The creator of The Codex of Alchemical Engineering and Bureau of Steam Engineering (not to mention the grandaddy of Minecraft, Infiniminer) is back with a full-fledged indie game ready to provide a serious logic puzzle challenge. SpaceChem is anything but simple, anything but easy, and one of the most satisfying puzzle games released. If you can solve its challenges, that is. SpaceChem is a game you'll spend a few minutes learning but weeks trying to master, and its 50+ levels are more than enough to strain your poor brain matter more than it's been strained in quite some time.
If you've ever played a game from Zachtronics Industries, you know it isn't really possible to read a paragraph introduction and learn everything about the game. SpaceChem is much easier to pick up than previous releases, though, which is encouraging for casual players. Here's a quick introduction to the mechanics, just so you know what to expect. Much like The Codex of Alchemical Engineering, SpaceChem is all about assembling molecules from simple atoms using a series of programmable commands. You work from a grid and two colored WALDOS that function as conveyor belts. By laying commands on to these belts, you can move elements around the grid, outfitting them as instructed by the level goals, and depositing them in the correct positions.
Now, it would be relatively simple to create a machine that does this once or twice. But in a true "games for engineers" fashion, you must build a mechanism that can accomplish this ten times. A repeatable, looping set of programs that builds a perfect molecule and drops it off in the correct grid space. Atoms can be bonded multiple times (depending on their limitations), each bond accomplished by setting atoms on paired reactors and initiating a "bond" command. The red and blue paths can also overlap as well as activate things for each other. Now you're beginning to see the challenge, right? And fortunately for us, this description only scratches the surface.
There's even a story to go along with your molecule building, and it explains why you're doing what you're doing and adds a nice narrative to the whole experience. And don't worry, an in-game tutorial walks you through new gameplay elements when they arise. In later levels, you'll be working with multiple reactors, each doing its own assembly task and sending its product on to the next reactor for further transformation. The big picture is often mind boggling, but the sense of accomplishment you feel once you pull it off is enormous!
Analysis: SpaceChem is a big step-up from previous releases, adding a lot of shortcut features that make playing the game easier, more entertaining, and more social. Keyboard shortcuts allow you to place commands on the WALDOS with minimal effort, and after completing a level, you're shown stats that are compared with other SpaceChem players. You can even upload your solutions to YouTube!
Zachtronics' games aren't for everyone. These hyper-challenging logic puzzles require a certain mental disposition to grasp, let alone solve or complete in their entirety. Couple with that the lack of any sort of hint feature and you've got a real challenge on your hands. It's the kind of challenge that's fun to figure out, though. SpaceChem requires thinking. Real, honest problem solving, not memorizing a pattern and repeating it over and over again to the end of the game. You must analyze a situation, determine the best route, work on your design, tinker with it, refine it, and finally solve it. The effort you put into each level pays off in that feeling of nigh-euphoria when you solve a puzzle on your own.
SpaceChem is a brilliant game. It's a polished and playable release that's thoroughly challenging, easy to get into, but terribly difficult to master. But when you see that machine you've worked so hard on complete a task, it's a thing of true beauty.