Modeled after a penny arcade machine created in the early 1900s, Bartlow’s Dream Machine is one of the most unique and charming twin-stickers you’ll ever play. There are annoying moments of wild difficulty spikes but the overall presentation and gameplay is charming until the credits roll.
Playing as a secret service agent trying to rescue President Teddy Roosevelt from kidnappers, the entire game plays like one of those grainy films from the 1920s, complete with a live piano-based soundtrack and old western font. Although this is a twin-stick shooter, the player can only move along set paths given the arcade machine aesthetic. Ever play a game of Foosball, or that domed Hockey game, where you move each player back and forth on a linear rail but can shoot in any direction? That is exactly the gameplay here only with large cohesive stages. It might sound limiting on paper but actually creates for some interesting gameplay and set pieces.
It isn’t just solely twin-stick action, however, as there are several RPG elements in which to be mindful. When defeated, most enemies drop cash that when collected, can unlock be offensive or defensive capabilities. There is strategy to collecting money though as the money bag icons disappear rather quickly. The only way to collect them is to defeat an enemy within closer range so the cash can be grabbed before it vanishes. In a way, this tries to restrain the player from shooting mindlessly and rapid fire as picking off distance enemies would then yield no reward. Ammo for special guns are also limited and when reserves are spent, a slow and weak pistol is used to keep the player from being totally defenseless. Uniquely, tapping the other trigger causes the player to spin which deflects bullets, like an Arwing in any Star Fox game. This ricochet ability is the only form of defense, and the player cannot shoot and spin at the same time, there is plenty of skill within the reaction based combat.
The biggest annoyances are the wild difficulty swings and very high cost to unlock anything new. Luckily the checkpoint system is lenient but there is no option to skip cutscenes. No matter how hard I tried, I just never had enough money to unlock anything worthwhile. The combination of high unlock prices, lack of cash, and difficulty collecting cash is a perfect storm of not being able to experiment with new abilities. Therefore, gameplay starts to grow repetitive after a while even though there are slight gameplay modifiers, like navigating an auto-scrolling section, having to bank bullets off mirrors, or shooting while riding horseback. There are several characters to unlock, along with hats, pants, guns, and jackets, but not being able to buy any of it makes the experience mostly a tease. At least parts of the background are destroyable which adds another layer to the run-and-gun gameplay.
Bartlow’s Dread Machine nails the aesthetic on the head and contains an uncanny amount of personality. The twin-stick action based gameplay is also enjoyable despite some missteps with grinding and balancing issues but the story and overall presentation features novelty that carries the price of admission alone. It might not be a perfect twin-stick shooter but it is one of the cooler ones released this console generation.
Also available on PC.