Friday, January 14, 2011

SpaceChem Review

SpaceChem, developed and published by Zachtronics Industries.
The Good: Unique gameplay, freeform solutions, excellent interface, online score comparison, ability to upload solution videos, multiplatform
The Not So Good: Very challenging and you can’t skip most levels, no level editor
What say you? This multi-layered design-based puzzle game is pleasingly distinctive, open-ended, and feature-rich: 7/8

If/when we colonize space, we are going to have to make artificial atmospheres to grow food. How will we do that? Nobody knows for sure, which means we’re probably screwed. Lucky for us Zachtronics Industries has released a completely realistic training simulation of astronomic chemistry called SpaceChem. Here, you design machines to bond elements together to form the compounds required to colonize new planets in the vast vastness of space. Does this puzzle title bond with users?

SpaceChem features simple but clear graphics that makes your puzzle designing easier. It starts with dark backgrounds that are easier on the eyes, and continues with large, easy to identify buttons and icons. It’s a lot easier to stare at SpaceChem for hours on end compared to brighter, more visually chaotic puzzle games. The interface is also well designed, using both keyboard and mouse controls for considerably less tedium when placing objects. The sound effects and music are standard fare, both being appropriate and fitting for the setting. Overall, SpaceChem handles minimalism well, providing a clean and inviting presentation.

SpaceChem is a design-based puzzle game where you design processes to create chemical compunds by design. The game consists of around fifty levels of steadily increasing complexity, and tutorials are integrated into the campaign. While these tutorials do teach the controls and basics of design, the game doesn’t give some basic strategies in manufacturing your chemicals, so the first couple of levels where you are given total freedom can be intimidating and confusing. The game design supports both really simple and really complex arrangements, and there are some rules on occasion (like only removing or adding bonds). Your score (which is essentially time-based) is automatically submitted online and compared against others in a neat bar graph presentation. You also have the option to upload puzzle solutions to YouTube from within the game, meaning that help is not too far away. The solutions play too fast to study (it should have recorded them using the slowest setting), but this technological option almost remedies the inability to skip difficult levels. Almost. SpaceChem lacks the ability to create custom levels, so once you are done with the campaign (or get stuck on a particularly difficult puzzle), the game has run its course, unless you want to go back to previous levels and attempt more efficient designs. At least the game is available for Windows, Macintosh, and Linux operating systems, making computer owners everywhere happy.

For each level, you are given a number of input chemicals and instructed to produce a different set of compounds. You first must connect the storage containers to reactors you will design, and then take the end products to freighters. To do this, you use pipes to deliver the chemicals to the correct destination, a process that is made a bit more difficult than it should be thanks to very touchy mouse controls. You can create reminders of what the intermediate reactors products should be, since they will usually feed other reactors to combine your final chemicals together. Once you are done figuring out the general steps of your production line, it’s time to design the individual factories.

Each reactor can accept up to two inputs and produce two outputs, and your task is to rearrange the elements and make (or destroy) bonds. You are given two production lines (red and blue) along which two grabbers flow as determined by direction arrows; the two colored lines can occupy the same space, but if the path of the same line overlaps, then you will get an infinite closed loop. You can also place a number of triggers along each path: bring in or send out chemicals (which happens at a location determined by the output of the previous reactor), grab or drop compounds, and rotate. You can also bond (or unbond) chemicals together that are placed on top of bonding circles, and place synchronizing triggers to have things placed simultaneously. Right-clicking a trigger can edit its orientation or switch the color, along with other properties.

The key of SpaceChem is to create efficient designs that use the limited options you are given to create the desired products. The result is a lot of trail and error, thinking, and redesigning as you search for the most appropriate solution. This is not a trivial game, as most of the puzzles require a lot of planning and design skill. A lot of the reactors will use the same basic elements over and over; while you can preserve entire reactors for future use, you can’t save smaller components. Still, the flexibility that SpaceChem gives the user in formulating their solutions is very high, making this an excellent puzzle game. One only needs to venture to YouTube to observe the wildly varied solutions people come up with for the same puzzle. Variety is the spice of life! The game’s unique mechanics, combined with the freedom to come up with a solution, makes SpaceChem a notable puzzle title.

SpaceChem succeeds as a very interesting puzzle game thanks to innovative mechanics with limited design constraints. You are given the freedom to combine elements and destroy compound bounds as you see fit; the end product is the only set goal, and the efficiency in which you deliver your requirement is up to you. This increases replay value: since there isn’t a single solution, you can go back and tweak your designs for faster processing times. The tutorial does a good job introducing increasing complexity to the gameplay, and the latter puzzles in the campaign offer a high amount of challenge. I would like the ability to create your own puzzle requirements; allowing the community to further expand the game would only be good for the life of the product. The interface does a good job streamlining the design process, and the game incorporates multiple tiers as you connect separate process to work in concert, expanding the design possibilities of your systems. SpaceChem is also available for all three computer gaming platforms and your high scores are compared against others online (you can even upload videos of your best ideas to YouTube from inside the game). In short (too late!), SpaceChem is a fantastic puzzle game great for any fan of the genre.