Opus Magnum (2017)

While I love Zachtronics’ style of puzzle games, they are notoriously unapproachable. I struggle to recommend Zachtronics games to people because they are not traditional puzzle games, they are extremely difficult, and it is difficult for new players to learn the rules and mechanics of the games. SHENZHEN I/O for example includes a 30-page PDF manual that explains the programming language of the game, most people are going to see this and just skip the game thinking that it’s not worth the effort. While I love these games, I cannot fault anybody for not being interested in them. It seems to me that Opus Magnum is Zachtronics attempt to create a simpler, more traditional, and approachable puzzle game. It is the most beginner-friendly game of the Zachtronics line-up, and it does a phenomenal job at capturing what makes these games so engaging while also remaining accessible for new players.

Opus Magnum is all about alchemy. The game takes place in a fantasy-steampunk setting, and you use machines to combine and arrange different elements into new products. Each puzzle has a few starting “reagents”, which are some arrangement of colored orbs representing elements. You must place and give instructions to a set of machines to take these reagents and in some way assemble them to make a final “product”. This assembly may involve combining elements, decoupling compounds, or changing the reagent’s composition altogether. The series of mechanical arms and tracks that you place must repeat their actions ad infinitum, continuously changing the reagents into products.

There is a sort of mechanical satisfaction to be found when looking at the completed creations that the player devises. Every time I completed an objective, I would just sit and watch it run for a while. The concept of Opus Magnum helps it stand out from the other Zachtronics games, since it is easier to grasp what is happening at a glance. The rote mechanical creations of Opus Magnum are inherently satisfying. Moreover, the game’s simplicity makes it more approachable to newcomers. In SHENZHEN I/O, the player had to learn a programming language to play. Opus Magnum is comparably simple: move and combine the given colored orbs to form new shapes.

The beauty of Opus Magnum comes from its straightforwardness. Anybody could grasp what is happening. While the puzzles increase with complexity as the game progresses, the core concept of moving orbs around remains the same. There are quick tutorials to show the player the basics, and there are no restrictions when building a solution. You can place as many mechanical components that you want; you have infinite space to make your solution, and your solutions can be slow and inefficient so long as they get the job done. In every way, Opus Magnum is a perfect introduction to Zachtronics games.

There are two critical aspects that I enjoy in Zachtronics games: freedom and optimization. In most puzzle games there is an intended solution to every puzzle. Occasionally you can find an unintended technique that the developers missed, but for the most part the designers of puzzle games try to push the player to a specific answer. Zachtronics games on the other hand are all about creative freedom. You are given a set of starting resources and an end goal, that’s it. Whatever way you can turn the reagents into the product is acceptable. As a programmer, this emulates the process that I go through when trying to code something. I love thinking through the different methods or algorithms that I could use and testing my ideas.

Another aspect of Zachtronics games that mirrors real life programming is optimization. It’s one thing to get a working solution, but it’s an entirely new beast when making a “good” solution. The lead designer of Civilization IV, Soren Johnson, knew the dangers of optimization in games. “Given the opportunity, players will optimize the fun out of a game”. I find this idea to be unfortunately true. Many games are ruined by exploits or techniques that once discovered; the player will use repeatedly. The fun is drained away once you know the optimal methods of playing. Often times what is fun and what is optimal are at odds, but players tend to gravitate to doing what is optimal; it is just human nature. Zachtronics games tackles this issue by making optimization part of the core experience. It is the game.

In Opus Magnum there are three optimization categories: cost, cycles, and space. Each mechanical component you place has a cost, and your solution’s cost is the sum of all of its components’ costs. The game works in discrete time, each moment is an opportunity to move or rotate a component. Each moment is one “cycle”, and the game keeps track of the total cycles it takes for your solution to make a certain number of products. Lastly, the number of hexagons that your solution interacts with is the total space. Once your solution is complete, the game will show you a leaderboard histogram of the three categories, comparing how you did to others who played the game.

Opus Magnum and other Zachtronics games utilize human nature’s desire to be optimal. If you wanted to, you could play each puzzle four times, with entirely different solutions. Your first solution, a cost-efficient solution, a cycle-efficient solution, and a space-efficient solution are all going to be completely different. You certainly don’t have to replay each puzzle to get a perfect score in each category, I found it satisfying enough to try to make an overall “good” solution on my first try. I tried to balance all of the categories, and this inherent draw to make clean or efficient solutions is addicting. Furthermore, the more effective solutions are elegant and astounding to watch.

The simplicity of Opus Magnum is a double-edged sword. While it is perfect to ease new players into the genre, it will probably bore some veterans. It is possibly the easiest Zachtronics game, for better or worse. The concept of moving colored orbs around is simple to grasp, but I found it to get a little repetitive. While in SHENZHEN I/O I was making various electronics that required vastly differing algorithms, I felt like the puzzles in Opus Magnum all resolved to the same core concepts. I rarely felt like I was solving new problems, instead I was just rearranging the elements into different shapes.

What stands out the most about Opus Magnum compared to its predecessors is how unrestricted it is. In SHENZHEN I/O, each puzzle had a limited workspace, you couldn’t place as many components as you wanted. Moreover, each component had limited memory to fit instructions onto. The largest and most expensive part could only fit 14 lines of code onto it. You had to make your algorithms compact. Opus Magnum doesn’t have these restrictions. You have infinite money, time, and space. The game comes with its own set of challenges, like making sure that parts are synchronized and don’t collide with each other. But this just requires more testing than it does ingenuity.

Unfortunately, I felt that working out an initial solution was more a matter of persistence than it was intelligence. In previous games, a puzzle often times felt daunting or insurmountable. I often questioned how I could complete the task under the conditions. When I did eventually devise a working solution, I felt intelligent and clever. When working on a puzzle I often had to step away and just think about how I could even approach it. Many ideas were formulated when I was making sandwiches or taking a shower. I didn’t have this experience with Opus Magnum. With no restrictions, each puzzle is initially just a matter of brute force.

I didn’t need ingenuity or creative techniques, just the persistence to keep trying and adjusting. That gratifying feeling of “I did it” was mostly absent in my time with Opus Magnum. There were a few times that I made a particularly elegant solution, but other than that I wasn’t proud of my creations. The game doesn’t push the player to create sophisticated machines, it will accept any ugly or inefficient solution. Interestingly, there are puzzles in the post-game that have restricted space, but by then I had mostly had my fill of Opus Magnum.

Overall, I believe Opus Magnum to be the Zachtronics game for beginners. Its simplicity makes it far more approachable than its predecessors. It doesn’t have any restrictions, it has plenty of tutorials, and it is conceptually simple. But all of that comes at the cost of what may appeal to veteran players. I didn’t find myself having to ever think really hard, or come up with some ingenious solution. I found that rearranging the elements was only fun for so long, it lacked the complexity of previous titles. It is for these reasons I give Opus Magnum a 7.5/10. It’s a great game to get started in the Zachtronics anthology, but veterans may find it underwhelming.

Far Cry 4 (2014)

Every once in a while, I get an overwhelming urge to play a big open-world game. There is a sense of freedom that these games encourage: you can go anywhere and do anything. I saw Far Cry 4 sitting in my Steam library from some sale long ago, and I remembered playing Far Cry 3 back in high school and loving it. I decided to give Far Cry 4 a go, and I was promptly reminded why I am not a huge fan of Ubisoft’s brand of open-world games. They lack soul.


In Far Cry 4 you play as Ajay, an American on a journey to spread his mother’s ashes in her home country of Kyrat. This fictional country resides in the Himalayas, and is wrought with corruption, civil war, and strife. Ajay lands himself in the middle of a struggle between the Golden Path, a rebel group looking to overthrow the government, and Pagan Min, a ruthless dictator who uses his Royal Army to crush all opposition.

What stands out about any of Ubisoft’s games are their enormous open-worlds. Kyrat is vast, beautiful, and dense. As you travel through Kyrat, there are literally hundreds of activities to partake in. Some are quests, some are random encounters, some are collectibles, and some are tasks to gain control of Kyrat. As a first-person shooter intending to allow the player for a myriad of combat options, Far Cry 4 does a few things correctly. The game does not take itself too seriously, and it allows the player to feel like a powerful super-soldier. While this is at a disconnect from the story of being an average American with no combat experience, it does allow for quite a bit of fun as wreak havoc through the luscious countryside of Kyrat.


One of my favorite aspects of Far Cry 4 was that it has a knack for organically creating memorable moments in combat. Many first-person shooters fall into the pattern of hiding behind cover and taking out a couple of enemies when you pop your head up. Far Cry 4 is filled with bombastic and over-the-top scenes, and they don’t rely on pre-determined set pieces. Raining grenades on an enemy convoy from your gyrocopter, watching as single rhino annihilates an encampment, or riding on the back of an elephant to crash the gates of a general’s fortress, this game can spontaneously create some outrageous moments.

Despite the flashes of fun, I found Far Cry 4 got dull and repetitive quick. One of the causes of this is that the world is too dense, but many of the tasks are just repeats. There are hundreds of collectibles, but they are never interesting to find. There are tons of side-quests, but really there are only a few different types that end up being replicated over and over again. Wild animals and random encounters with enemies are frequent as you travel across Kyrat, constantly impeding you as you try to just go from point A to point B. You can make the argument that the player can simply ignore the side content if they aren’t interested in it, but that’s the whole purpose of an open-world game. When I play an open-world game, I want to experience the world and complete interesting quests, not do the same racing mini-game or free-the-hostages side quest over and over again. Outside of the main story, there are no characters or stories to be told. Just repetitive content to fill a giant world.


Moreover, you cannot simply ignore the side-content. You begin the game with a pitiful inventory size, so you need to hunt animals for their pelts. The game constantly bombards the player with random enemy encounters, so you need defeat outposts and fortresses to be able to safely across the map. The map itself is completely shrouded until you climb each radio tower to unveil a small portion. These activities can all be reasonably fun, but doing them twenty times each just kills enjoyment that could have been had. Sure, you could ignore it all, but it’s such a large chunk of the game’s content and feels almost necessary by design.

Despite being such a large world with opportunities for biodiversity, each area in the game feels identical to the last. It’s a hilly region with a lot of trees, and sometimes a river. That’s it. That is every area in the game. Even the landmarks and marked areas on the map are completely uninteresting. There may be caves, small buildings, or farms that are marked by the game to be explored, but there is genuinely nothing of substance here. Maybe there are some treasure chests with money, but I was swimming with cash despite never looking for it.


The world has no life to it. There are no interesting characters or storylines to be discovered. Everything in the game seems to be designed as a task to be checked off on big list. Go here, do this monotonous side quest, hunt 2 rhino, take down 100 propaganda posters. It’s content for the sake of being content. No soul, care, or interesting ideas found their way into this game. The only unique and intriguing areas in the game were reserved for the main story missions. But the actual explorable open world is just barren.

Possibly the biggest sin that Far Cry 4 commits is how derivative it is. It has been eight years since I played Far Cry 3, yet I was hit with a wave of déjà vu as I played Far Cry 4. It’s the exact same structure. An inexperienced American gets dropped into a conflict in a lush country. There is some psychopathic villain who seems somewhat empathetic towards you. You climb radio towers to unveil the map, you hunt the local fauna, you take over enemy settlements, you do some mundane sidequests, and you help a rebel group with questionable leadership take over the country. It every way, Far Cry 4 just feels like Far Cry 3 in a slightly different country. If you’ve played Far Cry 3, or almost any Ubisoft game for that matter, you’ve already experienced what Far Cry 4 has to offer.


Overall, I grew bored of Far Cry 4 remarkably quickly. After a couple of hours, you could legitimately experience almost everything the game has to offer. It’s forgettable, unoriginal, and dull. There are some fun moments to be had, but they are fleeting and buried under layers of monotony. Blowing stuff up with a grenade launcher can only take the game so far. Far Cry 4 is the video game equivalent of Wonder Bread; while it is not outright bad or offensive, there is nothing remarkable about it, it’s just boring.

Metro 2033 (2010)

I didn’t know what to expect when I booted up Metro 2033. I had a vague idea of what the game was about, but I was excited to try a cult classic. After playing Metro 2033, I can see why it has a niche appeal. The best way I can describe it is that the game is an unpolished gem. It has a rough exterior: a handful of bugs, some mechanical missteps, and a lack of polish. But with a little refinement, this could have been a truly phenomenal game. It harbors an engaging atmosphere, tense environment, and an immersive gameplay loop.


You play as a young man living under Moscow after a nuclear war. The metro stations under the city have become one of the last bastions of civilization. Each station serves as a community, and the tunnels connecting them are the lifeblood of the few remaining people on the planet. People have separated into different factions and humanity has descended into tribalism. The radiation has caused new life to evolve, and these new monstrous beings are threatening the few communities that are left. The main character is tasked with traveling through the metro to inform one of the main factions that the threat of monsters is rapidly escalating, and something must be done.

Metro 2033 is both a survival horror game and a first-person shooter. The game has a heavy emphasis on limited resources. Gas mask filters, ammunition, and med-kits are the primary tools that you are going to need to survive. Mask filters in particular are critical: if you spend time in an irradiated area you need to have a working gas mask. You cannot purchase extra filters outside of the first station in the game, so you are obligated to scrounge and scavenge to survive. This is when the game is at its best. Creeping through dark and claustrophobic environments, not knowing what awaits around the corner builds tension and anxiety. There is a desire to move quickly, as to not waste precious air on your current filter. But you also want to be vigilant to collect any ammo and filters that may be lying around.


The feeling of tension permeates Metro 2033. You want to be stealthy and avoid enemies as to not waste ammo and med-kits. But go too slow and you may run out of filters. There is a brilliant dynamic at play. The seesaw between preserving filters and preserving other resources is rarely balanced, and depending on your current state in the game you may favor one thing far more than the other. During the starting sections of the game I took my time, avoiding enemies like the plague as to not waste precious ammo. As the game progressed, I accrued a small arsenal of ammunition but I was running out of working mask filters. I started to move more quickly, making use of my scavenged ammo to dispatch foes rather than avoid them.

One of the best aspects of Metro 2033 is its immersive nature. The HUD is fairly minimalistic, and only appears when it needs to. The setting, despite being a bit sci-fi, feels grounded in reality. The subways beneath Moscow were genuinely designed to act as shelters during the Cold War. The fact that factions have sprouted and are vying for control of the metro feels realistic and prompts me to wonder more about the game’s world. The scarcity of mask filters, the importance of ammunition, and a few other mechanics also immersed me in the gameplay. Instead of having a menu to display objectives and important information, the character keeps a journal that keeps all of those details. Light also plays an important role in the game. While you have a flashlight at your disposal, it must be kept charged. If you don’t have an opportunity to recharge it then you can always rely on the lighter to illuminate a small area. Metro 2033 is just filled with these minor details, but combined they equate to a genuinely immersive experience.


I loved the atmosphere and world of Metro 2033, but I wanted way more of it. As you travel through the metro you rarely spend more than a brief moment at each station. There is very little to explore or interact with at these hubs of human activity. I wish I could converse with some of the NPCs at these locations to get a deeper understanding of the game’s world. I would’ve loved to learn the ideology and genesis of each station’s community. Yet instead they act as fleeting seconds of respite between the dingy and claustrophobic tunnels between them.

Despite this game having some great ideas, they are buried underneath some frustrating technical issues. One particularly insidious bug was one that would stop text and dialogue from displaying, or cut it off short. While it was annoying to miss flavorful conversations because of this glitch, it was far more irritating when it led to me missing critical information. There were four instances that the game never displayed info that it was supposed to. It never showed how to charge the flashlight, it didn’t have text to prompt the player to use the lighter to burn cobwebs, and it never displayed the information on gas mask filters and how to change them. After a quick google search all of these things were supposed to be in the game, but just never initiated for me for whatever reason. Interestingly I played the game on the ‘Redux’ version, which is supposed to be a remaster. I’m not sure if this version causes this bug, or if it was something present in the original.


This same glitch led to my most aggravated moment while playing. In one part of the game, a character is supposed to tell you information on a new enemy type and how to deal with them. This new monster apparently can be avoided by staring them down, after a few seconds they will back away. However, if you look away or shoot at this enemy, they will immediately go on a rampage. I never got this important bit of info. The conversation never triggered. So, I fought these enemies as I would any other enemy. But these foes have enormous health pools and kill the player in a single hit. I would legitimately empty hundreds of rounds of precious ammo to no avail. After brute forcing my way through this section, I found out how it was supposed to be played. It was disappointing because I actually now think that these were an interesting enemy. They build anxiety and tension as you stare them down. But my experience was marred by a bug in the game.

My final issue with the Metro 2033 is that the game occasionally drifts away from its strengths. Most of the game can be played as a stealthy scavenger, but there are moments that just devolved into standard FPS gameplay. Metro 2033 is at its best when it is tense, gritty, and anxiety inducing. But it turns into a generic FPS when having to partake in extended firefights. Luckily this didn’t happen too often, but there were enough examples of this that I have to talk about it. The game’s actual FPS mechanics are passable, but they certainly aren’t its strength.


Metro 2033 is a lovable mess. Sure, it has plenty of technical issues, an unfinished world, and a few mediocre sections. But it also fosters some genuinely immersive gameplay and world design. The game attempts to make the player feel like they actually are the main character. It’s odd how such minor and seemingly important things can make a game feel so much more genuine. The diary, lighter, mask filters, minimalistic HUD, and flashlight all seem like they are just minor things but they are critical to making Metro 2033 feel immersive and realistic. Despite the game being a bit messy in its execution, I did enjoy my time with Metro 2033 and I am excited to play its sequels.