While sim games are usually suburban or metropolitan affairs (see Cities: Skylines), recent years have seen the genre embrace more unconventional and exciting settings. Games like Prison Architect, RimWorld and, most-recently, Frostpunk have brought the sim genre’s particular blend of premeditated planning, micromanagement and crisis resolution to new frontiers.
Enter MachiaVillain. This sim game sees you enlisted as a fresh member in the none-too-subtle ‘League of MachiaVillain Villains’ and tasked with assembling a ferocious but mindless taskforce of minions and constructing your own cartoonish horror-style murder house.
Essentially, it’s The Sims meets Cabin in the Woods.
Every Big Evil Plan Starts With A Single Step
As you’d expect, designing, building and maintaining a successful haunted house is easier said than done. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of logistics to consider. Your minions might be mindless, but they do have needs that you’ll have to meet if you want to keep them loyal. You don’t want to just build the perfect horror setting, you also want one that’s sustainable.
There’s only one game mode in MachiaVillain and every game starts the same. Sort of. Each map is procedurally-generated but you're always dumped on the side of the road with a trio of henchmen and ten days of supplies. From there, you’re given carte blanche as to the shape and size of the house you want to build - assuming you’re able to harvest enough supplies from the nearby countryside.
Though you do have a lot of freedom here, a successful household does require a few constants. You’ll need a home office with a writing desk (in order to lure victims in via old-school mailouts). You’ll want a spooky laboratory (in order to research and unlock new objects) and you’ll also need plenty of amenities (to keep your minions happy) and a kitchen (in order to actually cook and prepare food for them).
MachiaVillain gives bonuses for obeying horror tropes like splitting up the group or picking off the virgin last - so you'll want to try and keep those ‘rules’ in mind as you design your mansion. You’ve also got to find a balance between making your mansion evil enough that your minions want to work there but also inviting enough that you don’t scare victims away before you can successfully trap and eliminate them. There’s also an interesting tension to the size of your workforce. Hiring more minions lets you achieve tasks quicker but also places greater strain on your ability to keep that workforce fed and happy.
Of course, building your mansion is only about a third of the gameplay in MachiaVillain. The second major pillar here is one of labor management.
While you can control each minion manually when needed, the most efficient way to put them to work is via an in-game rota. Each minion has unique stats (depending on their type, level and any items they accrue) and some are better at certain tasks than others. You might have a minion who’s got a 3-star rating for chopping wood but a 1-star rating for mining stones. It’s on you to try and construct a timetable for your workforce that allows you to get the most out of each minion and prioritize the right tasks at the right time.
This is doubly the case during a crisis - and there’s a wide variety to the unexpected things MachiaVillain can throw at you. The game will throw a random event your way what feels like every few minutes. Some of these events make life easier. Others make can make things more difficult. Hostile monsters might emerge from the nearby woods and you’ll have to coordinate your minions in order to defend your property. Occasionally, plucky bands of heroes will come looking for trouble and have to either defeat them or hide until they get bored and leave. Infrequently, fierce storm clouds will roll in and, if lightning strikes your home, you’ll have to put out a few fires.
A successful play-through of MachiaVillain is best described as a balancing act. There’s a lot of interesting concepts, stats and systems you need to keep track of and, if you’re the kind of player who usually goes for that sort of thing, you’ll probably be pretty engaged by all the under-the-hood nitty-gritty here. Unfortunately, while MachiaVillain wastes little time in throwing all these mechanics at the player, I actually found myself wishing it would slow down the pace a little bit.
You start off with about ten days worth of food, which gives you some leeway when it comes to learning the ropes. However, it took me three or so doomed attempts (about four or five hours) before I finally managed to find the right balance and put together a basic mansion that was both effective at drawing in victims and productive enough that those wins would actually translate into a reliable and sustainable food supply for my workforce. If I wasn’t reviewing this game, I actually don’t know if I would have stuck with MachiaVillain long enough to reach what felt like a pretty basic goal.
What’s more, while there was a personal pay-off to overcoming my issues in the early phase of the game - the game itself didn’t really provide much feedback or recognition of that achievement. It just churned onwards, throwing event after event at me. And once you’ve solved the same randomly-generated crisis four or so times, you’ve probably seen most of what the game will deign to throw at you. Everything starts to blur into busywork. At times, MachiaVillain feels like one big, mundane time-sink - and not in a good way.
I also felt like the suspicion mechanic in the game never really reflected the way that I played. The idea here is that, should you play poorly, victims are able to escape your clutches and suspicion towards your mansion rises. This causes more heroes to investigate and hinders your ability to draw new victims.
However, even when I played in (what felt like) a pretty optimal manner and held my suspicion level at close to zero, I would still continue to have my mansion’s daily-routine frequently interrupted by unexpected visitors. Worse still, the power-level of these heroic invaders can vary hugely. Sometimes you can overwhelm them with ease. Other times, they’d show up and cut through my mansion’s entire staff in a matter of seconds. Further frustrating matters, heroes seemed to instantly detect and walk through any secret doors and permanently break any traps they encountered - which can be hugely disheartening after you’ve spent forty minutes fitting out what you think is a particularly devious murder room.
Overall, the traps system in MachiaVillain itself comes across as pretty half-baked. You can build things like secret doors or deadly spiked floors that can separate, isolate and pick off victims. However, much like the unlockable active abilities given to minions as they gain experience, relying on these traps never proved more effective than micromanaging my mob of minions was. The absence the ability to lock doors is also an oddly conspicuous omission.
Eventually, I relented by evacuating my staff and sending one minion in as a sacrificial lamb - but this proved a pretty unsatisfying solution to a far-too-frequent problem.
The Bottom Line
If I had to sum my time with this game up, I’d probably fall back on a weirdly appropriate descriptor.
Like a trashy horror film, MachiaVillain manages to be a rewarding despite itself.
The on-boarding and tutorials are sub-par but the look, tone and intensive systems management of the experience make it endearing enough nevertheless. As a sim, it's a lot of fun to tinker with but not nearly as fun to play. There's just enough that works here for the game to, well, work. I wanted to keep playing this game even past the point where I had unlocked pretty much everything in the game and knew that any self-set goal I went for wouldn’t really give me any tangible feedback or reward.
So, if you’re a fan of this particular genre and the horror tropes the game’s goofy aesthetic tries to evoke, your experience might be the same. I can recommend MachiaVillain, but not without reservations.
MachiaVillain is available now on Steam for PC, Mac and Linux