Maquette review — A haunting puzzle game about love and loss

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Something was amiss in Maquette’s idyllic landscape. The leaves traded their pastel reds and purples for more muted tones. The trees were monstrous, their limbs twisted and full of thorns. Even the houses, once pristine and full of promise, were falling apart, as if someone stopped caring for them a long time ago.

This was just one of many moments in Maquette that shows the interconnection between its diorama-like world and its story. Out now on PlayStation 5 (the version I reviewed), PlayStation 4, and PC, Maquette is an inventive puzzle game that follows the relationship of Kenzie and Michael, a couple who lives in San Francisco.

You never see the characters on screen. Instead, you just hear their voices — Jurassic World star Bryce Dallas Howard (Kenzie) and her real-life husband Seth Gabel (Michael) are terrific in their roles — play over cutscenes filled with cute 2D sketches. The tale is relatively simple: boy meets girl, they move in together, and everything seems great … until it isn’t.

As their relationship transforms, so does the world around you, bringing with it new locations to explore and obstacles to overcome. At its core, Maquette is a game about the inevitability of change, and indie developer Graceful Decay plays with that idea through the concept of recursive worlds.

Above: The start of something new.

Image Credit: Giancarlo Valdes/GamesBeat

Now you’re thinking with recursion

One of the most fascinating aspects of Maquette is that you’re not moving through a linear space. You start on a cross-shaped platform with a giant red dome at its center, and inside is a miniature version of your cross-shaped world. Here’s the twist: They’re actually the same world. If you venture outside your normal-sized platform, you’ll just find a bigger version of the same buildings and trees.

In theory, these nested worlds stretch to infinity, but Maquette thankfully limits how far you can go in either direction. And what happens in one platform is reflected in the other. If you put an object like a box or staircase in one corner of your world and go to the corresponding spot in the replica, you’ll see that the object is also there (albeit at a much smaller size) and you can pick it up.

This also works the other way around. If you take a regular-sized object and place it in the miniature, a giant version of that object comes crashing down in your world. I have no idea how Graceful Decay pulled this off, but it felt like magic whenever I shrunk or enlarged something this way. I never got tired of it.

You have to repeat this process over and over to solve many of Maquette’s puzzles. The solutions start off easy enough, like using a golden key to unlock a door, and then later using a giant version of the same key as a bridge to head into the next area. But the more difficult puzzles incorporate multiple items and multiple ways to transform those items.

Maquette often made me feel like my brain was breaking in half while trying to come up with an answer — but when I did, it felt amazing. I had moments where I was sure I’d exhausted every possible solution. But eventually, I’d realize that I was just looking at the miniature from the wrong angle, or I wasn’t being creative enough with the items.

And for those times when I was truly stuck, the PS5’s Activity Cards came in handy: The developer included almost all of the puzzle solutions in the console’s built-in guides feature. But I tried not to rely on them too much.

Above: Enlarging items give you new ways to use them.

Image Credit: Giancarlo Valdes/GamesBeat

Making sense of the past

Your reward for getting through these puzzles is the next snippet of Michael and Kenzie’s story, usually in the form of a conversation they once had. At first, they’re just exploring the city while getting to know one another. Everything in Maquette’s world is bright and cheery at this point, reflecting the thrill of the characters’ new relationship and how they can’t seem to stop spending time with each other.

In a lovely moment early on, you end up in a beautiful rooftop garden where Michael and Kenzie had one of their dates (a reference to San Francisco’s public rooftop spaces). Even though you only get fragments of their story, they come across as a likable couple. And with just their voices to go by, the way you experience their memories feels intimate, as if you’re eavesdropping on them.

So when I came across a scene that had them fighting and yelling at each other, I couldn’t help but feel a little awkward, like I shouldn’t be there. That tension spills out into the world as well, especially in the last chapters of the story. As Michael and Kenzie’s relationship grows more complicated, the world becomes barren and hostile. By the end, it’s almost unrecognizable.

Maquette doesn’t have a happy story. But I wouldn’t call it a sad one, either. As much as I was rooting for the couple to stay together, their story was a touching reminder that life doesn’t always go the way you want it to. You can do everything you think is “right” in a relationship, and it still won’t work out for a bunch of different reasons.

Above: The world looks different in each chapter.

Image Credit: Giancarlo Valdes/GamesBeat

A new classic

On paper, it wouldn’t seem like recursive mechanics would pair well with such a relatable story about love. But Maquette ties them together in such a way that one element wouldn’t work without the other. Both the puzzles and the items used to solve them are thematically related to what’s going on with Michael and Kenzie. Sometimes, you have to think about what they’ve either said or written to figure out the solution.

It’s not always a perfect combination. A few of the latter puzzles feel needlessly complicated, requiring you to place the objects at pixel-perfect angles to trigger the next area. But that doesn’t take away from how remarkable the game is. Like Portal before it, Maquette redefines what puzzle games are capable of, and I don’t think I’ll be forgetting about these characters any time soon.

Maquette came out on March 2 for PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, and PC. The publisher provided a PS5 code for this review.

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