4 of The Best 2017: Opus Magnum

I haven’t finished Opus Magnum. When I play most games I finish them quickly if I like them; with Opus Magnum I love it too much to move on. Opus Magnum is a puzzle game. You build machines that combine, transport and transmute elements to solve problems. In most puzzle games, I finish a puzzle and move on to the next, so I can see the challenge and start thinking. Opus Magnum’s changed that. Every machine that does its job can be made more efficient. It can work more quickly using less space and fewer parts. It took about ten minutes to solve the game’s first simple puzzle, Stabilized Water, but since I completed it I’ve returned three times with ideas about how it can be modified and made more elegant. Opus Magnum’s made me play differently, and that’s remarkable.

In Opus Magnum, you’re an alchemist working for a noble house. The lord and his family have products they want created: machine oil, rocket propellant, and hangover cures among them. When you select a puzzle, you’re there’s brief conversation between the alchemist and other characters contextualizing the puzzle. When you’re making a stamina potion, the alchemist explains to a servant that he’s been told to make a potion that will help the lord’s son produce an heir by giving him ‘a little boost at the necessary time.’ It’s is a surprisingly well-written game. The dialogue isn’t astounding, but it is well-judged: it’s clear Zachtronics, the game’s developer, understands that the game’s attraction is the puzzles. As such, the conversations are often funny, there’s little fantasy terminology, and they are, critically, short.

When the puzzle begins, you’re looking at a hex grid with a panel on the left showing your reagents, products and tools. In the Face Powder puzzle you have a reagent tile that dispenses earth atoms and the product you want to create is an earth joined to an atom of salt. To solve the puzzle, you’re going to need to create salt, bond it to earth and move it to the product tile to finish. It’s not enough just to make a machine that works once, then fail. To finish the puzzle you’ve got to make a machine that can produce the product endlessly. When you place the reagent, it’ll supply earth atoms as often as you want, but to turn it into a salt atom, you have to pass it through a special tile. It’s a game where a .gif is worth a thousand words, so you can see my solution below:

It’s possible to better this solution. There’s certainly a way to more efficiently use the arm on top to deliver the necessary atom to the Glyph of Bonding without the extra arm on the left. Face Powder is one of the game’s very early puzzles, and with the experience of many more puzzles I wouldn’t make my machine the same way again. The magic of Opus Magnum is that it’s not terribly challenging to make a working solution to a problem, but usually that’s only the beginning of a process of refinement. Just before I recorded this .gif I noticed the product was positioned wrongly, so the final arm had to swing further to place the Face Powder.

When you complete a puzzle in Opus Magnum, the game presents you with graphs showing how cheaply and quickly other players did the puzzle, as well as how much space they used. I’ve no aspirations to be the best at any of these puzzles: Zachtronics makes very clever games which attract players smarter than me. Still, showing just how close you are to being under the average for speed, space, and expenditure is enough to make me hit the continue editing button and tweak my solution long after I’ve technically finished the puzzle.

Opus Magnum also allows players to make their own puzzles and upload them to the Steam Workshop. Many of these will be too hard for me to complete, but it’s still marvellous to see such a bright future for a game which already feels extremely robust and polished. I’m looking forward to finishing it, of course, but I’m also looking forward to going through the catalogue of puzzles I’ve completed and making every machine better. Opus Magnum is probably my favourite puzzle game, and it’s certainly one of the best games released in 2017.