Running your own automated food production line might not sound very exciting but this is one of the best puzzlers of the year.
There are a lot of very good video games based around some very strange ideas, and oddly a lot of them have to do with food. Matching similar-looking sweeties in Candy Crush Saga is nothing compared to trying to save the world from undead slices of bread in Overcooked 2, and yet Automachef is arguably even stranger. Not so much in terms of its concept but how it absolutely refuses to dress it up in any way that might seem appealing to an ordinary gamer.
Automachef is possibly the least sexed-up game we’ve ever played, and yet by making itself look as dull and fiddly as possible it comes all the way back round to being interesting again. It’s about setting up an automated food production factory, which obviously isn’t quite up there with flying spaceships and fightging eldritch gods… but not everything has to be.
The game isn’t without a sense humour – demonstrated by the thinly veiled global domination plans of your robot helper – but there’s no hiding the fact that setting up conveyor belts and reprogramming deep fat fryers is about as exciting as the gameplay gets. But you know what? It’s perverse lack of thrills is actually strangely compelling.
We’re really not overstating the lack of razzmatazz in Automachef’s presentation. As soon as you start the game you’re thrown straight into a very dour-looking tutorial about how to make the perfect burger without involving any human interaction at all. You start by plonking down various bits of machinery and conveyor belts where they need to go, but that’s usually the easy part. The difficult bit is fine-tuning the equipment so that it does the right thing with the right kind of food and spits it out at the right moment to be collected and put together as a complete meal.
The most complex part of the machinery is something called an order reader, which we’re pretty sure isn’t a thing in real life. These are able to monitor what’s going on with other devices, if they’re connected up, and regulates or changes their function depending on what’s needed and what food is currently passing through them.
As such, each piece of machinery, from robot arms to toaster ovens, can be reprogrammed in multiple ways to determine what it does, how often it does it, and how it responds to input from other parts of the assembly. This is all defined by clicking through a serious of drop-down menus that make it look like your Switch is running a copy of Microsoft Excel.
But as amusingly antiseptic as the interface is, it’s easy to navigate and understand. At which point you realise that the game as a whole doesn’t really have anything to do with food but is instead one giant logic puzzle, and the factory you’re creating is really one giant, animated flow chart.
The primary enjoyment in Automachef is creating the layouts necessary to produce the food but there is a nominal gameplay structure on top to judge how well you’re doing. Just like most dining themed games you get a set period of time to deliver the required meals, included variants, and are scored according to not only whether you served everything up on time but how efficiently you did it.
For every stage you also have a range of different limitations in terms of money, time, floor space, and power consumption – with the latter being particularly difficult to work around and requiring lots more fine-tuning of equipment settings. That’s the point where the game starts to veer away from simple idiosyncrasy to straight up perversion, as worrying about how much wattage your production line is eating up really isn’t that interesting.
Even with the threat of blackouts though Automachef is never entirely overwhelming and for such a cheap game there’s a good range of content, with not just a campaign mode but also a more freeform Contracts option, which is essentially a sandbox mode where you’re trying to earn more money to unlock more equipment.
Automachef may be one of the hardest sells of the year, given there’s no way to make it look or sound in any way exciting. And while that is not a word we’d used to describe it, it’s still a surprisingly engrossing and original experience. There is no one solution to any of the problems, and for those that hate hand-holding Automachef gives you almost complete freedom to experiment however you please.
Admittedly that’s still within the confines of an automated food production line simulator, but we can assure you that Automachef is a lot more entertaining than it sounds – even if that also isn’t saying much.