Opus Magnum’s alchemy machines are gorgeous


I am raising my head from the alchemy desk to tell you: Opus Magnum is out now and it is good. It’s the new puzzle game from Zachtronics which crept up on us this week. This studio’s puzzlers have a definite flavour to them. They’re about fiddling with machines, hacking together a solution out of strange gadgets and mental duct tape before revealing a loudly-ticking device and feeling impossibly proud of yourself. This is no different, except that your end results are flipping gorgeous.

First, just look at some of these machines.

The game lets you record a GIF of your solution, once finished. I stole all these from gamemaker Tom Smith, but it’s easy to see why he feels proud of these clockwork cuties.

Don’t even try to understand them for now. Just enjoy the beauty of their regularity.

They are hypnotic, looping contraptions with style and purpose.

Function meets form.

OK, not that one. That’s me trying to make an “owl”.

There’s usually a storyline to Zachtronics games. This time you’re an alchemist (and a haughty, smart-arse one at that). You build transmutation engines on a hex-based grid using mechanical arms, pistons, tracks, and so on, bonding atoms of salt and water together to make new alchemical products and pooping them out at the end of it all. Atoms can’t collide and some components will get in the way of others. You need to make the right size, shape and combo of atoms, then rotate and shift the molecule around until it’s where it needs to be.

There are other types of atom, of course, but I don’t know what they are yet, because I have spent 2 hours on the first proper puzzle. I don’t mean that it has taken me 2 hours to solve the puzzle – that takes a few minutes. I mean I spent two hours toying with the first puzzle. I was so taken with the freedom of the engineering tools that I just kept trying to reinvent a simple water-making gizmo. “How do I make this more efficient?” I asked myself. “How do I make it faster? How do I make it more ridiculously elaborate?”

It’s a familiar feeling if you’ve played Shenzhen I/O, Infinifactory, SpaceChem (there’s a reason Alice refers to them as Zachlikes) and possibly even The Codex of Alchemical Engineering – the old flash game this is based upon. A leaderboard showing both the global statistics and the scores of your friends pushes you to revise your solutions almost immediately. How did my friend Dan make a glorified water-cooler in just 25 cycles!? I cannot tell you, I’ve lost the GIF he sent me depicting the solution. But I remember remarking that it was obscene.

It’s in early access and I’m still in the opening chapter, so I don’t know how much of the game is present and accounted for. I would be satisfied if it was only the first handful of puzzles. Not sated, but satisfied. It also feels like a good entry point for anyone toying with the idea of Zaching around. Visually, it’s a lot more understandable than say TIS-100. There’s no language you have to learn, save for the symbols used to give the machine parts their commands. And these are all rooted in some physical movement, not abstract mathematics. A piston’s arm reaching out for an orb-like atom of white salt, not a “dat” moving numbers to an “acc”.

I’m going to crack on with my alchemy studies. But know that if you’re not already a Zachist, this might be the best time to become one. It’s on Steam for £15.49 .


  1. Dominic Tarason says:

    I’m nearly done with the first chapter myself, and it’s a lovely thing. I feel it combines all the best elements of The Codex of Alchemical Engineering, Spacechem and Infinifactory into a delightfully tactile clockwork whole, with a nice atmosphere and even some story.

    Plus, it has full Steam Workshop support already, and Zach has promised to take the very best player-made challenges and publish them regularly in-game as The Journal of Alchemical Engineering.

    Very glad I picked this one up.

    I think this may well become my favourite of Zach’s games. But if not, then Infinifactory will remain top dog. Either way, it’ll be close.

    What I’m saying is ‘Play Infinifactory too’. It’s a similar yet very different game.

    • Merry says:

      Why does Dominic Tarason get a pink escalated comment here? I was hoping that I would read what Brendan Caldwell had to say independently, without any highlighted addendum that displayed the thoughts of other privileged people who agreed with him.

      Either way, I hoped that fellow journalists wouldn’t be escalated to the pink status. It is this sort of thing that makes me worried about the absorption of RPS into Eurogamer. Is this the sort of thing that we should expect?

      • Malcolm says:

        U wot? RPS scribes have had pink comments for years.

      • Dominic Tarason says:

        I do apologise. Treat it as you would any other comment. It’s just a terrible, publicly scarring side-effect of me being an RPS regular writer now.

      • Sarfrin says:

        My goodness, I wish you’d levelled this unbelievably trivial complaint at one of John’s articles.

  2. MajorLag says:

    Doesn’t everybody call them Zachlikes now? If not, they should.

    • ScottTFrazer says:

      I would suggest that actual Zachtronic games shouldn’t be called zachlikes, as they are actual zachthings.

      Human Resource Machine, Silicon Zeros, Mind-machine Interface are examples of zachlikes

  3. c-Row says:

    It’s sad that watching those puzzles makes me feel to dumb to actually understand how to play this – it’s the same reason I skipped Spacechem despite all the positive talk about it. Any word of a planned demo to try out? I tried the Flash thingie but Control and Shift do nothing for me, so either it’s broken in my browser or I am as dumb as I feared.

    • Xocrates says:

      Honestly, the puzzles look a lot more complex than they actually are. Most of the solutions above are fairly straightforward, if you don’t understand them it’s not because you’re dumb, it’s because you don’t know the rules or what they’re trying to achieve.

      • Jekadu says:

        This. It’s usually pretty straightforward what you need to do–you just need to figure out how to translate it into the game’s “language” without getting confused.

      • Xocrates says:

        Heck, take this:
        link to imgur.com

        This was me essentially brute forcing a level. It’s expensive and cumbersome (though surprisingly efficient) and looks incredibly complex, but it’s mostly just doing a sequence of small obvious steps.

  4. Premium User Badge

    anotheryeti says:

    Finished the game this morning, definitely a full game at the moment. About as much puzzling as Infinifactory or Shenzhen at release. Excited to see how much gets added.

  5. mukuste says:

    He’s churning these games out at an incredible pace. What a productive guy.

  6. k47 says:

    I’m really tempted to buy it now, but I’ve still never finished Spacechem (left it midway about 3 times) and Infinifactory (left it at the last level I shamefully couldn’t beat for a week then abandoned it).

    Right now I’m back at Infinifactory completing the game again trying to get to the last level, and hopefully beating it. Then I’ll get Opus Magnum.

    • Jekadu says:

      I only ever beat SpaceChem, personally. The rest I play until each puzzle becomes more like work than play in terms of energy and time invested, at which point I lose interest.

      Still intend to finish them all up one day.

    • Premium User Badge

      phuzz says:

      I loved SapceChem, but I never got anywhere near beating it.
      I gave up when I found myself spending all evening on a puzzle and not really getting anywhere nearer completing it, despite making steady progress.
      Basically, when my time to complete a single level went over the multiple hour mark I just stopped having fun.

  7. teije says:

    I like his games a lot but am so bad at them it’s pathetic (and somehow still consider myself smart…). This one looks like the best yet, will pick it up until my brain starts to ache.

  8. Merry says:

    I love to like things like this: a feeling of “programming” and
    an abstraction that Zachtronics has put in place since the various Spacechems.

    But every one of them has descended quickly into repetitive work.

    The idea of programming a system grabbed me, as that is my profession, but too soon I became a part of the system with a part to play but nothing to enjoy.

    Opus Magnum is a clicker game like Infinifactory. It is very pretty, but there are no thrills beyond the experience of a new idea at the start.

  9. conronc says:

    I think one of the defining features of Zachlikes (or at least the subset I’ve played, Spacechem, Infinifactory, Opus Magnum) is that a general solution usually isn’t too difficult but an efficient solution is very, very hard.

    Too many puzzles I’ve completed in IF only to see that I was behind the ‘average’ minimum time/cost curves which drove me to spend extra hours optimizing the solution – which was where the real sense of accomplishment came from. And then you beat the average and the best value is so close but those last few cycles are impossible to find…

    So the puzzles are accessible but carry their own impossible difficulty curve. I think that’s really neat.

  10. M0dusPwnens says:

    The way it scores and displays the scores really is sheer brilliance.

    The histograms are great and the friend scores are great, but what really makes it is having three separate scores without privileging any of them.

    I finished a puzzle earlier tonight and I have no earthly idea how my friend did it in one less tile. If that were the only score, I would be bothered. But I beat him on cycles and on part cost, so I felt good about moving on. After all, I’m almost sure it’s impossible to use fewer tiles without sacrificing speed or cost.

    What this means is that I still get all the fun of competing to optimize my solutions (and sometimes I’m ahead of the curve on all three, and that feels great!), but at the same time I don’t have to obsess about meeting or exceeding my friends’ solutions. If they did it in fewer tiles and I did it in fewer cycles we can both feel good about it.

    And if I do want to optimize, I can pick a category and really go for it or I can try the even harder task of trying to see how well I can optimize all three at once.

    I hope other puzzle developers are watching.

  11. ZigomatiX says:

    Never figured out some of the more complex puzzles in SpaceChem, mainly because i kept forgetting about some rules or mechanics/tools available. But even with this quirk, Opus Magnum feels way more accessible, and shinier too. It even looks like one can never use some of the gadgets and still complete puzzles (albeit with subpar efficiency).
    On another note, I tend to keep PC gaming time for more “advanced” games or multiplayer, so I’m really hoping for a mobile version. Picking it up from time to time and tweaking machines was pretty fun in mobile SpaceChem.
    Even the matching minigame (Sigward’s Gardens?) would make for an excellent mobile time waster.