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Lora's Adventure Game Reviews: Chemicus

Chemicus (Game release date: 2002)
A fun way to interest kids in chemistry, but Chemicus won't hold the attention of adult gamers for long.

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Highlights: Puzzles based on real-world logic, educational content Lowlights: Lack of plot or characters, rather simplistic for adult players

The best part of Chemicus is definitely its concept. This is a boilerplate first-person graphic adventure, but like its predecessor Physicus, the game is intended to be educational. All the puzzles in it are based on real-world chemistry. So rather than combining, say, sulfurous ash with a black pearl to make a magic missile, you combine sulfuric acid and copper oxide to make a copper sulfate solution. Speaking both as a parent and as a gamer who easily tires of having her intelligence insulted by implausible events, I find this a wonderfully refreshing development.

Unfortunately, though, that's really all there is in this game to distinguish it from dozens of other unmemorable Myst clones. The plot is dull, makes little sense, and is awkwardly translated from the German. The in-game chemistry tutorial, unlike the one in Physicus, is unpleasant to use, with few interactive moments. Navigation is awkward and involves too much boring backtracking. And though most of the puzzles are challenging and satisfying, you almost never know what you're supposed to be accomplishing at any given point in this game, beyond seeing which random items in your pockets can be combined to make something else. The game's events rarely suggest a course of action, and so you're left to flounder aimlessly.

Still, though, it kept my children's attention, and definitely taught them that chemistry is neat because you can dissolve things in acid and make flowerpots explode. I wouldn't use this game as a substitute for a junior chemistry set, but there are some experiments that aren't safe for kids to do themselves, and Chemicus offered a hands-on alternative. I would definitely recommend printing out a copy of my Chemicus walkthrough if you're planning on playing, though; it doesn't give away the solutions to any puzzles, but it does let you know what the heck you're supposed to be trying to accomplish as you proceed through the game, which can help cut down on the frustration level.

Style: Chemicus is a first-person puzzle-adventure game with a rudimentary point-and-click interface. The game is untimed except for one puzzle (which may be attempted as many times as you like), and no appreciable manual dexterity is required. Combat and leveling are not elements. This is a very forgiving game in which it is impossible to die, lose, or paint yourself into a corner.

Series: Chemicus is one in a series of scientifically themed graphic adventure games: the others include Physicus, Bioscopia, and Master of the Elements. There is no plot interdependency, and the games can be played in any order.

Finding Chemicus: You can still find Chemicus in odd corners of game and software stores, or you can buy it online.

Getting Chemicus to Work: Chemicus worked fine for me out of the box. If you want the game view to fill your screen (rather than a little patch in the middle), you'll need to adjust your screen resolution before playing.

Hints For Chemicus: I have a page of Chemicus hints up online, with general gameplay suggestions and a low-spoiler walkthrough that includes no puzzle solutions. If you're looking for a puzzle spoiler, there is a really good hints page at UHS which reveals only one solution at a time, so you won't accidentally learn the answers to future puzzles while scanning for the one you're stuck on. There are also some other Chemicus links here if you need them.

Game Length: 20-30 hours for an adult player, potentially more if a child is playing.

Age-Appropriateness: This game is rated E (for everyone 6 and up) and has nothing objectionable or frightening in it at all. However, kids who read at lower than the 5th-grade level will probably be unable to play this game without adult help, and even older kids may find the lack of directions too frustrating.

Lora's Chemicus Review: (Okay)

Plot and Quests: The best that can really be said for the plot of Chemicus is that it doesn't get in the way of the puzzles. There are no stupid plot twists to annoy you, no princesses sending you on pointless errands to deliver their mail. Unfortunately, there's nothing in the plot to add to the experience of playing this game either. Basically you're dumped in at one end with the vague assignment to rescue some histrionic German friend of yours from another dimension, then there are a lot of chemistry puzzles to solve, and when you finish the last one, you are reunited with your grateful friend. I was so uninterested in the outcome of this game that I really had to push myself to finish it when I hit the frustrating parts.
Puzzles and Mental Challenges: The game does an excellent job making chemistry puzzles relevant to the world of graphic adventure games; the puzzles are plentiful, interactive, and logical. Even better, most of them are practical within the context of the game (unlike in Physicus, for example, you are never asked to look up a formula simply for use as a password.) On the other hand, because most of them are inventory puzzles (placing the correct ingredients together to create a chemical reaction), this is also a much easier game than Physicus--and because the chemistry tutorial is so awkward, it's often easier just to use simple trial and error rather than functional application of chemistry knowledge.
Characters: There is really only one NPC in Chemicus, and you interact with him only by listening to his useless, redundant radio transmissions. You have no character of your own in Chemicus, either. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, since a first-person interface can let you play the game as yourself and add to the immersiveness of the experience; but it's hard for a game to keep you involved for long if it has neither an interesting plot nor interesting characters, and Chemicus is unfortunately in this situation.
Gameworld: Adequate, with no major flaws or anything that will make kids roll their eyes at it, but nothing especially memorable either. The houses, gadgets, and decor do not suggest the presence of a complex alien culture, the way the Myst Ages do, and there are few evocative details.
Gameplay: The gameplay of Chemicus can be rather dull--there's no action, no other people to interact with, and your options for interacting with objects are limited at best. Fortunately the pace is not as slow as in some computer adventure games, and every reachable game screen contains at least one useful object or puzzle.
Interface: Simplistic but ok. Navigation isn't difficult, but exits to the left or right are very hard to see, and the cursor to take you there doesn't always appear near the margin of the screen where you'd expect it to. There are no movement shortcuts, which makes for a lot of manual backtracking.
Ambience (Graphics, Sound, etc.): Chemicus looks very nice--the cutscenes of the various chemistry experiments are especially well-done--but the mood is far from immersive. The overall feel is more similar to visiting a hands-on science museum than playing an adventure game.

Lora's Recommendations: I recommend this game for kids and teens who enjoy adventure games and don't get easily frustrated; it's more educational than other games on the market, and will especially appeal to young science enthusiasts who wish they could play with vats of nitric acid in real life. The awkward interface and lack of storyline are likely to make older gamers zone out, though.

If You Loved Chemicus: Then you should give Physicus and Bioscopia a try--they were made by the same team and have very much the same feel, but with puzzles that rely on physics and biology knowledge (respectively). Tivola also made a fourth game, Master of the Elements, aimed at a slightly younger audience (kids 7-10 may have an easier time with this game than with Chemicus). If you liked these games you should also play the Myst trilogy, Myst, Riven, and Exile, if you haven't yet; all three have challenging science-related puzzles (especially Exile), and they have an artistry and grace about them that Chemicus lacks, as well.

For a more detailed critique of Chemicus involving spoilers, please see my Backseat Game Designer page. Happy gaming!

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