Summer of Indie – Games Review: SpaceChem

SpaceChem hates me. SpaceChem taunts me. I think of it on the way to work, I doodle process paths on my notebook in meetings. It leads me on, it does. It makes me believe that the solution is just this simple, and then takes away my dreams and leaves me gawping back at the screen feeling colossally stupid. But I just can’t let it go. It won’t let me go.

So we probably better start with some explanation. SpaceChem is a puzzle game based on making reactors undergo simple processes to make chemicals. You have two “tracks” along which “waldos” travel, performing actions you place on the tracks, such as “pick up thing”, “drop thing”, “stick thing to other thing”. At more complex levels they can pause, rotate what they are carrying, use sensors to take optional paths, and so on. The object is to take the chemicals being input into your reactor, manipulate them (break them up, stick em together) and send them to the output as required. As the game goes on you’ll be asked to chain multiple reactors together, so for example you’ll have one breaking down one set of molecules, passing the bits to its outputs, then another reactor picks up the bits and reassembles them differently.

Don’t let the Chemical Engineering cover put you off – at heart this is a logic puzzle game, and a pretty fearsome one. It has that great quality that all puzzlers need, where you stare at it for ever an then suddenly a lightbulb goes off and you’re solved it. To watch the waldos move their paces, smoothly picking up and manipulating the brightly coloured chemical blocks and sending them on their way is a thing of beauty, like watching a machine in motion, only one you’ve built on your own computer screen.

And then at the end the game kindly shows you how you’ve done. See, it’s not just about completing the levels, the game reports the stats of your solution back and you’ll get a graph showing where you stand compared to everyone else playing the game – how efficient you are, basically, compared to everyone else. It will even filter the list down to those on your Steam friends list so you really feed dense and slow witted. It’s one of those minor features that goes a long way.

If I had to pick a downside I would say that this sort of brainmelting isn’t for everyone, and frustration, rather than obsession could easily set in. Sensibly there is a reasonably sized demo available, which gives you enough levels to see if it’s your sort of thing before buying. But then it’s hardly a hugely expensive game for the number of levels you get, and if it is your sort of thing it is astounding value for money.

SpaceChem is available on Steam

GS Rating: 5/5
GS Reviewer: Matt


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