Chemicus Review

A chemistry expert has been experimenting in a hidden lab and has made a discovery that has provided him with a gateway to another reality. However, before he can convey any of the information to anyone else, he is kidnapped and taken to the other side, where he is being held captive. You must use clues that he has left behind and follow him to this alternate world, where you will use your analytical powers -- along with an extensive knowledge of chemistry -- to find and save him, and free this new world from a power that has bound them.

I enjoy "edutainment" games. In fact, my interest is often piqued by what new facts I can learn, whether about history, science, or some other area. However, I usually enter the playing field of such a game with the preconception that either the educational value, or the entertainment value is going to suffer. There just aren't any games that excel in both areas, right?

Wrong. Chemicus is a stunning example of a game that, in all respects, scores high in both categories. On the one hand, it is a fascinating adventure game, with carefully crafted puzzles, wonderful graphics and sound, and captivating gameplay. On the other hand, the scientific knowledge of chemistry involved in (and required by) the game is extensive; and the online encyclopedia of chemistry-related topics is extremely comprehensive.

Gameplay in Chemicus is fun and intuitive. The player moves from scene to scene in Myst-like transitions. (There is no panning in the game.) Cursor icons are fairly simple and assist the player in determining what actions are available, what directions can be moved, and so on. Movement between major areas of the game involves a working knowledge of the periodic table of the elements -- again merging adventure gaming and educational content.

The encyclopedia built into the game is quite helpful in researching many of the puzzles presented in the game. But even when totally stumped, there are still several avenues of help. Included with the games is a complete walkthrough in PDF format, including screen shots and detailed instructions on completing the game. And if that fails, Tivola offers a toll-free technical support line that can answer any questions about the game, or the puzzles involved. (I did have to make use of the telephone support twice: once when I thought that there was a bug in the game -- and it turned out to be a very, very clever part of the puzzle design -- and again when I had simply overlooked one phrase in the walkthrough, and thought I was at an impasse.)

The inventory was easy to work with, although at a few points in the game it became slightly cumbersome, due to the number of items being carried. That simply meant scrolling through a list of items to retrieve the desired one -- not a major issue, in any case.

The game provided a good 30 hours of gameplay, even played by two well-educated adventure gamers. The documentation lists the game as being applicable for ages "10-102." The degree of chemistry information required to solve the game (without accessing the walkthrough), however, would either preclude that lower age level, or extend the play time considerably. (At a rough estimate, I would have put the minimum enjoyable age somewhere in the mid-teens -- basically, someone who has completed at least an introductory chemistry course in school.) One refreshing thing about the game is that it deserves a clean "G" rating. There is no swearing, no blood and gore, no violence, no suggestive situations. And perhaps for that reason alone, it deserves the age rating defined by the publishers.

Playing the game is entirely "safe." There are no life-threatening situations, and the player cannot die. The worst that can happen is that you might be stumped at a particular puzzle, and unable to continue until that puzzle is solved. The game is fairly non-linear (in that you can move about freely through all parts of this alternate world); however, the game will not allow you to continue to a point where you will need something that you do not yet have. Generally, this involves solving some puzzle, and obtaining some new piece of information or object (such as a key). The only part of the game that became a bit linear was the end game -- and yet, the very puzzles that were being presented at that point had to be linear, due to the order in which things were being presented and analyzed. I don't want to present any spoilers, so I will just say that I was not disappointed in the least by this implementation.

The puzzles in the game are one place where there might be some contention as to the intuitiveness of the game. Virtually all of the puzzles involved some aspect of chemistry -- atomic structures, organic and inorganic chemistry, electrochemistry, acids, heavy metals, and so on. At times, I felt proud that I remembered my high-school chemistry enough to solve some puzzles, but at other times, I was wishing that I had more of a clue as what I was supposed to do. There were times that the chemical puzzles were a bit esoteric -- for a novice chemist like myself, that is. (Just how do redox reactions work? And what is the purpose of fractional distillation?) I'm guessing that someone with a few more years of chemistry under their belt would have thought that most of the puzzles were a piece of cake.

In any case, none of the puzzles were show-stoppers. Since inventory items cannot be used in the wrong place, it sometimes simply required going through every item in inventory, and trying it in a given situation, to see what reaction might result. It's a "trial-and-error" approach, but without a detailed knowledge of chemistry (on my part), it was occasionally necessary. In all cases, though, after the puzzle was solved, it made perfect sense. I can't think of one instance where I said "Oh, that was really stupid!" But I can recall many times when I was in awe over the incredible integration of clever chemistry puzzles with the overall setting of an adventure game.

The overall story line may have been a bit weak, but it served to hold the pieces of the game together. There was really very little "plot development," as more attention was given to the graphics, the puzzles, and general "adventuring."

The graphics in Chemicus are breathtaking. Many other "edutainment" titles seem to sacrifice things like set design, lighting and textures, 3D rendering, animation, etc., in favor of educational content. The end result is often a game that is "dry," or uninteresting. It is clear that there was a dual emphasis in the development of Chemicus. The content of the scenes often rivals that of the best adventure games -- Myst III: Exile, Schizm, or even Syberia. The attention to detail -- even the most minute detail -- is remarkable, as the accompanying screen shots show.

The sound effects in the game were just as good as one might expect from a game of this high caliber. Running water, and other similar sounds, were not only quite realistic, but panned from side to side, depending on the orientation of the player's view, enhancing the overall effectiveness.

As much as I enjoyed the game, no game is perfect. (At least, in the player's eyes!) There are one or two minor things that I might have wished were changed in the overall game design. One is that I would have liked a few more clues for those without a bachelor's degree in chemistry. Although the online encyclopedia contained all of the information necessary for completing the game, it was difficult to navigate. Forward and backward buttons didn't always seem to move to related pages. And the organization of the encyclopedia required too much preliminary knowledge of chemistry to allow an inexperienced user to find things readily.

Another irritation had to do with game saves. Each saved game is stored as an individual file -- presenting the opportunity for unique (and readable) names. However, the designers chose to create coded filenames, and only display the date and time of each save -- not even including thumbnail screen shots. That made it very difficult to locate previously-saved games, or to identify which game was saved where.

Lastly, there are occasional (but rare) appearances by various characters -- including the scientist you are trying to save. Rather than use live video, Heureka chose to implement all characters via computerized rendering. However, these renderings are not nearly as good as in some other games (e.g., Dracula Resurrection, The Cameron Files), and, as a result, almost seem to be a detriment to the game. Thankfully, their appearances are few and far between.

I encountered no software or hardware problems, either in installing or running Chemicus. The game ran smoothly (although somewhat slowly, as I had chosen to install the minimal version) in its entirety. I would highly recommend that anyone with sufficient disk space perform the full installation. In addition to eliminating disc swapping, the scene transitions take place much faster when the CD-ROM doesn't have to spin up repeatedly.

A brief word about disc swapping: Chemicus is distributed on two CD-ROM discs. For much of the early game, there is very little disc swapping required. Extensive exploring of new areas allows the user to stay within a given locale (both in terms of the gameplay, as well as the CD-ROM being used) for longer periods of time. However, as the game progresses, there is more and more need to return to areas formerly explored. I found that this "back-and-forth" increased dramatically, the closer I got to the end of the game. And, understandably, that also meant that I was swapping discs at an increasingly alarming rate. Again, doing a full install can overcome this, if it becomes a problem.

Chemicus is an entertaining adventure game that will immediately grab the player's attention. The beautiful graphics are extremely well-done and realistic, The puzzles will be challenging enough for the most die-hard adventure gamer, as they are virtually all unique to the field of chemistry, and not the generic "one-in-every-game" kind. It is difficult to imagine a better integration of educational content into the adventure/puzzle genre.

-- Frank Nicodem