An incredible puzzle game that encourages experimentation over frustration.
Beating a level in Opus Magnum is just the beginning. Sure, I built a machine to assemble that level’s target product, but how do I make it better? How do I make that machine of pistons, moving arms, and base components cheaper, smaller, or more efficient? It’s questions like this that literally kept me up at night, and what makes Opus Magnum one of the most captivating puzzle games I’ve ever played.
It’s set in a stylish, pseudo-futuristic fantasy world where alchemy is a fundamental part of life and, with a little thought, devices can turn water to fuel, lead to gold, and a whole lot more. The machines you build move and shift with satisfying, mechanical clunks that help make the 2D art pop as they operate. That mix of science and magic reinforces the idea that anything is possible, but it’s going to take work to figure out how.
That takes some doing, because there’s no “correct” solution to anything. Every puzzle gives you an alchemical product to create and near-infinite freedom to build the machine that creates it. There’s no mandatory score target you have to hit, and no goal beyond creating a functioning machine, but that doesn’t mean Opus Magnum doesn’t challenge you. There are three criteria it keeps track of: How long it takes you to assemble the target product six times, how many hex tiles you take up while doing it, and how much all the machine parts you’ve used cost.
Different goals require completely different designs within the same level.
Frequently, those three qualities are in direct conflict with each other. Sometimes, going faster means spending more money, while building small often means moving slowly. So Opus Magnum becomes a game of careful optimization toward each of the tips of that triangle, with different goals requiring completely different designs within the same level.
Thankfully, you aren’t locked into only one strategy, as Opus Magnum lets you save and duplicate machines so you can play around and experiment with different solutions. It is an extremely useful feature because it meant I could safely test out new ideas without potentially ruining the work I had already done.
Despite the relatively straightforward goal of each level, Opus Magnum has a lot of different moving parts I had to learn to control. Placing and positioning each machine piece is only half of building a working assembly line, with the other half taking the form of programming those pieces to take set actions in perfect harmony with one another – moving, then letting go of an ingredient just as another arm gets ready to grab, and then move it somewhere else.
There are some handy keyboard shortcuts that speed up the programming once you get the hang of them, but the command timeline didn’t always behave how I expected it to. Sometimes pieces will repeat their commands while others are still going, but other times empty placeholders will be automatically added to keep each piece in sync. It generally didn’t take too much massaging to get a machine to behave how I wanted when it began acting up, but I still found myself wishing these interactions were better explained.
Anything You Can Build I Can Build Better
Through all the testing and refining and retesting, the main thing pushing me to find better solutions was my own genuine desire to do so – a desire created by the very natural way Opus Magnum promotes a sense of competition. Sure, I could half-heartedly slap together a big and ugly answer to most levels without too much challenge, but that wouldn’t earn me the satisfaction that a finely tuned piece of machinery generates.
After completing a level, you are presented with leaderboards based on the three criteria of speed, size, and cost. You can see the rough averages of what most people managed to hit for that puzzle in the form of a set of bar graphs, as well as specific bests for anyone on your friends list – there’s also an option to turn on the top scores in the world once you’ve beaten the campaign.
I would lay in bed at night building more efficient water machines in my head, then wake up early to test them.
This open information motivated me in a way I wasn’t expecting. Seeing that I hit the average on my size and cost, but was a bit slower than average on speed nearly always sent me right back into the puzzle I’d just completed to try and shave a few cycles off of my design.
One of the most incredible examples of this was a “water fight” that broke out with a few people I know on Twitter. Opus Magnum’s awesome GIF exporter makes it extremely easy to share solutions with friends, though they’re often taken as challenges. The very first level in Opus Magnum simply asks you to assemble a water molecule, but once solutions started being shared it became a race to see who could make a water-machine that ran faster than anyone else’s.
We pushed the bounds of the simplest level to their absolute limit. I started at over 40 cycles cycles, then dropped down to 28, then 21. I spent nearly an hour tinkering with my water machine before I managed to hit 16 cycles, only to proudly return to Twitter to see someone else had hit 15 with an inspired design I hadn’t even begun to consider. Again, this is just in the first level.
It was competitive puzzle solving in a way I’ve never seen before. There were so many different solutions to the same problem, and in the eyes of Opus Magnum not a single one of them was wrong. I’m not sure it’s possible to go faster than 15 on water, but what about making it cheaper, or smaller? I would genuinely lay in bed at night building more efficient water machines in my head, then spring up early in the morning to test them.
And while just passing a level isn’t too difficult with enough trial and error (the massive exception being the post-game bonus levels that restrict your workspace, which are incredibly hard) finding tricks to refine my solutions and compete on the leaderboards can be seriously challenging – especially as Opus Magnum’s later levels ramp up in complexity and scale. I started developing smaller machines I could plug into larger ones to build familiar patterns, but the endgame puzzles often cleverly pushed me out of those same comfort zones.
The wonderful thing about the way Opus Magnum challenged me is that it never ended up feeling frustrating. Because its solutions are so open-ended, to the point where there’s literally no way to even optimize to a “correct” answer, getting stumped on how to make something better always felt like my own fault. I never got angry, and usually just ended up more driven to find a better solution to some other part of my original machine.
Turning Lead Into Gold
That natural drive to improve my own creations was more than enough to push me through Opus Magnum’s campaign, replaying levels until I had my fill, though I did occasionally have a lingering desire to be given even the smallest target to shoot for. Even just a “par” for each criteria on a level would have been appreciated, but it also may have ended up changing my entire mindset while playing.
Even if the campaign isn’t too long, with just under 50 puzzles built in, its level editor and Steam Workshop integration meant I never ran out of new challenges to take on. Developer Zachtronics curates an in-game digest of the best user-made puzzles, but even looking past that there are some wonderful and creative levels made by the community that are extremely easy to download and play.
Opus Magnum’s campaign does have an overarching story as well, putting you in the shoes of a young alchemist who is unexpectedly thrown into the middle of a pair of feuding royal houses. Its set in a cool, near-future aristocratic setting, and though it’s written well, it’s definitely inconsequential to the puzzles themselves. On the bright side, it does a good job of being there if you are interested and staying out of the way if you aren’t.
What I did like about the story is how it thematically tied into the products each puzzle was making. For example, a level about creating rope would have a target product in a long, infinitely repeating chain, while one of about an emerald gem would look like the gem itself. Opus Magnum’s user-created digest, called The Journal of Alchemical Engineering, always highlights puzzles that similarly take the world into consideration, and it helps the alchemical lore feel like an integrated part of each puzzle instead of just a random skin pulled over everything.