What genre do these puzzle box games like The Room and The Da Vinci House fall under? Is it just merely “puzzle box game”? I’m really not sure if there is a more elaborate term, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about recently, as it’s a genre whereby every game under its label is just impeccable in my experience. First I played The Room, and from what I can ascertain, that was the progenitor for the genre as we know it. I’d argue there are probably roots found in escape room type games; find objects, use them with other objects and solve puzzles, standard affair, but honed in one a singular, multifaceted object.
With Assemble With Care, by contrast I found myself comparing it to simulation games like House Flipper and PC Building Simulator, games which I’ve publicly shown a liking for, yet ones which lack something Assemble With Care has in spades. Anyone that’s played these games can probably come to the conclusion I’m about to come to. The simulation titles are unrefined, in the moment to moment gameplay sense specifically. Both games can be reduced to nothing more than holding the left mouse button on a specific area of the screen: Click to tighten screw, click to remove panel, click to whack a wall down.
The name alone, Assemble With Care, is indicative of how it differs from those games, with specific focus placed on considerate and delicate actions. The protagonist, Maria, travels to the idyllic isles of Bellariva equipped with little but her shrewd skills in repair. General repair that is, since throughout the 13 or so chapters you’ll find yourself repairing objects with differing degrees of technology fuelling them, making Maria a sort of genius to be honest. Characters throughout the story proffer items with associated backstories and sentimental values, and by fixing them we’re treated to further detail into the relationships these items have in the owners’ lives.
The comparison to simulation games strikes me immediately through the core gameplay mechanic. Repairing items has you dissembling them, identifying the issue and replacing the broken parts, done in a “touchy-feely” sort of way. This loop far exceeded anything I’ve experienced in other games, and singling out a prominent reason for that is impossible. When I consider the processes in House Flipper for example, they really are nothing more than identifying where you should be clicking, and clicking. There’s not much logic behind why you do anything, and mechanical complexity is at a bare minimum, almost to the point of comedy, attaching weighty sink basins to the wall as if you were sticking weightless stamps to an envelope. Moving things, twisting screws with a driver, turning dials on a record player, pulling wires out of sockets, all of it feels authentic and rich with feeling in Assemble With Care. Rotating the objects can be a tad fiddly, but I’ve found no game does that sort of 3D object movement well. What matters is how it feels to attach and detach parts of the puzzle, and thankfully it’s amazing. It helps, of course, that I played this on mobile, where spinning a screwdriver feels far more realistic than the waggling of a mouse for example, but again it doesn’t sit right to say this is the definitive reason why this works as well as it does.
The puzzles themselves aren’t overly difficult, and I was fine with that. The attention should and is placed on the action itself, and it brought such joy just to toy around with the objects of your repair that I forgot the game is as easy as it is. The harder puzzles – if you can call them that – are ones in which the object itself is foreign to the player, and since the game is set in a time reminiscent of a few decades ago, there may just be players which struggle to come to some conclusions naturally. It does a good job highlighting potential spaces a piece can be manipulated into, but even still, as the illustrious Ellen likes to remind us, we moronic children don’t even know what a rotary phone is, so how the hell should I know how to repair it? The one I had the most trouble with was the slide projector, a decrepit piece of tech even in my day, and some of the piece placements were more just shoving them wherever the game allowed. Still, it’s hardly a fault, as I enjoyed playing around with the dead machine enough to not care if I wasn’t figuring it out logically.
Sound design is a big factor, an aspect which has a reaching effect far greater than just the gameplay. Assemble With Care utilises sound effects which I can only describe as “gaming ASMR”. The pitter-patter of footsteps, creaking doors lightly clinking shut and distant chatter of blithe festival-goers sound immediate, right in your ears and with such fidelity I was honestly shocked it was possible. Moreover, possible on an iPad a fair distance away from my face? Incredible, immersive, and with regards to the gameplay, a veritable enhancement. I think pulling wires is my favourite task. The way they snap out of their connections is tangible, and the exaggerated slap they emit is incredibly pleasing. This also goes for the pressurised steam blasting out of the valves when constructing a coffee machine, the gradual yet subtle build up of noise ticking from the cogs inside a wristwatch, and the squelchy glue splattering liberally between cracked pieces of a statue.
It doesn’t stop there, there is a story tying the whole adventure together, told through short segments of text, beautifully narrated by some of the best voice acting my ears have had the pleasure of hearing in a while. Impecunious Maria uses her trade to get by on her holiday of sorts, fixing things for a few characters which we come to know a bit about. There’s only five main characters, and perhaps that’s why the developers were capable of spunking their budget on some top talent. The bubbly Carmen runs a failing coffee shop, hoping to attract investment from her austere, pompous sister, Helena, by winning a festival competition, judged by the village’s strutted but affable mayor, Joseph, and his young, playful daughter, Izzy. They’re archetypes, and in the grander scheme of things never progress further, but easily identifying them sometimes felt like a task done through voice rather than description. Their voices are packed with emotion, and since the game loves to ride a rapid rollercoaster of emotions throughout its short length, you get to experience proper range in the acting. Carmen in particular managed a performance which felt grander than the script deserved quite frankly, evoking a picture of her character in photorealism in my head, despite the hand drawn shaded look of her actual model.
You can probably guess where I find the game lacking, and that’s in its narrative. I knew of the name “Ustwo” before I played the game, but I couldn’t remember where from. I checked my spreadsheet to see what game I’d played of there’s, and it was Monument Valley. It begs the question then: why did the story here feel so prosaic? I’ll be upfront, I didn’t “get” Monument Valley like most people did, and that was in part due to the nebulous narrative which flew in a spaceship well over my noggin, but even still, I was wishing upon a star Assemble With Care did something more esoteric or adventurous with its storytelling. As is, Assemble With Care can be described as cute and quaint on a positive note, but it frankly felt amateurish and too boring to feel emotional over. Character arcs – perhaps due to the short game length – happen so briskly they’re more like small bumps than grand character development. On one hand, I do appreciate that due to the simplistic nature to the story, bridging the relationship between items and characters becomes more accessible, but on the other hand I don’t find those relationships particularly worth caring about.
But really, that’s the only flaw I see with Assemble With Care, that and there’s only an hour or so worth of content. Ultimately, the worst thing the game does is completely tarnish my view on other games tangentially related to it, the commonplace simulation games for example feel like prototypes when you compare their mechanics to Assemble With Care’s. With a wilder narrative and simply more things to tinker with, Assemble With Care would be game of the year potential. As is, it’s a game with elements best in class which don’t add up to what it could be.