Review: SpaceChem

SpaceChem • PC • £8.99 / Free as part of the Humble Frozen Synapse Bundle • Out Now on Steam

Some games are are easy – as I mentioned last week, Trauma is one off the shortest and easiest I’ve played – some games are moderately difficult while others leave you with a Sam Beckett-esque feeling every time you complete a segment only to be rewarded with a new, almost as impossible challenge. How does SpaceChem fit into this scale? Well, it falls so far past Quantum Leap territory that your “oh boy” is merely a whisper compared to the sound of your brain exploding.

First, we should really explain what SpaceChem is. It’s a puzzle game with a very loose, irrelevant but very good story, whereby you have to control parts of a reactor creating or removing bonds between elements and molecules to form new ones. The bonding aspect is where the chemistry part of this game ends, though, as instead you’re left trying to compile the correct circuit diagram to get the correct output in a smooth segue to physics. So far, so easy; this is evidenced in the early levels which basically act as tutorials for the mammoth mind-buggery to follow. So for example, near the beginning you are asked to split carbon monoxide (CO) which has a double bond, into just oxygen and carbon. Through dealing with inputs, outputs, picking up and dropping, rotating, syncing and bonding atoms, you end up with a diagram like this:

Looks easy, what’s your point?

Nice and simple, right? Well, fast-forward a few moons to later levels where you’re job is to break down and recombine atoms through reactors and you’re stuck with an intermediary step such as the one below:

Aaaargh, take it away, take it away!

Yeah, it gets a bit messy. And complicated. And hair-rippingly confusing if you make one slight mistake in one reactor and have to change everything in every other reactor to fix it – you’ve never felt  pressure like having all your reactors fill with molecules and hoping upon hope that the backlog doesn’t cause everything to break. However, in the same way as Demon’s Soul and Super Meat Boy, rather than make you want to throw the game in the deepest darkest pits of Coventry, you feel pride in your achievements and though the next level looks depressing, you’ll want to find a way through.

The game also counters the problem most puzzle games have with replayability very well – with graphs. Yep, in keeping with the games scientific roots, your progress among other players is charted in graphs that show how you’ve done compared to others, with your solutions saved to view and tweak and improve should you be that way inclined. The atmosphere is also helped by an engrossing soundtrack which, when combined with the bleeps and blops and clicks of fixing these diagrams into place really notches up the tension.

Overall, this game was a huge surprise. Going from just the screenshots, it’s difficult to see how you can get so excited about lines and circles, but the gameplay and atmosphere really get you into it, and it’s fantastic to find a game that doesn’t treat it’s players like idiots. This game is as hard as nails, but rewardingly so.

+ Very well crafted puzzles
+ Addictive gameplay
+ Charming and tense atmosphere

– Can be a bit too hard in places
– Story is largely irrelevant

Verdict: 9/10
Fantastic indie-puzzler which will surprise and grip you in equal measure

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