Lair of the Clockwork God review: two idiots, two genres, too good

By Luke Albigés,
Lair of the Clockwork God is a smart game made by stupid people. Hang on, that's not really fair. Let's try again. Lair of the Clockwork God is a stupid game made by smart people. Hmmmm, still not quite right. Let's see... if we use that there... combine that with that... got it! Lair of the Clockwork God is a smart game made by smart people, but both are really good at playing dumb when they want to. Nailed it.

Just like that initial fumble for the correct description, Lair of the Clockwork God is a game about trying stuff out until something works. It fuses two distinct styles of gameplay within the same spaces — one per character — and the two can be switched between freely. Ben is stuck in a mid-Nineties point-and-click adventure mindset and looks to overcome every obstacle by talking to people, making snappy observations about his surroundings, and of course assembling and using an ever-growing inventory of obscure items with minimal strenuous activity. Dan, meanwhile, fancies himself as a platforming hero and isn't afraid to shove objects around and make death-defying leaps in order to grab as many generic collectibles as he can get his massive hands on, all with the help of ability upgrades thrown together by his item-combining pal.

lair of the clockwork god

It's a genre mash-up that has no right to work as well as it does, but the execution is simply brilliant. The opening chapter eases you into how the pair interact with one another, and does so at a suitably gentle pace. Can't get ground-bound Ben across a pit? Send Dan off to scout ahead and hopefully find something useful. Has Dan reached a dead end? Perhaps Ben can whip him up a new ability that would allow for further exploration. As the adventure goes on, experimenting with testing the limits of what each character can do in every situation feels like a really smart extention of the puzzle system. Solutions could involve either character (or even both) and while some things are obviously set up for one or the other — leaving the ground via physical exertion is a Dan-exclusive feature, while Ben is your man for all item and character interactions — they don't stay quite so straightforward for long. Some puzzles might seem obtuse on paper, but there are more than enough clues woven into object descriptions and environments for you to be able to piece together even the most out-there solutions. There's a wonderful sense of synergy between the characters, and the two play off each other so well that Lair of the Clockwork God manages to feel like one coherent (if strange) new genre rather than two disparate ones haphazardly thrown together.

That synergy is built not only through gameplay, but also through dialogue. You can tell the writing is largely based on ten years' worth of pub conversations between two real-life friends: it feels natural, unfiltered, and unafraid to go to some really strange places. Jokes come thick and fast (the first comes before you even press a button, which definitely sets the tone for the rest of the game), exploring the full spectrum of comedy all the way from base toilet humour, through visual gags and referential quips, all the way to some genuinely intelligent banter, and the majority land well. The writing is good enough that most of the duff ones are even called out by the characters, smelting down the cringe and turning it into yet more liquid gold. Pretty sure that's how smelting works. Clockwork God has no issue with making itself the butt of a joke, and both the fusion of genres and the wonderfully ridiculous premise offer it ample opportunities to do just that.

lair of the clockwork god

The setup goes a little something like this: all of the apocalypses have come at once, and it falls to our two unlikely heroes to save the day by rebooting the AI planetary defense system (which is definitely a thing) by teaching it empathy towards humanity. Sounds like a daunting task, but as luck would have it, The Mechanic — the AI in question — comes fitted with a literal emotional roller coaster, which the pair can ride in order to enter simulations based on various emotions and mental states so the computer system can learn by studying them. It's a perfect framework for a game like this, giving Clockwork God free rein to leap wildly between visual styles, tones, difficulty levels, and even genres while still (somehow) feeling like a congruent whole. The Mechanic's bunker functions as a hub of sorts, with upgrades and items the pair inexplicably get to keep after each simulation unlocking new areas where you can find additional memory chips to in turn gain access to more emotional vignettes. This structure also helps sidestep the age-old point-and-click problem of missing essential plot items early on and having to backtrack later to find them — each chapter stands on its own and if you beat the previous one, you didn't miss anything important. A bunch of oddly specific jokes and references and probably the odd achievement here and there, sure, but nothing vital for progression. You can always use the chapter select feature to return to older sections and mop that stuff up later, too.

On the topic of achievements, completionists might want to be aware that Clockwork God has one achievement which could be something of a roadblock for the time being. It's tied to an über-puzzle that still hasn't been solved after six months of the game being out on PC and should be easy to get once somebody cracks it, but without wanting to cross the Spoilerville state line, I can absolutely see why nobody has yet. A lot of the list is fairly straightforward, but there are a few with pretty cryptic descriptions — I managed to score most of these just through experimentation in the course of natural play — while some are tied to timed or deathless runs of certain sections and might take a bit of chapter select action to get. The list isn't especially taxing beyond that one big blocker, although you might need a little help with the last few... I only found about half of the LuxoMails, and Boundary Confrontation requires you to trigger four specific self-referential pieces of dialogue in a single run, so I still need to dive back in and grab that one. One other issue: the achievement for beating companion game Devil's Kiss looks like it might be bugged, or perhaps will only pop if you finish it from the title screen before the opportunity to play it during the main game presents itself about halfway through. Either way, I flagged it up with the devs, who have promised to look into it.

lair of the clockwork god

Controls feel slightly fiddly at first but since you, like me, probably don't have any muscle memory tied to playing a platformer and a point-and-click at the same time, it should become natural surprisingly quickly. Platforming is generally pretty solid once you learn the quirks of Dan's movement, and I had no quarrel with Ben's adventuring since movement is so limited there anyway. I did experience the odd performance hiccup, but nothing disastrous — the game is so littered with quirky self-referential jibes that it isn't easy to tell whether some of its issues are by design or not, so they almost work in its favour when they do crop up. I dig the unique art style too, as well as the decision to go with classic wiggly point-and-click subtitles rather than spoken dialogue, which would have needed to be absolutely on point in order for some of the gags to land as well as they do without it. Oh, and the soundtrack is absolutely awesome.

Summary

Lair of the Clockwork God is an exceptional fusion of genres that can't claim to do either individually better than any other game, but can certainly claim to do both simultaneously better. The user reviews on Steam (of which there are literally two negative ones amid hundreds of glowing write-ups) weren't wrong on this one. It's stylish, it's funny — as in, don't-drink-that-now-or-it'll-come-out-your-nose-too-late-it's-everywhere funny — and it's just such a unique experience that it'd be hard for me to not recommend it. Even when the characters are reaching for low-hanging fruit, the mechanics at play to enable them to do so are just so damn smart that it's a wonder they're even part of the same game sometimes. You know what? Spinal Tap were right: there really is such a fine line between stupid and clever. And right in the middle, sat on that line, you'll find Lair of the Clockwork God, cracking dick jokes while coming up with some of the smartest and most inventive puzzles and scenarios we've seen in a long time. You love to see it.
4.5 / 5
Lair of the Clockwork God
Ethics
The reviewer twisted his brain around Ben and Dan's curious puzzle-packed adventure for around 20 hours, netting all bar five achievements (one of which seems to be bugged). The game was played to completion on Xbox One X, and code was provided by the developer.
Luke Albigés
Written by Luke Albigés
Hey, I'm Luke! I've been playing games since way back in the 8-bit days, and have spent the last 15+ years writing and talking about them professionally for anyone and everyone who would let me. Monster Hunter fanatic, wearer of many fine hats, and always up for a raid.