Arcsmith from Bithell Games can best be described as a narrative-driven sci-fi puzzle adventure in VR, and it’s currently exclusive to the Oculus Quest. In it, you’ll meet an alien called Korith Dinn, with whom you’ll traverse an epic story of intergalactic proportions after things start out very calmly.
Dinn is an arcsmith, and over the course of the game he’ll teach you all about the tools of the trade. The trade of arcsmith? That roughly translates to ‘sci-fi tinkerer’, or space engineer. Korith Dinn brings quite a bit of history with him, and this helps the game by serving as part of the narrative that plays out in between puzzles, with a well-written story that does more than provide commentary on the here and now and doesn’t shy away from the bigger topics in Dinn’s life.
Gameplay-wise, Arcsmith features about two dozen puzzles in which you assemble small machines out of individual parts that are shaped like small blocks that connect to one another. Different blocks do different things, and they all have their effect on the machine you’re building. You might end up with a machine that runs too hot, or is underpowered, and an understanding of what each block does and where to place them is gradually laid out for you to help you solve these dilemmas.
This seems like a very abstract concept, but Arcsmith’s puzzles often tie into the narrative in very direct ways. Early on, you’ll build a radio, which you’ll need to communicate, and other machines also serve their purpose, so you’re constantly engaged with the narrative even if the puzzles are the main draw for you. The puzzles increase in complexity over time though, so after an hour you’ll be firmly focused on the engineering job you have ahead of you, figuring out how to balance the various mechanics so that you end up with a working solution.
New mechanics are introduced over the course of the campaign, forcing you to rethink what you thought you knew about energy sources and how to deal with them. Not everything is fully explained though, which can result in a bit of trial and error – especially later on in the campaign. Here, it would have been good if the game chimed in with subtle hints whenever I was trying something that wasn’t right – even if it was just to tell me why it wasn’t working – leaving me to figure out what would actually work.
Some of that mild frustration comes from some of the later machines being very complex in nature, with tons of parts. If one part breaks down (overheats), then it can be tricky to reverse engineer where it went wrong if it’s not immediately clear. And even if you do know where you went wrong, manipulating individual pieces of a near-finished machine can be quite finicky in terms of the controls.
As with previous Bithell Games productions, the gameplay design is excellent, and so is the storytelling, so we’re hoping those little annoyances can be addressed in a patch so that the experience is completely seamless in the future. When that happens, this is a must-have Quest title with a solid gameplay core and a lovely narrative presentation.