SpaceChem: Difficult, But Hugely Rewarding

SpaceChem is a challenging, but massively rewarding, puzzle game. You are put in the role of a Reaction Engineer who has to manipulate molecule structures to order. The game takes place on a grid, the reactor itself, and you are required to create pipelines and install specific commands to create the structures needed to complete the level.

I have to say from the outset: it’s not easy. I spent a great deal of time just working out how it all works as, unless you are actually a reactor engineer or have the potential to be a reactor engineer, it’s quite tricky to get your head around. That said, when the penny drops and you work the level out, it’s one of the most rewarding feelings you can get on Android!

SpaceChem title page

SpaceChem title page

Firstly, a Conspiracy Theory…

I have a far-fetched theory about this game. In 1984 a film came out called The Last Starfighter. It was about a teenager who becomes the best player of an arcade game called Starfighter. Soon after achieving this high score he is approached and recruited by aliens to help them defeat their enemies — it turns out the game was a simulation of a genuine space conflict and was being used as a recruitment tool for potential Starfighters.

So my theory is that SpaceChem could actually be an elaborate way to recruit budding Reaction Engineers for CERN or some such place. I don’t know… it’s just a crackpot theory. (Or is it?!)

It’s Science, But Not as We Know It…

The game of SpaceChem is actually based on ‘fake’ science. The game uses the actual periodic table of chemicals, but the ways in which the molecules are subsequently manipulated are more scifi than reality.

The basic concept dictates that you Input molecules on the left and output on the right

The basic concept dictates that you Input molecules on the left and output on the right

However, it has to be said, the fictional universe presented by the SpaceChem concept seems to be grounded in sound theory… albeit manipulated for entertainment purposes. In a nutshell, if told this was all legitimate and real, this relative Troglodyte reviewer wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

How It Works

The game isn’t particularly easy to immediately comprehend — even the tutorials are puzzling — but I’ll try to break it down as best as I can for the uninitiated.

Think of it as a very complex version of one of those cooking or café games. You take some ingredients, do things to them, and then serve them to customers. SpaceChem is much the same: you take some molecules, manipulate them in various ways and then send them out.

Simple commands level

Simple commands level

On the left hand side of the screen are the one or two molecules you’re dealing with, some beside the red lines, some beside the blue. On the right hand side you have an image of what the molecules are required to look like when complete. When you install (via drag and drop on your touchscreen) an ‘In’ icon, these molecules are introduced into the framework. When you install an ‘Out’ they leave.

Maintaining the cooking analogy, these things might represent the ingredients on the left, the complete meal on the right. The ‘In’ would be when you take the order, and the ‘Out’ would be serving the customer.

Intro tutorials give way to practical levels

Intro tutorials give way to practical levels

From here, the game looks a little like a plumbing or pipe games where you must move piping around to make them fit. With SpaceChem, the pipes create a framework around which molecules can travel and be manipulated. Molecules are moved by red and blue circles called ‘waldos’. These waldos can grab molecules and drop them off in different places in the framework. You can, for example, have a red waldo drop a molucule off and have a blue one collect it.

Manipulating Molecules

As the molecules are put in, grabbed, and taken around the pipelines, you can add a number of additional commands to manipulate them along the way. In addition to the grab and drop commands, you also have bonding and rotating. Waldos are often required to travel in different ways and will need to sync in order to work together properly. Therefore, there is a sync option too. Your initial toolset therefore includes in, out, grab, drop, rotate, sync and bond. You also control the direction the waldos move, so you need to position arrows: up, down, left and right.

Use commands to create the correct molecule set

Use commands to create the correct molecule set

The key to solving each level is to consider what needs to occur to the molecules and use the tools to make it so. The grid view you have includes specific areas where molecules can be input and those where they must be output. Timing also has to be right to avoid molecules colliding — otherwise the level immediately ends.

Simply put, you need to input the molecules, manipulate them as required and then output them. In and out is easy, the middle bit is the puzzle!

Tablets Preferred

I have (perhaps foolishly) been testing the game on an HTC One X. The game is compatible and works fine on the device but, if I’m being honest, it would be far better suited to a tablet. I think because the One X had the 1200×800 resolution the game requires it subsequently qualifies, but the tiny text is almost unreadable on the 4.7″ screen. Now, my optician tells me I have very good eyesight, but I really struggled to see the writing. The small commands and tutorial notes are tiny and ideally need to be viewed on a tablet.

Bonding process

Bonding process

Graphics and Sound

While the visual element of the game is relatively stark — black and grey backgrounds, red, blue pipes and white molecules — the overall effects are quite impressive. There are various animations, for example when molecules bond, which look very slick. I guess you could call the graphics very good, but understated. The game includes a beautiful soundtrack; it’s quite a triumphant orchestral score that wouldn’t be out of place in a glossy space fighter title.

Genre-Busting?

Often, the best way to describe games is to suggest ‘It’s a bit like X’ or, ‘If you like Y, you’ll enjoy this’. With SpaceChem, however, I’m more stumped… it’s not like anything I’ve personally played before. There are elements of the game which remind me of the comparatively simplistic cooking games we’ve probably all seen, and pipework puzzle games, such as Plumber, do bear a resemblance in terms of basic gameplay, but SpaceChem is far and above more than this.

Level select screen, tutorial levels

Level select screen, tutorial levels

I’m not a developer myself, but I’ve been told it’s much like visual programming. Although I guess with more of a sci-fi narrative! Because you have to create your framework, cross your fingers, press Play and hope it works, some users might be reminded of games like Apparatus where you have to do the same. While such games bear little in common with SpaceChem, this might represent some familiarity for many gamers.

Conclusions

While fiendishly tricky, I did find the game to be ultimately very rewarding. Seeing the waldos race around, the molecules bonding and being output error-free is exhilarating and brilliant. There are lots and lots of levels to complete and each success gives you a distinctly geeky rush. It is definitely a game for the inner geek and certainly something people into science and engineering will adore.

Assignment Complete screen, far more rewarding that it actually looks!

Assignment Complete screen — far more rewarding that it actually looks!

I would recommend the game to anyone but, on Android, I’d strongly suggest you use a tablet. The game is available on other platforms so it might even be a better option for you to try the game out on your PC or Mac if you don’t have a tablet. Anyone with a phone, even one with a large-resolution screen, is going to struggle somewhat to read the instructions and command labels.

SpaceChem requires some patience to understand and the tutorial, while helpful, doesn’t really make the game any easier. My own education of the game came from watching YouTube video,s of which there are plenty, so you should definitely check them out.

Despite the struggles, the squinting and the brain bending, I found SpaceChem to be lots of fun, massively rewarding and highly addictive. There is a demo version of the game which should give you a superb introduction to this stunning title.


Summary

Deliciously challenging and brain-numbingly addictive, SpaceChem is an original and exciting puzzle game for the inner geek.

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