Review: Big Pharma

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I love puzzle games, but I’m not afraid to admit when they get to be too much for me. SpaceChem is a perennial favorite of mine that I burned out on way before the end, for example. Big Pharma shares certain similarities with SpaceChem, but with a layer of corporate management on top of the mind-bending puzzles. It’s an interesting combination, and also a very exhausting one.

You get to be the CEO of a pharmaceutical company, which turns out to be a lot more interior design and number-crunching than the vlogging and buying Wu-Tang albums that I expected. Starting with a small empty room, you import ingredients through hatches in the walls, run them through a gauntlet of machines, and funnel the resulting pills, creams, and tinctures back out for a profit. Each ingredient has positive and negative effects that are activated at different concentrations, so your machines can raise, lower, and rescramble concentrations to make effective medicines.

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Cramming all the necessary machines and connecting conveyor belts into the space you have is your primary concern. You can research and unlock more efficient machines but you’re trading space efficiency for higher running costs, which must be weighed against the profit of the drug. These values in turn fluctuate with the cost of ingredients, the market demand for that cure, and any competitor companies in that market. This is the management layer I spoke of and while you can do well enough ignoring price fluctuations, more difficult scenarios and the Master-level goals require you to retool your operation based on the market, especially once patents come into play and companies start locking each other out of producing specific cures.

This additional layer of complexity may be unwelcome to those just trying to wrap their brains about their assembly lines. Cures can be upgraded to more valuable remedies by hitting specific concentrations with specific machines. This sometimes requires catalysts mixed in with special machines, which might also require re-arranging your chemical’s traits with yet another machine. All of these processes must then be crammed into limited space, and layout mistakes can be costly to undo. An efficient, profitable line is incredibly gratifying to put together, but it can be a difficult road to get there.

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You’ll have over three dozen scenarios to choose from, with goals ranging from make X dollars over Y years to deliver Z quantity of a specific drug. Regardless of your goals, the means will be similar, building assembly lines for simple drugs while you research the ingredients and tools to make more complex ones, and refactoring everything when you start to run out of space. New machines, upgrades, and rules may come into play in later scenarios, but never to particularly dramatic effect. It’s one of those games where you really have to love the core gameplay loop because it’s not going to deviate much from scenario to scenario.

The presentation is perfect for a puzzle game, with clear, colorful, cartoony shapes and pleasing animations for all your machines. I want to give special recognition to the sound effects, which reach Blizzard-levels of polish for how perfect and gratifying they are to hear. Machines make delightful buzzes and clanks, belts whirr along happily, and even the buttons have rich bleeps and bloops to them. It’s an excellent concept assembled and presented as well as anyone could expect, so the only question is how long you’ll care to stick with it. There’s not a lot of variety to building lines or running your company, but if you want to build Rube Goldbergian conveyors and tax your brain in turning a profit, you’ll find no end of content to keep you happy.

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