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Lora's Adventure Game Reviews: Physicus

Physicus (Game release date: 1999)
Half Myst clone and half interactive encyclopedia, Physicus is a fun way to introduce kids to physics but won't hold the attention of adult gamers for long.

Walkthrough page Buy This Game

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

This is one of the weirdest little games I've ever played. It was written by a German science teacher, not a game designer, and marketed primarily as an educational tool (one of my sons found it on the bargain rack at an educational toy store). It's basically your run-of-the-mill Myst clone, one of hundreds of uneventful slideshow-presentation island adventure games to flood the market in the 1990's after Myst sold 18 bajillion copies. As such it's easily playable but unmemorable, and most gamers wouldn't want to bother with it. Physicus comes with a twist, though: it's for kids, and it teaches real-world physics in a science-fiction setting. After being struck by a meteor, a planet has stopped rotating around its axis, and an intrepid starship captain must cobble together enough energy to power a futuristic device to set the planet in motion again before everyone on it dies. That's it for the plot, but players must correctly use scientific technology from resistors to electromagnets to accomplish their goals. There is an excellent in-game encyclopedia that teaches the laws of physics with concrete, interactive examples. The puzzles give satisfying and very non-childish rewards for figuring them out, and the old-school sci-fi concept of space missions depending on practical mastery of actual science is very, very welcome. As a game, Physicus really isn't much to write home about, but as a science teaching aid, I think it's worthwhile. My children were much younger than the target audience when we played this together (the game is meant for ten- to fifteen-year-olds) and they still learned a lot from it. I'll definitely be putting it away for them to play again when they're a little older.

Style: Physicus is a first-person puzzle-adventure game with a rudimentary point-and-click interface. The game is untimed 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: Physicus has inspired several sequels in the same vein: Chemicus, Bioscopia, and Master of the Elements. There is no plot interdependency, and the games can be played in any order.

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

Getting Physicus to Work: Physicus worked fine for me out of the box on both XP and Windows 2000. 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 Physicus: I have a page of Physicus 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.

Game Length: Fairly short--10 hours or less for an adult player used to puzzle adventures, longer if a child is playing. There are probably another 10 hours of reading and experiments in the physics tutorial, for patient kids who want to learn more.

Age-Appropriateness: This game is rated E (for everyone 6 and up) and has nothing objectionable or frightening in it at all. However, kids with less than a 5th-grade science education or who read at lower than the 5th-grade level will probably be unable to play this game without adult help. You never have to use an outside source or remember anything yourself (everything you need to solve the game is contained in the in-game encyclopedia), but you'll need to understand the rudiments of science and math to make heads or tails of any of it.

Lora's Physicus Review: (Pretty Good)

Plot and Quests: The plot of Physicus is beyond simple; it's barely existent. In a way that's better than a lame, boring plot full of silly plot twists--unless you disbelieve the well-established sci-fi doomsday scenario about a planet that stops turning on its axis, there are no plot elements that will annoy you or distract you from the game. There are none that will interest you or keep you on the edge of your seat, though, either, and there is only one way to progress in the game.
Puzzles and Mental Challenges: The game does an excellent job making physics puzzles practically relevant to a science-fiction hero's career (it's too rarely pointed out to kids, but OF COURSE a starship engineer is going to have to know how to complete circuits and plot the trajectory of a falling object, and yes, he'll need to know math for that). There's a good variety, several are challenging, and they all have meaningful hints as to their solution (there's very little random crap in this game). The only problem with these puzzles is that they're very artificial. They have no relevance to the plot, to the gameworld, or to each other. Why is there an 18-kilogram weight attached to a pulley behind a house so that you can only enter if you have a counterweight of the proper mass? There is no conceivable reason why anyone would ever have set a door up this way in the real world.
Characters: There are none. You don't even have a character of your own. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it lets you play the game as yourself and adds to the immersiveness of the experience; and playing solo is often preferable to playing with annoying, non-interactive NPCs. But it's hard for a game to keep you involved for long if it has neither an interesting plot nor interesting characters, and Physicus 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 Physicus is not particularly exciting (there is no action, there are no other people to interact with, and the player has limited options for interacting with objects). On the other hand, the pace is not as slow as in some computer adventure games, and there is refreshingly little backtracking and trudging between useful game screens (the explorable world is small, and at least half of the reachable game screens contain something useful or interesting).
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. Inventory is annoying, with a pointless extra animation every time you pick something up or put it down.
Ambience (Graphics, Sound, etc.): Physicus looks quite nice (better, I think, than the original Myst), 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 Physicus for kids age 10-15, older teens who are big fans of Myst-style games, and younger kids who are gifted and talented. It's a solid game suitable for young players, it's educational and does a good job illustrating the practical use of scientific knowledge, and the interactive encyclopedia that comes with it is great as a study aid (probably worth the price of this CD alone for any teen trying to prepare for standardized tests.) The awkward interface and lack of storyline are likely to make older gamers zone out, though.

If You Loved Physicus: Then you should give Chemicus and Bioscopia a try--they were made by the same team and have very much the same feel, but with puzzles that rely on chemistry 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 Physicus). 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 Physicus lacks, as well.

For a more detailed critique of the game involving spoilers, plot holes, and impacts Physicus could have on the adventure-game genre, please see my Backseat Game Designer page. Enjoy the game!

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