As soon as assembly robots appeared America's car factories in the early '80s, there was a lot of concern that they would replace the human workforce. But the pro-robot camp argued that workers doing the menial stuff can step up to higher-skill jobs. It's the way of technology: once the first donkey was domesticated, some guy was let go from being cart-puller. But he might find a new line of employment as some kind of donkey mechanic. In other words, if you want to have a job, learn how to work with robots. Time to fire up indie developer Hive Games' programming-centric logic puzzle game Pragmatica.
Pragmatica is "the world's largest distributed autologistics manufacturer" and makes its money by selling robots to clients, then instructing the robots to the needs of said customers. Your job, as its employee, is to program those robots. This means giving the machines a sequence of instructions to help them through a maze and to an exit. Each level has its own specific challenge: deliver a crate, save a robot from destruction, or blow up everything with bombs, etc. This has to be done with the limited set of instructions you are allowed, and the challenge comes from using sets of instructions to control groups of robots simultaneously.
Programming isn't as easy as slapping a bunch of commands on a grid and hitting the "go" button. In each level, you're given a few slots that can contain condition commands or action commands, each separated on their own rows and columns. Conditions allow you to tell the machines which events should trigger the action directly to its right. For example, you can pair the condition "if you see a hazard" with the action "turn left". Then, every time the robot comes up against a hazard, it will turn left. Commands are paired up in sets that are carried out in order of top to bottom. Sometimes you'll even get multiple condition/action slots per line, allowing you to set up crazy things like "if you are carrying a box" and "if you see a switch" then "set the box down" and "reverse your course".
Program the right sequence and you finish the job. Get it wrong and there are robot explosions. Fortunately, the gloomy Pragmatica environment also seems devoid of any angry managers or emails from frustrated clients. If you mess it up, you can just try again. The whole set-up feels somewhat like Manufactoria or a Zachtronics Industries game (The Codex of Alchemical Engineering, SpaceChem), albeit a hair less complex and much more user-friendly.
Analysis: Pragmatica has twenty challenges to complete, excluding the tutorial levels. These are spread amongst four different customers, each with their own demands. One company is all about underhanded business and junk food, so they tend to want crates delivered or destroyed in creative ways. Another requires you to keep an inspection robot alive — mainly to foil the inspector in thinking everything is kosher.
The presentation does a lot to keep you playing. It feels like Pragmatica is a company that hires a skyscraper in the Beneath A Steel Sky universe — that spot between steam- and cyber-punk. Ultimately it's only wrapping for a puzzle game, but small touches gives the game a sense of absurd seriousness, echoed by the emails
(instructions for each level) sent by customers and other employees.
The puzzles are challenging, but there's a rather thin spread of them. The learning curve flexes upward sharply after the tutorial ends, and soon enough beating a level becomes a studious mental exercise. Don't feel bad if you eventually reach for a piece of paper. The very nature of Pragmatica's rules makes it open to becoming very intricate and complicated, despite its rather short length. But don't despair: if you have the time and the inclination, Pragmatica includes a full level editor, allowing you to dive in and create your own complex jobs. Making puzzles is about as complicated as solving them, but this goes a good ways to extending the game's lifespan.
Pragmatic is very captivating and polished, despite a few minor interface hiccups. The programming sequences are not tough individually. It's the number of them, coupled with the number of groups you have to run, that brews a hearty challenging broth. In a way Pragmatica scales beautifully, if a bit mercilessly, but with more than half of the levels unlocked at the start, you are never really stuck. It's a fiendish puzzle game that you won't be able to get way from!
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