Reviews: Space Chem
A great game, slightly marred by annoyances
SpaceChem is a puzzle game that is, conceptually, about building molecules with a series of automated mechanisms. The user controls the waldos that manipulate molecules only indirectly, by laying a series of "commands" along fixed paths for the waldos to operate over. In essence, you're programming. Like any good programming language, you have functions, which can have certain inputs and certain outputs. It also includes a sadly necessary element of many modern professional programmers lives: threading, race-conditions, and synchronization. Each "function" (aka: reactor) operates independently of the others, so you need to make sure that later reactors in the synthesis chain don't take too long, or products will back up in the pipeline and cause badness. There are a plethora of commands, the combination of which allows you to do incredibly complex things. The level of computation you can get to, even before you get an explicit mechanism to store "state" in a reactor, is incredible. The game really encourages programmer thinking: how to break a problem down, look at it in pieces, and figure out a way to build what is needed from those pieces. The game is good at teaching you how to do stuff, with increasingly less hand-holding as you progress. There are three kinds of levels. Reactor levels, where you make a specific product from a specific set of inputs in one "function"; these are mostly for training. Production levels, where you build multiple reactors to make a specific set of products from specific sets of inputs; these are the heart and soul of the game. The only real problem with the game is the latter set of levels: Defense levels. These are highly annoying. And every "world" ends with one. They're basically a way of gamifying the production mechanic. But ultimately, they only serve to twist the rules of the game. Normally, you design a synthesis pathway for production speed, efficiency, and fewest number of reactors. Defense missions throw all of that way, instead forcing you to follow some arbitrary set of rules. Initially these make for a semi-interesting diversion, but towards the middle of the game, they're just a distraction from what you're really here to do. That minor annoyance aside, the game plays excellently, if programming's your thing.
Fake Chemistry, Brain-Breaking Puzzles... and Fishcakes...
In recent years, there's been a rising belief that puzzle games are under the dominion of 'casual' gaming - and publishers haven't done much to rectify that. For many new gamers, when you mention a puzzle game, they'll think of Bejeweled, or Tetris - games which, while enjoyable, don't wholly embody the logician aspect inherent in the genre. Zachtronics Industries seems to be trying to revive the feeling of 'cleverness' players feel when they've outsmarted the developers, and in their first 'professional' game, Space Chem, they've managed to pull off that aim. Their previous titles, such as Kohctpyktop, have had players railing against their computers for years, trying to come up with even more clever solutions to open-ended puzzles of demonic complexity. Space Chem, the latest line of head-scratchers from the group, relies upon the player to pick apart molecules, and reconfigure them into increasingly-complex patterns, from the ever-present H20 to assorted varieties of Unobtainium. Along the way, the player's forced to grow accustomed to such innovations as molecular binders, quantum teleportation, and sensors which create an 'if' instruction, options which can become just as much a limitation as they are a boon. All the while, Space Chem provides genuinely instructive 'Breather Levels', points at which the player can grow more accustomed to the new options available, letting them tweak and toy around with bits and pieces until they're comfortable. The difficulty curve might be steep, but it's never cruel. And that, perhaps, might be the largest concern. The difficulty ranges, quickly, from 'simplistic' to 'absurd', so that nearly halfway through, players might be tempted to simply give up, lest their brains disintegrate. While the puzzles are always rewarding, they grow demonically hard as planets pass into the distance, and most players will never see the end- a pity, as, without any doubt, the story helps to keep players invested, a tale of a corporation gone horribly wrong. Space Chem is a game for players who want a brain-twisting challenge, one which will send neurons sputtering in fear. And while that's brilliantly realized, it truly is a niche game - a grown-up puzzler in a gaming world raised on blocks and gems.
If your idea of a puzzle game involves matching colors or dropping blocks, stay far away from Space Chem.
Ever notice how in shows like Star Trek, ships use machines like replicators to manufacture and renew their own resources from waste products? Ever wonder how the heck those machines would work? Space Chem drops you into employment of the mega corporation that designs those machines. As an employee, your task is to design reactors which bond, arrange, and even fuse atoms into useful new substances. To accomplish this task, you are given two "waldos", microscopic machines capable of carrying single atoms. You can program the waldos by dropping instructions into their paths. If the reactor successfully outputs the correct substance with no crashes, no matter how complex your solution, and it is able to infinitely loop through the same instructions to output a large amount of the output substance, you win the task. And that's good, because some solutions are going to be complicated. Very, very complicated. Space Chem is a truly intellectual puzzle game; the effort that goes into solving its tasks rivals that which one would put into calculus homework or programming complex applications, but that's what makes it so satisfying, mind-blowing, and even educational. Sure, it's not completely realistic and Rule Of Fun is employed many times — for example, there's a stage where you must create Plutonium to load into a nuke, but your only input substance is water, and I can assure you that if you had enough energy to fuse Hydrogen and Oxygen into Plutonium, you would not need to build a nuke in the first place — but there's still a lot of chemistry to learn, as atomic numbers and max bond values from the real-life periodic table are very important to the game mechanics. More than teaching chemistry, Space Chem teaches programming. In building complex systems to solve the game's tasks, you will need to discover and master important programming concepts such as abstraction, encapsulation, subclassing, and data normalization, all in a completely symbolic way which might not even make you realize you are learning how to program. Space Chem is one of those rare games that takes the risk of being difficult enough to be useful in real life, but without marketing itself as an "edutainment" game. If you enjoy programming or ever wanted to learn it, this game deserves your attention and support. Try the demo!