January 11, 2011 12:45 PM | Michael Rose
When Quintin Smith of Rock Paper Shotgun emails you with a subject line that contains an expletive plus the name of a new indie game, experience dictates that it's highly likely said game will be something a bit special. This most recent case was no exception, as the name SpaceChem followed the profanity.
A new release from Zachtronics Industries, SpaceChem is all about making chemicals in space - you know, just in case the title wasn't obvious enough. There are all sorts of strange words involved that you most likely learnt about in chemistry classes and then forgot about straight after the exam... but this is far from a science lesson. SpaceChem is a puzzle game that will smack you around the head, and leave you with a huge, very satisfied smile on your face.
Whether you know your atoms from your molecules or not, this is quite easily one of the most mind-boggling puzzlers you'll have ever played. Initially it's difficult to get into, as the tutorials feel mighty overwhelming with scary words thrown all over the place, but give it a chance and you'll find a thoroughly rewarding experience, with more 'holy shit!' moments than there are elements of the periodic table.
On each of SpaceChem's levels, the idea is to output the required molecules for each particular shipment. This is done via a series of reactors, each containing the atoms necessary to complete the task. Your job is to grab the atoms using 'waldos', perhaps bonding them together in the process, and then drop them into the output areas. Output the correct amount of the correct molecule, and the level is complete.
If the sciency words have already put your right off, then it's worth noting that all the little details went way over my head, yet I still found myself enjoying it immensely. It's one of those situations where it's not necessary to fully understand what's happening, but those people who do will get an extra kick out of it.
I was swiftly reminded of the wonderful The Oil Blue while playing through the tutorial levels, as both games share a similar visual style, feel and even soundtrack. The story is told from the perspective of an employee at SpaceChem, with short tales and blocks of information provided as you complete each level and chapter. It all feels incredibly slick, with a clever interface to boot.
The puzzles are absolute bastards. Complete and utter bastards. After head-scratching my way through the tutorial levels and finally 'getting it', the next level quickly showed me that in fact no, I did not yet fully appreciate the enormity of the situation. As extra elements are added, such as syncing waldos, bonding atoms and crossing waldo paths over each other, I could feel parts of my brain coming alive that I haven't used in quite a while.
Yet SpaceChem never feels too overwhelming. Even when you're stuck and can't work out how to get that atom over there and make that waldo get past that section without crashing into that other bit... you're usually only ever a few moves away from the finishing line. That moment when you finally work it out and it all falls into place is such a glorious feeling, and one that is hard for many other games to match.
Even when you think you've seen it all, new ideas get thrown into the mix. As your brain starts to think 'OK, I get the concept, I can do this no problem', the game then replies with 'Oh sorry, you thought that was the main part of the game?' before zooming out and revealing that you are playing with just one reactor in a whole pipeline. You're then asked to attach pipes between them all, and funnel your molecules together, before bonding those too.
It's worth going back to past puzzles and giving them another shot. Stats are stored online and your scores are displayed alongside everyone else via a bar graph, egging you on to try harder. You can even upload any puzzle solution straight to Youtube, allowing you to show off if you believe you've found a particularly cunning method of completion.
SpaceChem is dead good then, although the difficulty curve (i.e. starting hard and moving to 'oh dear God' proportions) should not be sniffed at. The game works in an entirely linear way, in that you only ever have one new level to play through, and must complete that before moving on. A branching system with multiple routes would have been far better, allowing you to skip a particularly troublesome level.
The aforementioned science theme may well also put some players off. Attaching symbols and chemical names to items will be fantastic for many players, but will leave others completely confused. However, even if it doesn't sound like your cup of tea, it's worth checking out the demo anyway to get a feel for it yourself.
In fact, I'd suggest that everyone give the demo a download and see what you make of it. SpaceChem is a wonderfully clever and masterfully presented puzzler that will test even the greatest of minds. At $20, it perhaps sounds a little pricey, but give the demo a go and you'll hopefully find, as I did, that it's easily worth it.
SpaceChem is available now for PC, Mac and Linux.