We’re always looking for the next interesting thing as gamers, whether it be new mechanics or a blending of styles we haven’t seen before. This could be on account of two things. Firstly, we’re absolutely spoiled for choice; with so much coming at us all the time we find it difficult to nail ourselves down to something we’re really going to love. Secondly, we’re all becoming a bit jaded and it’s hard for us to find things that we haven’t seen before. Either way, this motivates development teams to constantly try new tactics and engineer new ways to wow us. When this works, marvelous things occur. Sadly, good intentions don’t always prove as fruitful as we’d like. This brings me neatly to this less than optimistic review of Pharmakon which you’ll be able to find over on Steam.
Let’s be fair. Nothing is ever all bad and redeeming features can be found in every title. Pharmakon has a few little glowing gems that give it an interesting allure. Let’s start with these as I don’t want to come across as trashing someone’s hard work. This is just a review after all, and while entirely my honest opinion, it isn’t intended to upset anyone. I’d really like to be optimistic and chirpy but sadly this is a game that while clearly trying to do something marvelous just doesn’t seem to be hitting the mark.
So what you have here is essentially a puzzle shooter. You take control of a drone and fit it with various Tetris-esque blocks. These blocks correspond to an elemental type and, depending on what you put in, reflect the amount of damage you can do to the various enemies you’re going to come across throughout the game. Each monster has it’s own elemental affinity; it’s a matter of hitting it with the right element to kill it the quickest. The blending of puzzle and shooter mechanics is actually something I haven’t seen that often so this is a definite plus.
Following this mode of thought, there is a fairly cool little mechanic whereby you can shove your enemies into each other. Different monsters will do varying amounts of damage to their allies depending on their size and element. I think the idea here is to get good enough to rack up killer combos and take multiple foes out more quickly. This is certainly something that would appeal to the high score fanatics among you.
As you are attacked (these things don’t just sit there and let you hit them), the drone is damaged and this is reflected by the blocks you have so carefully placed being ejected from your vehicle, which in turn means that you are doing less damage. Fires are also created which prevent you placing your blocks back until you have extinguished them. I don’t have an issue with this; it makes the puzzling a bit more exciting especially when you come to a point where you can’t put the fires out.
All this is well and good and I really like the theory behind Pharmakon. When this is put into practice, however, what we end up with is something that feels like it fell out of a vault from the early 90s. To begin with, the graphics are pretty basic. If this was just simply a block buster or other puzzle game with a very basic premise that would be fine, but the minute you add a story you start wanting to see something more than badly drawn monsters and pretty bleak looking backdrops.
The problem is that this is kind of all you do. You move from area to area blasting monsters and putting different combinations of blocks into your drone. There’s a skill tree involved and there are upgrades to unlock but to be honest, this doesn’t add any real level of excitement to the game. When you start adding things like upgrades and skills you really need to be adding them to a solid framework which in turn embellishes the overall enjoyment of the game. If that skeleton isn’t strong in the first place, then what should be other neat little additions feel like a bit more of an afterthought.
Sound is also on the minimal side. The effects are irritating at best and there is little to no music. It’s been a long time since I’ve turned the sound off on a game, not because I was listening to something else, but because it was giving me a headache. The little sound that the game does have is comprised of a series of annoying bleeps. I understand that sometimes things need to be minimalistic and I’m all for things not being over done. This, however, is more of a case of sometimes nothing at all is better that something that just doesn’t work.
Then we move to the story. You get a bit of this at the end of each level, but unfortunately there’s very little of interest happening. I could actually forgive the unbelievably basic look and feel of the game if the plot completely hooked me and drew me in, making me want to play further through story alone. Sadly. this aspect of the game couldn’t even save it for me.
All in all, this doesn’t feel like something that has been created by an experienced team of devs. If Pharmakon where a flash game, I’d have plenty of nice things to say about it because I wouldn’t be expecting as much from it; a lot of those games are created by novices, so I have a lot of love for people teaching themselves from scratch. If this where something I’d found in the free to play section of Steam, I could even be a bit more forgiving. Sadly, This is literally the sort of thing I download purely because it sounds interesting, play for five minutes then delete.
For me a game needs to pull the player in from the very beginning. Whether it be through clever mechanics or a really solid story, something has to hook you. I was interested for the first few rounds then it started feeling monotonous. This isn’t good. I hate that feeling in gaming. It has nothing to do with the game being too hard, or putting it down on account of a lack of understanding. I just need to want to continue and sadly I just didn’t here. As always this is my opinion you may find something in Pharmakon that I just couldn’t see.
I honestly want to have nice things to say about Pharmakon. I know I’ve been immensely brutal but I really can’t find that many redeeming points to make. There is a good little idea there which is screaming to get out but honestly, if you’re a puzzle addict like I am, there are a ton of other games on the market that I’d suggest playing before mentioning this one.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.