Don't be put off by the screenshots. Don't be dissuaded by talk of its high difficulty level. SpaceChem Mobile might not look too appealing, but this fiercely intelligent video game is one of the most satisfying experiences you'll have all year.
You play a new recruit to the titular chemical company, donning the lab coat of a reactor engineer as you design elaborate reactors to turn raw materials into valuable compounds for your corporate overlords.
It’s a learn-on-the-job kind of deal, with the tutorial couched in the kind of language that makes you feel like you’re being taught a skill rather than simply waiting to get to the real action. It’s the first of a great many examples of the game’s smart design.
So for a while I conducted experiments
Creating compounds is a tricky business, so you’re provided with two ‘waldos’ - one red, one blue – which travel along a route you create for them, performing a variety of instructions placed in their path.
At first, you’ll simply have to grab a single element from the input quadrants on the left side of the screen and drop it into the given output segment.
Soon you’ll be taught how to bond molecules, creating more complex pathways as you sync both waldos to work in tandem. Then things get seriously complicated.
I was amazed by the things I learned
The beauty of SpaceChem is that you’re always given just enough instruction to work the process out for yourself. Rather than being constantly supervised, you’ll be given the tools to do the job and simply left to get on with it.
This makes the rewards for solving the trickier puzzles all the more satisfying. Later in the game you can expect to spend upwards of an hour on a single solution, but once you've got it mastered you’ll punch the air with the same sensation of delight as you get beating an end of game boss on the 37th attempt.
Seeing your solution in action is like following a ridiculously convoluted flowchart that somehow functions perfectly. That might not sound visually exciting, but this is alchemy at work, and it’s fascinating to watch.
Nothing but good intentions
Brilliantly, the game then tempts you to streamline your creation, displaying a chart that shows how many cycles elapsed and how many symbols or reactors you used in comparison with other players.
There’s no official score, as such, but a comparatively inefficient result will convince you to return, as you fiddle around some more before you’re satisfied enough to move onto the next puzzle.
It’s been masterfully converted to iPad, with a control scheme that seems tailor-made for touchscreen play. There are shortcuts for the nimble of finger, and the interface is clear and intuitive.
A bad tendency to get burned
The only real problem with SpaceChem Mobile is that it’s a tough sell. Not everyone is after a cerebral puzzle game that requires a significant time investment, and to casual observers it can look quite dull.
All we can do is urge you to give it a chance. This is, quite simply, one of the best iPad titles money can buy – a game that makes chemistry fun, and makes you feel more intelligent for having played it.