts. Your age meter ticks away as you near your death, and your abilities are activated by taking precision tools to the wrist of your mechanical right hand. Even the levels themselves are composed of gears, wheels and whirling platforms. In fact, the visuals on display were easily the highlight of my playthrough. Clocks, watches and time itself are all diffused throughout every layer of this game.
Sadly, my beleaguered appreciation of The Watchmaker’s aesthetic polish was not enough to carry me all the way through to the end. As it happens, I am brimming with caustic vitriol for timed dungeons of any sort, which you may notice is like, this entire game. I struggled mightily to push as far as I could, yet the infuriating sensation of constant dread built into this game’s bones utterly broke me. Like the fabled final dungeon of Phantom Hourglass (which almost pushed me to literally smash the cartridge with an ax), the core mechanics of The Watchmaker frustrated my every attempt at victory and satisfaction. Here, however, unlike that legendary DS game, I’m not tipped over with rage. Instead, my hatred of this (and all timed dungeons) has cooled into something stable. A sort of stony prejudice against artificially-heightened difficulty.
Although my own experience with this game has been a profoundly negative one, I can’t completely condemn it. After all, the graphics are delightful and the premise is an engrossing one. Even if the execution of said premise makes my blood run cold, I know that some people can’t even get out of bed without solving some overwrought contraption affixed to an hourglass. To those people, I offer you The Watchmaker. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll put a tiny crack in the side of your controller. But in the end, perhaps that building frustration will give way to something more profound, more elusive. Unlike me, perhaps you will claim victory over this Sisyphean torment cleverly disguised as a video game. To you, I bid good luck, and may you succeed where I have failed.
***A Steam key was provided by the publisher***
- Fascinating premise
- Levels look beautiful
- The aesthetic is focused on the theme
- Movement controls are sloppy
- Certain powers don’t seem to do much
- Premise is incredibly stressful in practice