Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Puzzle
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Developer: Graceful Decay
Release Date: March 2, 2021


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PC Review - 'Maquette'

by Cody Medellin on March 12, 2021 @ 12:00 a.m. PST

Maquette is a first-person recursive puzzle game that takes you into a world where every building, plant, and object are simultaneously tiny and staggeringly huge.

Games like Florence and Sayonara Wild Hearts deal with love in different forms, whether it's falling in love to recovering from heartbreak. They're also both published by Annapurna Interactive, which has quickly become a big go-to studio for publishing quirky indie titles. Maquette is another title that shares these traits, albeit with a different twist that makes for a brief but enjoyable experience.

Maquette is a puzzle game with a first-person perspective. After a brief tutorial where we learn about picking up, placing, and rotating objects, we enter a domed room that's surrounded by different areas with their own settings and buildings, much like a theme park. There's also a large, immovable red cube nearby. In the middle of the domed room is a model of the dome itself and the surrounding buildings. The first thing you can manipulate is a small red cube that looks similar to the one you passed by, and this is where you learn that the game deals with recursive thinking. That means you can solve larger problems by solving identically smaller ones first. The cube gives you a perfect example of this; placing the smaller cube on one area of the model causes a much larger cube to spawn in the larger version of that same area, giving you a way to reach the switch that is needed to open a pathway and uncover an item.

Recursive thinking is the main mechanic for much of the game. Most of the puzzles boil down to placing key objects on the model to gain access to areas or manipulating their size before doing so, either by picking up the larger object and placing it in the model to make it much bigger or taking the small object to the real world before picking up its much smaller version in the model. As the game progresses, it throws in a few more mechanics, such as you becoming smaller to open doorways or working with crystals to unlock different-colored gates.

The mechanic is initially fascinating, and the further you get into the game, the more clever some of the puzzles become, especially when you head toward the game's final moments. No matter how many times you do it, making a key into a bridge never gets old. Some of the puzzles are enough of brain teasers that you might consult a guide because the solution doesn't seem so obvious, even though a bulk of the puzzles involve picking up objects and placing them in the correct spot. Unfortunately, there are a few puzzles that involve platforming and simply hugging the boundaries of a few ledges is enough to brute-force your way to an unintended solution. There are also a few others where the solution is obtuse enough that you'll solve it by dumb luck or swear that you initiated a bug to make it passable. These things don't happen too often, but they break the illusion when you discover them. It also doesn't help that the very linear progression system means that anything not pertinent to the puzzle is static, while the lack of a run button makes some aspects of traversal take longer than it should.

All of this puzzle-solving is in service of the story. Since you don't control the protagonist, the game feels like a walking simulator. Your journey through this dreamlike world uncovers text scribbled on the walls and set pieces where you hear a couple talking but only see doodles to accentuate the scene. Ultimately, you're going through the events of Michael and Kenzie, two people in San Francisco who bump into each other at a coffee shop and start talking about art. Things blossom from there, as friendship turns to a full-blown relationship, but things also go sour, breaking up the couple and eventually leading to the healing process.

The simple but relatable story about the beginning and end of love works well thanks to a few factors. The roles of Kenzie and Michael are played, respectively, by Bryce Dallas Howard and Seth Gabel. Both are good actors, but they also have the advantage of being a couple in real life, which makes the dating scenes a little sweeter to hear and the arguments tougher to go through. The emotions feel genuine, as does the dialogue, which can be a bit goofy but remains endearing. While the relationship story is straightforward, the writers should be commended for not taking extreme and obvious shortcuts. There's no infidelity, no abuse, no big catastrophe, and no death or disease. In a medium where the lack of a big event is rare, this feels refreshing. Finally, the game is short, which forces the story to focus on the important moments, so the puzzles don't drag on needlessly to stretch out the experience.

At the same time, some people may take umbrage with the story focusing on the bigger picture rather than providing more details. One example is brought up at the midway point, where an argument breaks out over school, work, and Michael not calling his mother. The scene gets the point across that these elements are starting to affect the couple's happiness, but you're never told why it was important for Richard to call his mom or why Kenzie goes to school or what kind of jobs the couple has that they're exhausted all the time . While some would argue that general story beats are fine, others want those details to become more invested in the characters, especially since this is essentially a two-person story.

As you might expect from an Annapurna-published title, the presentation is gorgeous. The pastel colors of the environments and the more playful architecture of the world do wonders to make the dream world inviting, even during the game's darker parts. The addition of chalk-style scribbles also plays into this well, as it adds a layer of beauty to some of the story scenes that wouldn't have the same impact if it were fully modeled out in polygons. As mentioned earlier, the voice acting is superb, and while the instrumental tracks are pleasant, the licensed material does a better job of setting the mood for each chapter. Playing at the start of the chapters, the tracks further give the game an indie movie vibe thanks to the low-key rock and folk musicians. Any other type of music wouldn't have fit with the story.

Maquette is well worth experiencing. The use of recursive puzzles is fresh because so few games use it, and even though you can stumble upon the solution to some puzzles, most of them feel clever — even if they're relatively simple. The game does a great job of setting the player in a dreamlike state, and the story may be simple and lack details, but it still feels relatable. Maquette works perfectly as a palate cleanser for bigger and heavier games.

Score: 8.0/10

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