It’s easy to draw parallels between Zachtronics‘ latest game Opus Magnum and their earlier SpaceChem. Both task the player with taking a set of inputs—molecules in SpaceChem and elements in Opus Magnum—which they then combine together in various ways to produce the required outputs. However, Opus Magnum expands on that formula (no pun intended) to deliver an experience that feels significantly different and, in my opinion, the better of the two.
In Opus Magnum you play the part of a young alchemist, Anataeus Vaya, graduating from the College of Alchemical Engineering at the end of the tutorial levels and quickly obtaining a privileged position as Head Alchemist of House Van Tassen. There are dialogue sections at the start and end of each level that set the scene and develop the story of the protagonist and the other characters he interacts with. The game isn’t attempting to be a visual novel though and these sections are relatively short. The gameplay consists of using glyphs and programmable arms to move, combine, split, and transmute elements in order to produce a substance required by the story. Other than being provided the inputs and required outputs, the player is largely left to solve the levels however they wish.
There are three obvious differences compared to SpaceChem when you start playing. First, the building area extends in all directions with the ability to pan the camera around it at will. Second, you can place the inputs and outputs in any position and orientation you feel like. Third, you program the arms by placing instructions on a timeline below the building area. These are a major departure from SpaceChem, giving a much more open-ended feel to the puzzles as well as encouraging experimentation and optimisation for players that enjoy that aspect.
In terms of combining the inputs to create the outputs you can certainly spot similar mechanics to SpaceChem. The game provides the player with a number of glyphs that perform particular functions, including joining and splitting apart elements or transmuting them with the use of other sacrificial elements. Grabber arms and tracks are used to move elements around in place of the waldos and arrow instructions in SpaceChem. I found the arms, with their associated program timelines, to be much more intuitive to use than SpaceChem’s waldos, and the sight of a dozen of them moving in perfect synchronisation to form an element assembly line is very satisfying.
A big draw of the game is optimising your creations. Opus Magnum rates you on playing area used, the number of cycles (the time to execute one instruction) required to complete the puzzle, and the cost of the various items used. Typically, amongst my circle at least, players will focus on cycles, aiming to create the outputs as fast as possible. There is a certain satisfaction in solving a level in this way, though it can easily lead to hours of obsessing over how someone on your friends list managed to save an extra two cycles. Optimising for cost, on the other hand, is not as popular but does lead to some interesting minimalistic designs. Compared to the frantic assembly line approach for speed optimisation, cost optimal solutions can have an almost zen quality as each action is carefully performed before moving on to the next.
Once you’ve optimised to your heart’s content, a small but important feature of Opus Magnum is the ability to export a GIF of your alchemical machinery working. This works especially well because the design of the game requires your creations to loop perfectly, meaning that a looping GIF can be created that also loops perfectly. These GIFs can then be uploaded to social media sites such as Twitter to very quickly and easily show off the fruits of your labour. It’s a great way to show off your skills, your inventiveness, or a really wacky design you had fun with, but also distils the essence of the game in a form that can catch other potential players’ interest. In short, everyone wins.
Finally, when you’ve had enough of building transmutation machines there is an additional game that unlocks during the first set of non-tutorial levels. This game, called Sigmar’s Garden, is a cross between Peg solitaire and Mahjong solitaire. The goal is to match pairs of elements in order to remove them all from the board. However, an element can only be selected if it has at least three contiguous empty spaces around it. I found Sigmar’s Garden to be a nice game to wind down from a round of heavy optimising and I like to see these cases of in-universe games being playable.
To draw to a conclusion, Opus Magnum is a game that is accessible for most players because it imposes very few restrictions or requirements on the designs. There are no hard limits on what you build as long as it gives the right result. That said, it is definitely geared towards the sort of person that enjoys optimising their designs and competing against other people in their friends group. If you enjoyed SpaceChem then this seems like a natural game to try out. If you found the mechanics in SpaceChem too restrictive then maybe Opus Magnum will give you the freedom you wanted. Overall, in my opinion, it is a worthy successor and shows that Zachtronics is still able to deliver quality games in their niche.