Review: Opus Magnum (Computer)

Reviewed by Taleweaver, posted Dec 28, 2018, last updated Dec 29, 2018
Dec 28, 2018
  • Release Date (NA): December 8, 2017
  • Release Date (EU): December 8, 2017
  • Publisher: Zachtronics
  • Developer: Zachtronics
  • Genres: Puzzle, Programming
  • ESRB Rating: Everyone 10 and up
  • PEGI Rating: Twelve years and older
  • Single player
    Local Multiplayer
    Online Multiplayer
Most puzzle games have a logical reasoning hidden within the (few) given mechanics, waiting for you to discover it. This is one of the minority 'other' kind: the kind where you're given a bunch of tools and are tasked to build an increasingly complex structure or machine with it. Factorio is probably the most known example. This review, however, is about a gem I've recently discovered that handles the manipulation of atoms...

Before we get to Opus Magnum, I have to point out that this is a Zachtronics game. Because open ended puzzle games are somewhat a niche market and this indie studio specializes in it, they're almost coining the game genre for themselves. And from what I've played, I consider Opus Magnum the best entry in the field. In this game, you play as an alchemist in a powerful house and fulfill missions regarding enhancements of matters. At least: that's the description. In reality, you start with an empty hexagonal board on which you place atoms (represented by marbles), mechanical arms, girders, glyphs that transform atoms and other parts that let you join or split adjacent atoms. Your goal is to place everything and program the mechanical arms so that the atoms get joined, split and/or transformed in the way that the outcome requires. You beat the level when you've created a machine that can output six or more units. Meaning: your goal isn't so much to create the outcome, but really to automate the production that leads to that outcome.

You can consider Opus Magnum as combining the best parts of spacechem and infinifactory. It takes the 2D plane and arrangements of spacechem with the beautiful aesthetics and freedom of placement of infinifactory. In other words: this game is what spacechem could have been. I mean...take a look at the gif's I've included in this review. Building and programming that is what this game is all about. You have arms that pick up atoms at just the right time, move them over a plate that'll transform them, join them with another atom at just the correct angle, and drop them directly where they need to be. And the individual instructions for each unit isn't hard at all. Right from the tutorial, you'll be given access to almost all elements you'll need in the game (with just the input atoms and output solution being different in each level). All instructions to extend, retract, rotate, grab and drop what's underneath the arm are given from the first real level. And once you understand all that (which is probably after completing a few levels), the game looks almost easy. In theory, that is.

Damnit, how dit THAT happen?

Opus Magnum can rightfully be described as a programming game. It teaches you how to program movements, but that's not where the challenge is. I've said it: the individual instructions are pretty straightforward. The challenge tends to be the designing aspect. If you don't plan, place and time carefully, it comes back to bite you in the ass. In fact: it will probably come back to bite you even if you DO plan, place and time carefully. Moving atoms around is one thing, but pretty soon you're going to have to move joined atoms around. The arms don't get in each other's way, but atoms may never collide with each other or with the arms' base, and you can't pull them in different directions either. Slowly but steadily, your task becomes being a conductor, carefully tuning the choreography of each moving part. This all needs to be done accurately and well timed, because if not, things WILL collide at some point. Remember: you need to produce six units; even if your first cycle worked, everything need to be back at its starting point or things go wrong in some pretty unexpected ways. From a spectator's perspective, things can go wrong in pretty hilarious ways, but as a participant you better get used to hearing yourself shout "no! NO! Do not do THAT!!!" at your monitor. Yup...this is THAT kind of game.

Screenshot from 2018-12-02 08-52-05. Opus Magnum - Face Powder (2018-11-24-10-38-07). Screenshot from 2018-12-02 09-29-22.

Let me be clear on this: this is a very nerdy game. It most certainly isn't a game for everyone, but it shouldn't have to be. In regular puzzle games, you often dismiss the solution as soon as you reach the next level. In this game, making "a working engine" is usually just the starting point. Why? Because once you have produced six units, it shows you three scores:
* Cost. Each unit has a cost assigned to it. While you're not on a budget, the game keeps track of what you place on the board. As such, a machine that can produce the same end result with fewer and/or cheaper parts is consider 'better'.
* Area. Each component you place and each part where atoms are moved over are considered areas. A wide area is better to avoid collisions, but here as well: the more compact you make it, the better.
* Time. Each assigned task is performed in one 'unit' of time (eg: picking up an atom, rotating it twice, extending the arm and then dropping equals five units of time). How much of these time units are needed to create six output units?

The thing that Zachtronics does in most if not all their games: they compare your scores against the internet. Meaning: it basically tells you that SOMEONE ON THE INTERNET BUILT A BETTER MACHINE!!! Of course, this aggression will not stand! The result is that more often than not, I dive right back into my creation and really start pondering how I can reduce these factors while maintaining the output. Luckily, the game also allows you to create multiple solutions, as well as a gif of the output. Then again, the latter isn't much of an advantage when your friend uses it to mail a more elegant machine than yours, thus rubbing in his intellectual superiority. ;-)

The story

With all this engine-building, you'd almost forget that there is a sort of story going on. And I have to be honest: it's fitting, but nothing exceptional. While playing the game, the times you're occupied with the story is around five percent. That isn't to say that it's a bad story in any way. It's just sort of there. You play as the young and arrogant alchemist Anataeus Vaya, who is tasked by various others to create or enhance stuff. He's accompanied by assistant Concordia Lem, but both of them are really only there to give some artificial meaning to the puzzles. You create gold from lead, enhance rope, and (apparently very important in battle) design a strong hair gel. But all of this is very abstract: all you have are still images, text dialogue and the gameplay that doesn't reflect the situation at all ("oh, no...the mighty and noble house Colvan is about to fall to the devious and treacherous house Iforgotitsnameium...better spend half an hour creating an engine that combines marbles together in a wiggly shape, and then another half an hour perfecting its output!"). Again: it's not a bad story, but it's not Hugo Award-material.

Screenshot from 2018-12-02 08-50-50. Screenshot from 2018-12-02 08-51-21. Opus Magnum - Waterproof Sealant (2018-11-24-10-46-09).

In terms of aesthetics, however, Opus magnum does a lot of things right. Saying this is a steampunk game is almost an understatement: the setting is modern ancient London, people are named and dressed Victorian-style, electricity is something that just exists for mechanical purpose and the theme revolves around alchemy. And that too is an improvement over spacechem. That tried to tangentially educate you on the structure of atoms and molecules during an alien attack. Nothing wrong with that, but Opus Magnum reduces it to just the cool stuff from Mendeleev's table: water, earth, wind, fire can be transmuted into salt, if you add enough quicksilver to lead it'll transform into tin, iron, copper, silver and finally gold, and in later stages Vitae and Mors are added in the mix for some extra nerdgasms. What's that? Half of these things are not on the periodic's table? Okay...yeah. Well in THIS alternative universe, these are the building blocks of the universe. Deal with it!

Closing thoughts

It's probably important to tell that this game has a high difficulty curve. I'm nearing the end, and I can say that the difficulty just keeps steadily ramping up. But the increased complexity of the designs doesn't translate in a more puzzled gamer. More than even other puzzle games, opus magnum assumes you learn from previous puzzles. The first time I had to make a sort of 'flower', where one atom was completely embedded in others, I had no idea how to achieve it and went about it in a (on hindsight) rather stupid way. Then I learned a much easier way. And that part of the solution helped tremendously in a later puzzle where a more complex version of this shape was requested.

I can't stress enough how different this "open ended" game is from the more traditional puzzles. I've come back to (admitted: more simple) puzzles and designed a solution in a completely different fashion than the first time. And if you look online, you can find pretty bizarre machinations that somehow still work. But this is all a good thing: all of this triggers and expands your spatial thinking. And how's that a bad idea? :-)

Opus Magnum - Hangover Cure (2018-11-24-16-23-40). Opus Magnum - Health Tonic (2018-11-24-17-00-59).
+ A very high "one more go" factor
+ Your imagination is the limit
+ Very high replayability
- Story is mostly just a placeholder
6 Presentation
It looks okay for an indie game. It lacks a lot in terms of visual eye candy. The aesthetics are okay (meaning: what is there fits and isn't ugly), but all in all: this isn't a game you pick up for its looks.
10 Gameplay
This is where the game really shines. It's insanely addicting, and since the end result is something you work toward, it can feel immensely satisfying to see it in action.
8 Lasting Appeal
Unlike most puzzle games, the challenge is really what you set out for yourself. Cost, area and time are three factors you can improve, but often not all at the same time. That, and the open nature means that you can tackle the same puzzle in an infinite amount of ways.
out of 10
Overall (not an average)
Opus magnum is in no way a game for everyone, so don't get the score fool you. If this isn't your thing, you'll probably rate it around 6 or 7 (probably with a "too frustrating" opinion), whereas guys like me really want to award it a 9 or higher. I settle for an 8 to avoid the first group getting mad at me, but really: it's one that should be on your radar.