Review: Chemicus

Ruske & Pühretmaier (developers) Heureka-Klett (German publishers); Tivola (US publishers)

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Very little
Writing and dialogue
Poor, and the German translation doesn't help
Quite hard
Forgiveness rating
You cannot die or make a fatal mistake.

Disclosure: The publishers sent me a free review copy of this.

The free copy came with a big fat detailed walkthrough, by the way. That's standard -- did you know that? Reviewers get free games and free hints. I sometimes wonder if this is why adventure games get so little adrenalin in commercial review zines. Game reviewers never actually solve anything. I mean, they don't have to. How can you get a feel for a puzzle game if the answers are sitting in front of you? It's like getting a free review copy of a action-shooter, but it comes with a free hyperactive razor-reflexed twelve-year-old who grabs the controller and insists on doing it all himself. You see the whole game, but you aren't exactly playing.

Or maybe reviewers don't look at the hints. You can find free walkthroughs for all these things on the web, anyhow. It's not like the publishers even need to bother.

Anyway, I resisted (I want to say "manfully resisted", but I can't keep a straight face) the temptation to look at the publisher-supplied walkthrough until after I'd finished the game. The one time I needed a hint, I searched the web, like I usually do. See? I am pure. Manfully pure. Or something.


I didn't expect to like Chemicus. I'd seen it in stores and decided not to buy it. It's edutainment, the scariest word of all our childhoods. It's about chemistry! I like chemistry, but I don't need to recap high school. I did fine the first time.

Then they offered me this free copy, and I said "Ooo, free stuff!"

Actually, it's pretty good.

Hm. I should say: it's pretty well done. This is not exactly the same thing.

What do you expect out of an adventure game based on teaching basic chemistry? You expect a bunch of unrelated chemical experiment puzzles, that's what. Well, Chemicus manages to put together a world of related chemical experiment puzzles. And I don't just mean related in the sense of "produce chemical A, use it as a reagent in experiment B." The designers have a nifty sense of the properties of things -- straightforward properties like color and hardness and smell, as well as "scientific" aspects like solubility and electronegativity. All these aspects come into play, in the game's various interactions. It's not like a lab project, "make copper(I) ions". You need the stuff for a specific purpose. Some of the purposes are as reagents in later puzzles; others are required by more fantastic (ie, less realistic) machines. The designers are willing to go either route -- whatever it takes to build an interesting scene, or interaction, or puzzle.

Really, it's exactly like the design of any other complex adventure game. In a lot of games, the designers think up a bunch of magical (or technological!) spells; they think of cool ways those spells/gadgets could apply to various situations; they invent puzzles; they connect them into a plot. (Zork Grand Inquisitor is a blatant example. But this pattern is all over the place, from the Linking Books of the Myst mythos to the spy gizmos in Traitors Gate.)

Chemicus is built the same way, except that the "spells" are chemical interactions. And that doesn't indicate a lack of imagination! Most game designers, let's face it, can't invent a system with a tenth of the richness of real-life chemistry. Chemicus has lots and lots to do. It shows off an impressive range of stuff, from acid-base indicators (at the beginning of the game) to organic demos, inorganic demos, chem-engineering tasks, and (at the end) complex molecular analysis. It manages to keep the difficulty pretty even, too. (You get a lot of help on that molecular-analysis bit. You do just enough of the work yourself to get the idea of the whole process.)

This approach has down sides as well as up. Many puzzles -- interactions -- are tied to specific locations, or tools, or actions. That's how the plot is kept in order and the events in their intended context.

This sort of limitation is no problem in a fantasy plot (why shouldn't a ritual be restricted to a given room?) But it hits realism problems in a chemistry game. I counted five -- no, seven! -- different places in the game where you can heat up a mixture of substances. And each one of them is for one particular mixture -- perhaps two. Try to cook the right substance in the wrong place, or the wrong substance in the right place, and it just doesn't work. The hotspots won't hot up, as it were; you can't even put the stuff into the bowl (or wherever).

Okay, some of these sources are at different temperatures. You can't do organic-solvent distillation in molten lava. Fine! But the game provides no feedback. Nothing indicates that, yes, you can probably melt that somewhere else. I spent quite a lot of time tediously dragging everything I owned onto a particular container, just to see whether this was the right spot for that reaction.

This is the point where the portrayal of a rich, interactive world breaks down into mechanical menu-mashing.

It's the usual commercial-adventure lack of flexibility, I know. In an ideal game, you could throw sugar into the bunsen burner, and alcohol into the electrolysis cell, and thermite into the reflux distiller. And the game would show you appropriately disastrous animations, and then your equipment would be ruined. Graphical adventures can't afford all the animations, and their policy is to not let you ruin the equipment. We expect that.

But Chemicus really is unnecessarily parsimonious, sometimes. To alloy two metals, you have to: put one metal over heat, melt it, turn the heat off, put the other metal on top of the congealed lump, turn the heat on, turn it off again, take the alloyed lump out, carry it to a different heat source, and melt it again for its final use. What the hell? I think the second source isn't as intense, but it should still be sufficient to melt one metal and then dissolve the other in it! Even if not, the whole sequence is three or four steps too baroque.

I got through that bit because I've played a lot of poorly-designed adventure games. A high-school kid, a non-gamer, who is handed this thing because it's educational -- I fear he'd get stuck and frustrated and throw it across the room.

(And I won't even get into the electrical contacts that you're supposed to bridge with a conductive substance... a particular conductive substance, out of the five or six I was carrying at the time. Heck, I could have tied a metal wire across the contacts to short them. Would the game let me?)

(No, no, never mind that.)

Other problems kept cropping up as well. The hotspots were often badly placed. There was a screwy set of drawers in the first room that I literally had to count pixels to open properly. (Nearly kept me from starting the game, much less finishing it.) That was the worst offender, but I kept running into arrangements that were just unintuitive. One view, later in the game, had both a "look down" and "back up" hotspot; and while the cursors were different, I always hit the wrong one first. Seriously. I don't know how they managed it, but they managed it wrong.

I also ran into some annoying hotspot inconsistencies. Many devices had controls (power buttons, cranks, etc) which simply did not work unless the devices were filled and ready to go. In other words -- you had no way to experiment with the machine unless you already knew what it did. Hardly ideal for an interactive environment! Again, I can understand not letting you ruin the device, but running it empty wouldn't do that.

(For some of these cases -- inconsistently! -- the activation control was entirely deactivated until you added the right mix of substances. That is, the hotspot was completely missing. This confused me terribly. In most of the game, hotspots remained detectable; they just didn't work all the time. When I came across a machine with no hotspots on its controls at all, I assumed those controls would never work. This led me to believe the machine was entirely useless! Even worse, it was one of those heating systems which only accepted a single substance... so the container hotspot, while active, refused everything I tried to drop on it. And when I did manage to put something in it, I then had to back off and discover that the controls had become clickable. Argh!)

Worst of all, one object changed -- in the middle of the game -- from being a container (fixed in place, in which you place objects) to being a takeable container itself (which you place elsewhere in the game). Naturally, this happened after I'd solved the puzzle in which the container had to be fixed in place -- in order to free the container up for another puzzle, in which it had to be moved. This was completely arbitrary from my point of view; unexpected, and unpredictable.

It was the one place I got stuck -- and when I read the hints, I screamed "I have to take what?" I knew I needed a container, but I never imagined that that container had mysteriously become mobile. Bloody disaster of a design choice.

Enough about interface.

I could talk about the plot, but there isn't one. I mean, okay, there's a frame story. Your friend has been kidnapped by somebody or other, and they want a "transport molecule". You get quick updates on this as the game proceeds (through a videophone which is, unfortunately, neither well-animated nor well-acted) but really, there's nothing to it. You play Chemicus to explore all the stuff and solve all the puzzles. There's no sense of a coherent, inhabited world which underlies all the areas you visit.

But there is... I'm not sure how to describe it. Chemicus is less than a full subcreation, but more than a bunch of unrelated puzzles. The parts don't relate to a living world with its own history... but they do relate to each other. Much as in Rhem, you have to pay some attention to the way things influence each other.

...and the parts relate to chemistry. I'd say that the game expresses the mythology of chemistry as a subject... except that sounds like I'm talking about alchemy or some such imaginary realm. That's not what I mean. The world of Chemicus is about real science -- but it comes across in an elegantly abstract way. Witty, even.

Hell, that doesn't tell you anything. I'll just give one example.

The world is divided up into about ten regions, each "about" a chemical element, or an important group of elements. There's the iron works, for example; and the silicon region, which has a sand garden and a glasshouse. Most of these are reachable by a subway, whose control panel is (unsurprisingly) a periodic table.

But there's no subway stop for the noble gases. That region is hidden. But I'll give you a clue -- it's adjacent to the swimming pool. Which represents the halogens (chlorine, etc).

If that makes you snicker, you might enjoy this game. If not, er, I'm not sure. Geek humor is a strange thing. Let's move along.

There's not much plot, but there's plenty of gameplay. As I said, lots to do. You enter the first few areas in sequence (you have to gather subway keys); but the scope expands exponentially. Quite early in the game, you're faced with a huge number of areas to explore, and even more toys to play with. I think Chemicus gets the award for "most inventory items I've had to juggle in a single adventure game". And that's a good thing; with that many items to consider, you have to actually consider them, not just try random combinations. You have room to play around. There's plenty of guidance, both from in-game information sources (the inevitable diaries and notebooks), and in the capsule Chem-101 textbook which is built into the game.

(Cleverly, disposing of inventory items becomes a significant issue in a few places. Which makes sense -- disposal is an issue for chemists, right?)

Actually, I should mention another source of guidance, which I'm not sure if I like. The game has pop-up labels for most items. Move the cursor over something; the game tells you what it is. (The preferences have an option to turn the labels off, but it doesn't seem to work. The labels still appear when dragging items from your inventory.)

Now, I complained about pop-up labels when I was playing The Longest Journey. They give away all the secrets! Isn't the fun in figuring out what everything is? What's the point of a graphical adventure if the graphics don't convey the nature of the world?

Well, that's still my position. But I can see why Chemicus is an exception. By the nature of the game, half the stuff in your inventory is "fine white powder" or "clear liquid". Graphics aren't going to convey the distinction between nitric and sulfuric acid. And the equipment you encounter -- yes, it would be nice to figure out what some of it is by playing with it. But 99% of the population isn't going to recognize a reflux distiller on sight. (I didn't.) If this were a fantasy scenario, with magical apparatus, I'd say to simplify the devices -- let the player figure them out. But obviously that's not an option here.

So, conditionally, I'm okay with the pop-up labels. Considering the very broad scope of stuff you have explore and manage.

(I still think they were a mistake in The Longest Journey.)

On the other hand, I'm wholeheartedly in favor of the pocket chemical-analysis device, which is built into the interface. That's an in-game source of information -- mimetic, if you care about that word. Plus, it's fun to pull it out and wave it around.

(Hmm. Maybe they should have implemented all the pop-up labels via the analysis lens? Wave it over the reflux distiller, it says "reflux distiller"? I bet that would have worked just as well, and been more elegant.)

I ran into a lot of minor translation issues; Chemicus comes from a German design house, and the English sometimes goes wonky. Be warned that the save/load game option is marked "Score", for example. ("Load score"? "Save new score"? That's what it says...) On the other hand, I was obscurely pleased to click on the "W" in the periodic table and get an entry for "Wolfram". It's wrong for English-speakers, but at least it's a historic mistake...

Anyhow. The summary is, Chemicus is a well-put-together pure-puzzle adventure game -- even ignoring the fact that it's "educational" and put together out of real-world chemistry ideas. It's not about story or character interaction; but I had a good time.

And, heck, now I remember what an ester is.

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