Let’s be real guys: puzzle games as a genre is a pretty big misnomer. When’s the last time a puzzle game has truly puzzled you, and forced you to use your brain? When’s the last time you felt like you truly learned something after completing a particularly hard puzzle in a game? I have nothing against the Professor Layton games or Bejeweled, but they aren’t really puzzle games to me, as much as they are “brain teaser/trial and error” games.
In fact, I don’t think I can remember the last time a puzzle game really made me use my noodle, to the point where I actually felt mentally exhausted after a decent go at it.
SpaceChem is a puzzle game (duh) by Zachtronics Industries, and describing exactly what kind of puzzle game it is is perhaps the most difficult thing I will ever attempt to describe in my short stint as a video games writer. Essentially, the goal of the game is, well, basic chemistry: create molecules from singular atoms. You start off with a reactor that has four quadrants, two input and two output. Your objective is to take the atoms available in the input quadrants and mash them together into the molecule(s) required to dump into the output quadrants. This is done via “waldos”, circular shuttles that grab atoms and bond them together along a set path you create yourself. Along the path is where you place commands to bond atoms, rotate them, dump them off at the output quadrant, etc.
I know, most of you are wondering if I’m actually speaking English, but that’s simultaneously the charm and major hurdle of SpaceChem. Its learning curve is immense, to the point where lots of players have turned to the official forums on reddit to get some help and some idea of whatever they’re doing in the game.
In that sense, SpaceChem is a true puzzle game, where the amount of time you put into it is directly proportional to the amount of success you have with the game. It’s also directly proportional to the amount of fun you have with the game. Peggle this is not; in order to get a full enjoyment of this game, you really do need to put your full attention and devotion into it. Otherwise, you’ll end up frustrated and feeling really really dumb.
I realize that doesn’t sound very fun at all. On the contrary though; SpaceChem may be the most personally satisfying game I’ve played so far this year. Every puzzle looks absolutely intimidating on initial glimpse, but when you actually take the time to learn the mechanics and really use your noggin, finally finding the solution makes you want to brag to everyone about your fracking brilliance. This might turn thousands of folks off to this game, but it really is like school; if you study long and hard, you will be rewarded for it immensely with a great score.
And really, that’s where the appeal of SpaceChem lies. Is this game for everyone? No, it most definitely isn’t. Even if this sounds up your alley, will you finish it? No, I’m convinced not even Stephen Hawking could beat this game. When you finally feel like you have the hang of things, gameplay mechanics are constantly introduced that up the difficulty exponentially. You’ll start with just one reactor, and then you’ll graduate to multiple reactors, which create molecules that need to be funneled into another reactor to create a larger molecule. Then you graduate to reactors that have one input quadrant that produces two atoms that alternate.
I spent about 15-20 hours with the game before I just had to bow out, content with my progress. The amount of commitment put into SpaceChem at that point was too much for the reward at the end to be worth it. Everyone will have a different juncture in this game before they feel borderline retarded and have to give up. My recommendation for those of you on the fence? Try the demo. If it really strikes a chord with you, by all means purchase it; SpaceChem is a genuinely hard game, where the difficulty is authentic and only bolstered by the player’s willingness to learn. While I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, it nonetheless remains the most rewarding game I’ve played in 2011.