Maquette was one of those titles that as soon as it got unveiled, I was on board. Weird puzzlers with fresh gimmicks are right up my valley. Graceful Decay didn't even have to explain the world further, but every info dump on the title further intrigued me. The problem with getting excited about things, though, is that it can be hard for the finished product to match your expectations. A cynical point of view, sure, but also one that tends to be true.
Like many great puzzle titles out there, Maquette is built around a unique mechanic. When you first enter the world of the game, you come across a beautiful dome that houses a miniature set. This set is a tiny representation of the area you are currently standing in. However, anything you alter in the miniature world gets altered in the larger world you inhabit as well. Perhaps most importantly, though, is that any object that gets added or removed from the diorama will change in size. Drop a key into the diorama? You get a bigger key in your world. Remove a block from the miniature set? A smaller version of it will show up near you.
To better explain it, I'll use an early example from the game. In the larger world, you come across a chasm that cannot be crossed due to a piece of the walkway being missing. To clear it, you can drop a miniature bridge over that pit in the miniature diorama. Thus, when you return to that location in the larger world, a full-sized bridge is now available for you to cross.
The recursive world of the game is something that is easier to understand once you get your hands on it. It's also a gimmick that can melt your mind if you think about it too hard. Staring into a miniature version of your world, which theoretically could hold an even smaller world inside of it? That's enough to drive a man mad. And in its best instances, the title plays with how disorienting the premise can be. This is especially true once the world opens to reveal the larger version of the area you are currently in. Shuffling between three different sized versions of the same locale, all while manipulating objects within them, is a genuinely ingenious touch. It's certainly confusing in the moment, but when you eventually come to a solution, it's hard not to feel proud of yourself.
I really do love the gimmick here, and the title makes great use of it in the early goings. The issue, though, is that it loses steam over the back-half of the campaign. The story is broken up into individual chapters, and the beginning of the downslope can be seen when you reach an arc that is essentially a full-on walking simulator. The pacing is completely thrown off by this chapter, and the title never recovers from it. It almost feels like the developers needed to pad out the length of the story but ran out of unique ways to utilize the recursion mechanic.
Maquette does attempt to course correct with the final chapter, but this segment only reiterated another complaint with this title. Maneuvering objects is surprisingly clumsy. In a title that is built around moving objects of different sizes all around, this is not ideal. The issue is that you are moving giant objects around a tiny environment. So, you're constantly bumping into walls or struggling to accurately place something. Even when I knew exactly where to place something, I often found myself fighting the controls to get this simple action done.
In contrast to the game's heady puzzles, the over-arching storyline is a much simpler tale. It's the story of the relationship between Michael and Kenzie. From coffee shop meet-up to an awkward ending, and everything in between. Their tale is relayed to the player through in-game text pop-ups and fully voice acted, but abstract, cutscenes. And playing the doomed couple is real-life couple Bryce Dallas Howard and Seth Gabel. It's very indie in its presentation, which makes some sense considering the publisher of this title is Annapurna Interactive.
To get what I liked about the story out of the way first, I will say that both lead actors do a great job with what they are given. Probably due to their real-life marriage, they sell the chemistry between the two lovers. That said, they have to do a lot of heavy lifting because a lot of the dialogue is pretty bad. Both Michael and Kenzie are too twee for their own good, which makes all their discussions eye-roll inducing. And it's not like I wanted to come into this getting aggravated by these two falling in love. Relationships are complicated, and full of moments big and small that change in meaning over time. Maquette understands that, but the writing isn't strong enough to give these moments the emotional punch they needed.
Maquette boasts a colorful, if lacking in detail, visual style. The opening environment has several excellently designed structures that look good both in the diorama and scaled to size. The shingles on the rooftops and the foliage on the stoops add personality to these locations. They look like they would have been lived in. However, there are also several areas which could have used some extra attention. What comes to mind immediately is a carnival area where all the attractions were given the least amount of detail possible. Carnivals are eye-catching and typically have color to spare, but this area is lacking in even that. The sound design is mostly fine, as well. The backing soundtrack shifts in tone to appropriately match the story beats. There was an instance, though, where a folk song kicked in that felt entirely out of place. It didn't match what was happening on-screen, it ran for too long and drowned out the rest of the action.
For the most part, Maquette runs well on the PlayStation 4. Considering how often you need to play with the environment and objects of varying size, I was surprised at how solid it ran. Strangely, the only time lag is an issue is when bits of text are displayed on-screen. There's a slight stutter every time this happens. Not the biggest of issues, but noticeable. Another strange case was during the last chapter of the game, when the button I normally used to pick objects up suddenly stopped working. Instead of square, I had to press circle. It was only for one specific object at the start of the chapter, but I'm confused as to how this one issue slipped through. Hopefully it gets fixed in a future update.
In the end, I walk away sadly underwhelmed by Maquette. The core gameplay mechanic is strong, and the title occasionally knows how to utilize it in interesting ways. The early portions of the campaign were well-built, and I was excited to see what else the game had up its sleeve. However, it runs out of ideas quickly, and stumbles to a weak conclusion. The disappointing finish could have been mitigated if the story was better, but the cloying relationship you follow never gets out of first gear. There are interesting ideas all over the project, but this feels more like a first experiment rather than a fully finished product.