Given that Team17 has already enjoyed huge success with Overcooked and Overcooked 2 – both of which are available on the Switch – you’d be forgiven for initially thinking that Automachef was more of the same; an attempt to tweak the format a little and keep dining out (ahem) on what it knows is already working. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as Automachef is the yin to Overcooked’s yang: this is a very different game and one that will probably appeal to an entirely separate audience.
The aim is to create your own automated kitchen so that you can run a restaurant quickly and efficiently – and presumably make the entire human workforce redundant in the process (you don’t see that bit, thankfully). In theory, when it all works as it should, customers’ orders should be recognised by machines, cooked by machines, assembled by machines and delivered by machines. Imagine if the Terminator worked in Nando’s and you’d have a rough idea. Well, not really.
Whereas Overcooked is a frantic, fast-paced action game where success is measured by how quickly you can react to orders and follow a chain of events on the fly, Automachef is the complete opposite. The pace isn’t just slow, it’s literally static; things don’t actually start moving until the final part of a stage, at which point you no longer have control of anything. Instead, you have to spend time planning out which equipment goes where and how it’s all going to work, so that when your restaurant opens the doors customers should get their food cooked and served without you lifting a finger.
This is all explained in a pair of tutorials that are perhaps a bit too brief for a game this complex. They take you through the process of making a hamburger, then making a cheeseburger, before going “right, you’re on your own” and punting you out into the world of robo-cuisine before you’ve even properly grasped the oddly confusing control system (whoever came up with the idea of pressing the right stick in to view your recipes should be brought up in front of a judge).
For an idea of how complex Automachef is, here's how the tutorial teaches you to make something as relatively simple as a cheeseburger. You're going to need three separate dispenser machines, each of which dishes out a different ingredient: the bun, the cheese and the uncooked meat. You then also have to lay down some conveyor belts so they all go where they’re supposed to. The bun speaks for itself and the cheese just needs to pass through a simple Food Processor tool so it can be sliced, but the meat is a different story.
You’ll need a grill for that, but you’re also going to need a pair of robotic hands: one to take the meat off the conveyor belt and put it on the grill, then a ‘smart’ hand that waits until the meat’s been cooked and then picks it up and moves it to the next part of its journey. Then all you need is a big Assembler tool (which takes in all the ingredients and makes the recipe) and a few more robot hands to carry ingredients into and dishes out of it, and that’s your cheeseburger. But that’s only one of 35 different recipes, each with their own sets of ingredients and requiring different combinations of machinery (though thankfully you can save any setups you’re particularly happy with as blueprints to use in future stages).
That may sound complicated, but it’s nothing compared to the Order Reader. This is a small machine that detects specific customer orders and then sends out the appropriate commands to each machine – so you’ll want to set it up so that if it detects that a cheeseburger’s been ordered, it’ll tell each of the dispensers to send out a single ingredient and tell the grill to turn itself on. These commands are all set by you via a reasonably detailed system of linking to each machine and choosing from an array of options, and at this point, one thing starts to become clear: this is more of a programming puzzle game than anything else.
As you reach each new stage, the recipes continue to get more complex and the requirements get tighter; you need to meet objectives regarding wattage used, money spent, food waste and the like to make sure your setup is efficient (and to prevent you making any old monstrosity that gets the job done in an ugly manner). Each new level requires a fresh approach as you consider what's needed, where everything will go and how you're going to program it all so it works as intended. Simply put, the whole thing can be mentally exhausting if this sort of complicated problem-solving isn’t your cup of machine-brewed tea.
It isn’t long before you end up with enormous rooms full of similar-looking machines, all connected to different Order Readers and other controllers with red lines (which indicate what they’re controlling) crisscrossing all over the stage. It’s an intimidating scene and while the fact that you basically get unlimited retries makes things much less stressful – you can ‘run’ your setup, look for errors then stop the process and make tweaks accordingly – you’re still going to eventually be reaching a point where you have to make enormous infrastructures that sometimes take an hour or two to build. And that’s before you take into account the likes of blackouts, breakdowns, fires, insect infestations and salmonella outbreaks.
If it isn’t clear yet, Automachef is an acquired taste (pun always intended). If you’re expecting another Overcooked you’re going to be hugely disappointed, and if you were hoping for some sort of restaurant version of Theme Park or Three Point Hospital you may be let down there too; this isn’t your traditional sim in that sense. This is very much a puzzle game at its core – and a complex one at that – so it’s only really going to entertain those who take pleasure in taking a restricted set of tools and planning how to set them up in a way that not only works, but does so efficiently.
Automachef is absolutely not for everyone; it’s a puzzle game that overwhelms you from the start and only piles on more complexity as you progress through its 45 stages. There’s a degree of satisfaction to be found in spending hours putting together large, elaborate automated set-ups, troubleshooting their flaws then finally seeing them work as intended, but you need to put in a hell of a lot of work for that payoff and for many the toll it takes on the old noggin won’t be worth it.