Chemicus: Journey to the Other Side
Chemicus is the third in a series of games, each of which utilises a branch of science to create an edutainment adventure of the highest calibre. As the name implies, Chemicus focuses on chemistry, a science which is present in just about every aspect of our lives, whether we know it or not. Here it takes centre stage, and by the end you won't be able to help knowing a whole lot more about it if you intend to rescue Richard from the other world in which he is being held prisoner, accused of disrupting the balance between worlds.
Having now played all three games (Physicus and Bioscopia being the other two), I can say they are like different legs of the same dog. There is a sound and solid core, but each game has been tweaked in ways which make it different from the others. This not only leads to variety, but also increases the opportunity for more players to find one to their liking. Yet it also comes with risks - depart too much from what made one game appealing and you might disappoint a player who wanted more of the same.
The solid core I spoke of can be summarised thus. A game world of exceptional graphics, in which the world itself and the puzzles it contains are based on the science involved. Ambient sound helps bring each world alive, and whilst there is some limited participation from other characters, each game is essentially a solitary first person quest. You point and click your way around, with smooth transitions (subject to processing power) moving you from scene to scene.
Whilst each game has a general objective to be achieved, the story line is limited. It is the path and the puzzles to get to the end that is the strength of these games, not the plot. The puzzles utilise a broad cross section of the relevant scientific principals, and combine knowledge and inventory items in their solution. The puzzles have not been tricked up; logic and thought (and perhaps a bit of luck) will get you home. Some of that knowledge can be found in the game world, in notes or diaries, or just by careful observation and attention to detail, but some must be obtained from the database present in each game. More detail can be found in the other two reviews.
So what is it that makes Chemicus different from the other two games? It is certainly the biggest and most open of the three games. You are not gently propelled in a forward direction, completing locations then moving on. You must never assume you have finished a location and you will revisit many of them several times, and not just because you are stuck and are retracing your steps hoping for a breakthrough. Pieces of information and inventory items will be used all over the place, and often more than once. Whilst an incomplete puzzle will be an indicator of something further to do, equipment and apparatus should never be assumed to be single use.
It is also by far the hardest. My thirteen year old daughter Emily and I played together and not even the power of our two brains could get us through without a peak at the on-CD walkthrough on more than one occasion. We took copious notes, made numerous drawings, and pored over what to do time and time again. We fiddled with apparatus, and concocted and created various substances and items, sometimes making entirely the wrong ones. We researched topics, wrote down formulas, re-read journals, and in true adventure fashion, pushed everything and tried almost everything. We retraced our steps and still at times we remained stuck.
There are a lot of clues to help you, some overt and some far more subtle. Also, the game tends to get harder as you progress, culminating in a doozy of a final puzzle, but allowing you to settle into the game. There are a very large number of puzzles, and the successful completion of each one does not usually result in a huge leap forward. The game is more like a jigsaw, each completed puzzle adding a piece that perhaps enables you to then connect a few more pieces.
The difficulty level is also accentuated by the need to not only refer to the database, but to interpret and then apply that information. It is not usually a case of simply finding the answer somewhere in the material. By way of example, you might know that you need to make substance X, which can be made by combining elements A, B and C. You may have A and B but not C. You may ultimately learn from another part of the database that C is in fact a by-product of producing D, so the route to manufacturing X is in fact via the production of D.
You will also have to deal with common names for substances, as well as their chemical composition. You might not know that lime potash is the key to a chemical equation unless you learn that it is also KOH. You have an analyser among your equipment that will help in this regard.
You do make lots of substances, including wrong ones. You cannot, however, get irreparably stuck. Puzzles that allow you to make a wrong substance also allow you to try again (once, of course, you realise your mistake) and materials are always at hand. You also have to (amongst other things) forge metal, decalcify a key, reveal hidden text, open a greenhouse, make a keycard and take a balloon ride.
The database too is different. It's like a (very) large chemistry text book, and is certainly the driest used in the 3 games. There are a lot of diagrams, but no animations and no narrator. There is nothing at all entertaining about its presentation. Its lack of appeal is not helped by a somewhat messy navigation system. Whilst I am not adverse to edutainment titles, I suspect it is the nature of the database that puts off a lot of players, and this aspect may dissuade some players from this game.
Chemicus also presents yet a third version of how the database is integrated into the game. In Physicus, it was contained on a lap top that you found early in the game and then carried with you. In Bioscopia, you had to find a terminal in the game world to access the big brain computer. Here, the database is always available (how or why is never explained - it is just "there") but it needs to be compiled. As you move through the game and gain access to more locations, you will progressively find more chips which will fill the gaps in the database. You are able to see the headings of the information you can't yet access, which at first is more a guide to what your database doesn't know than what it does.
The chips are all concerned with a particular subject matter, but the information will not necessarily appear in a single place in the database, nor will it necessarily complete a topic, as so much is inter-related. Also, don't think that the answers to the conundrums you come across are contained within the knowledge you already have. Some early puzzles will only be able to be completed by knowledge and items you find much later.
Next to last, instead of walking between most locations, you will ride a small underground train-like vehicle. At least you will once you get it going. You also have to find transit chips to access different locations. Place these in the right spot on the periodic table control panel, and you can then visit the corresponding location.
Finally, the animations are the smoothest and best running of the 3 games. Lag is almost unnoticeable, and they are sharp and clear.
Chemicus comes on 2 CDs, and there is some unavoidable disc swapping. It ran without any problems whatsoever. You can't die, but saves (called scores for some reason) are unlimited, and the game will automatically pick up where you left off if you choose.
In conclusion, Chemicus is more like a standard edutainment title than the other two, but its size and complexity set it apart from every other edutainment title I have played. If you want a charming scientific stroll through a graphically rich and visually quirky environment, aided by a series of interactive lessons, play Physicus. If instead you want a scientifically based puzzle challenge of the highest order, set in a large and detailed world in which you will wander (and ponder) back and forth with a weighty tome in your backpack, then Chemicus is for you. Same but different, and each to their own.
Copyright © Steve Ramsey with Emily and Clare 2003.
All rights reserved.
Windows 95/98/NT/ME/2000/XP, Pentium II 233 MHz, 64 MB RAM, 50 MB disc, space, 32 bit SVGA graphics card, Soundcard, 8x CD ROM, Quicktime 5 (included) (ran fine with Quicktime 6)
MAC OS 8.1 or higher
233 MHz Power PC/G3, 64 MB RAM, 50 MB disc space, Thousands of colours, 8x CD ROM, Soundcard, Quicktime 5 (included)