In a world of mechanical lifeforms, a shapeshifting robot must stop an endless war and restore energy to the devastated landscape.
The idea of machines evolving naturally, without builders, sounds intriguing. Yet many of the story elements feel like stock ideas with a robot veneer added. Examples include the zombies, gladiators, and the lone infiltrator concept. Too many parallels to Earth lead to slip-ups, such as a when a mechanoid gets referred to as “the old man.” Something “knocks you unconscious,” and something else refers to your heart as a seat of conscience. Would alien robots have brains and hearts like humans and use them as we do in language and metaphor? The story works well, though, by increasing tension and conflict along the journey. It also strives for some emotional investment.
Like Penwarden, Moonowl lets players use a six-sided die only, in this case by choosing a particular vehicle form. Other good ideas include the options to return to base for repairs (at a cost of time) and to ignore bracketed text for quicker playing. This becomes useful for rereading sections. I also liked the specialisms, though I prefer more creative ones over mere number tweaks.
The vehicular shapeshifting sounds fun, but it too amounts to math over prose. So instead of a paragraph describing the landscape rolling by, we get another number to write down. In fact, the player must constantly measure out spoonfuls of time and fuel deductions. Players can rarely put the pen down long enough to get immersed. At least in my playthrough, all that tedious timekeeping only applied once in the story.
The mechanics here lack refinement and accessibility. Players who don't have printers must draw the character diagrams. I believe some of the stats could have merged to make the game more player-friendly. The combat rules, though intuitive, slow the action with complexity. The first battle, potentially against the arachanoid, adds more special rules. The player gets no time to ease into the already cumbersome system. The battle with the warlord involves a grueling six special rules or conditions—six obstacles to getting anything done. Players must flip back to the overelaborate rules for applying wounds and further penalties. It gets downright pedantic (trust me).
This introduces a recurring theme: obsession with failure. Consider section 95, a nightmare for players who chose Bike or Plane forms. With a Strength of 10, they have no chance to skillfully hit even the weakest of the three enemies. They must roll sixes repeatedly for the automatic fluke hits. But taking the other option, we get this:
“For each area on your body which is not already at 0 armour, roll an attack roll at Strength 18. If you lose the attack round, deduct one wound from this area. Repeat this for every part of your body.”
Imagine having the Truck form with 20 body parts. Imagine saying “lose” to yourself 20 times. Or, if you have the Bike form, you simply lose automatically unless you roll ones. Players must crunch numbers just to watch their drawn-out demise. Relying on pure luck does not feel heroic, either. Players sometimes have the option of melee or ranged combat to mitigate the cruelty of dice. But this requires more special rules.
Similarly on Section 81, layers of complexity heap themselves onto a nearly impossible string of five successive lucky rolls. Failure on one means starting over, so this can drag on. It feels like math homework. The text does not explain how the Strength or Dexterity check works. Presumably, players hope to roll under their score. But what about a roll equal to their score? The game also punishes the player with a game over for having the codeword BUD, attainable by trying to rescue a dying friend. Apparently, a gatekeeper judges this as reprehensible. It seems like a design mistake.
The entire system lacks any feel of revision. Codewords add to the stack partway into the game, suggesting that Moonowl made some of the rules spontaneously. Some sections, like 35, contain large paragraphs describing outcomes and scenarios of which only one may apply to the player. Players get bombarded with if/then statements within other if/then statements, the whole block of which may not even apply (89). The system, with all its cramped checks, needs far more than 100 sections to work smoothly.
The bracketed material also indulges in this fixation on numbers. The epochs contain too much dry data or recipe knowledge. The areas often feel like more sensation goes on than perception. So data hits the brain, but little gets done with it. Even outside the brackets, the writing needs to take all the description and declare what it means to the character. It does make sense, though, for robots to view the world like this. So it could all work as a strength in terms of atmosphere.
The writing also suffers from plurality issues: “There's [singular] no leads [plural]” and “Most [plural] have been reduced by time to a [singular] metallic skeleton.” Overall, though, the paragraphs look pleasing with good grammar, clarity, and variety of structure. Some short sentences would help with that variety and relieve readers.
Frequently, though, the sentences grow too long. Overuse of dashes, where commas will do, stretches the sentences even further.
“A few dozen mechlengths behind lumbers a Harvester unit – the dreaded disposal units used by the Dominoids to gather the burnt-out husks of formerly living mechanoids to smelt down into components, its cuboid body fronted by a mouth-like pit and two extendable claws.”
Moonowl knows of the problem, as he writes, “You have never understood the scientist's preference to use three words where one will do.” Indeed...
“each transition between different areas.” Traveling will do here.
“accumulate in puddles on the floor.” Pool (verb): (of water or another liquid) form a pool on the ground or another surface.
“lets out a screech of pain and anger.” Wail(s): a prolonged high-pitched cry of grief, pain, or anger.
Long sentences will work fine, but redundancy and pleonasm make them clunky. With “labyrinthine maze [tautology] of tunnels below the planet's surface,” simply underground maze would do. The first paragraph of 45 has room four times. Everywhere, tautologies riddle the text: Slowly shambling forward, advancing towards, torn fragments, cruel persecution, smooth floor, and roll an attack roll.
Moonowl also gets carried away with adjectives, as with the string “increasingly complex economic exchanges.” At times, we get a river of them:
“Your cell commander, the scientist Recognitron, looks at you with barely-concealed disdain, the stare in his glowing red eyepiece as piercing as the silvery-blue protrusion of his alt-mode drillbit, right now pointing at you from the centre of his white-and-blue robotic chest.”
But unlike Wright, the adjectives here at least provide useful information rather than spectacle. Still, breaking the sentence into two or three would dilute the problem. And “right now” seems redundant in present tense.
A few less serious problems appear throughout:
“As a mechanical being, your functioning depends on sustaining a healthy amount of energy. You lose energy by fighting, moving, and certain other actions.”
Too many ing's.
“. . . the rubbish-heaps of ZetaEpsilon district, on the outer rim of the ruins of the city of Fluxiplex.”
As with other entries on the 2015 list, the paragraphs lack indentation and have an extra space between them. I wonder if using OpenOffice has granted me special cyber protection from .rtf woes when files get sent in. Moonowl's dialogue handles itself well except for inconsistency. Sometimes commas and periods appear inside closing quotation marks, and other times outside of them. He needs to choose either the American system or the British one and stick with it.
The prose contains slightly fewer clichés and aphorisms than in earlier entries on the list. However, they seem particularly ill-suited on a distant world where such Earth phrases would never have evolved. Consider, for instance, “are left at the door.” Would robots wear clothes and doff articles at doors, thus developing the same expression as on Earth? This sentence contains two clichés: “The odds are stacked against you, but you trust your courage to see you through.” Others include: may be your ticket into, you think twice about, for dear life, appearances can be deceiving, and dead ringer.
Overall, Mechanoids/Droidchangers: Fight or Die has heart, a decent elegiacal tone, replayability, and novel features. As with Wright's work, Moonowl's shows a good grasp on English despite all my nitpicking over style. Really good, in fact. God, do things ever get wacky further down the list of entries. I think this one mostly bothered me because of the troublesome rules and the horrible impression I got from those Transformers trailers.