Big Pharma Review
On the face of it Big Pharma seems like a two decade late expansion to the beloved Bulldog classic Theme Hospital, stretching that lovable shining isometric viewpoint over to the drugs companies behind the medicine. Instead of leading a hospital to become the cleanest, healthiest and most importantly financially successful institution in the country, you must turn your drugs factory into the most efficient system possible, turning natural products into expensive cures with the biggest cut going to you.
Only on closer inspection Big Pharma turns out to be almost nothing like its aging simulation ancestors, but rather a problem-solving game - a cross between basic arithmetic and spatial awareness - wrapped in a rather weak and superfluous layer of money management. Arguably more SpaceChem than Theme Hospital, but unfortunately this weak mixture of components fails to meet the ingenious logical headfuck of the former and the undeniable charm the latter.
A rigorous but text-heavy tutorial explains the basics behind the puzzles, teaching you how running ingredients through various machines changes the concentration of the solution with the goal of reaching a specific numerical concentration. Since most concoctions contain benefits (such as removing warts for example) and negative side effects (perhaps counterproductively inflaming skin) each becoming active at different ranges of concentrations, often the plan is to hit a number that provides the cure without the issues. Sometimes that seems impossible since the values can overlap, but like the despicable corporate giant you are, you can still ship the drug.
Concoctions are rated on their effectiveness at treating a given disease and whether it causes any issues. You receive more money per sale if its a better drug, so it may be worthwhile tinkering that production line. Benefits and cures can be improved and Side effects can often be removed with certain machines at specific concentrations, but sometimes they require specific catalysts to complete and these have to be mixed in from separate ingredients. All of this requires a huge host of machines and often creates an extremely complicated room of machines wrapped around each other and conveyer belts twisting in between.
At first the whole process seems rather complex and the early solutions are satisfying, but it quickly dawns on the player that past that initial difficulty hump there is very little else. Unlike the beautiful and exquisite logical designs of Zachtronics’ games (SpaceChem and Infinifactory), it all boils down to simple arithmetic - there are no logic machines to really stretch the mind. The biggest problem the player faces is often that of space, since machines have specific shapes with different input and output areas, slotting the necessary tools together feels like a static game of Tetris. This issue is compounded further by the fact that mistakes in placing machines and belts cannot be undone, and you lose half your investment with each blunder. Without an undo button or some form of design mode, the player has to really think through the solution in their head (or sometimes on paper for harder problems) before proceeding. Perhaps this stretches the mental challenge of the game but it seems rather unnecessary.
Which brings us to the biggest issue with Big Pharma: making money. The game’s second half is that of a management simulation. The player must be constantly balancing the books to enable them to purchase more land and machines as well as pay the wages of scientists and explorers that invent new machines and discover new ingredients. It’s not that it is hard to make money - that is simply the case of building more and more production lines that produce valuable drugs without too much processing costs - it is more that when you run out of money (and loans to take after that) there is simply nothing to do. Assuming your processing is profitable you have to simply wait until you have enough money to build more machines and make more money. Ordinarily this is all part and parcel of a management sim, but usually there is something to do or see while you wait. One could spend hours watching those punters run around the park in Rollercoaster Tycoon, or you could do some micro-management or even shoot rats in Theme Hospital, but in Big Pharma there is not a single distraction, event or otherwise that takes the attention of the player while they wait. Out of money? You may as well go make a cup of tea and come back in a few minutes.
The mission objectives of each level (all of which are available from the beginning) often seem rather mundane and sometimes undermine the puzzling principles of the game itself. For example a few missions task the player with creating as many level two cures as possible in a set period. Second level drugs are relatively simplistic and only require a single upgrade so in this case your production line is extremely short, uninventive and rather dull to create and yet you’re being forced to create it since each level only has one set of objectives.
The most enjoyable time we’ve had in Big Pharma is in the free build mode. Free of the rather messy and unenjoyable chains that hold the game back, you’re suddenly able to create the complicated logistical contortions of your dreams. Want to create the ultimate dream pill? A vaccine for cancer, cure HIV, Alzheimer's, Tuberculosis and a male contraceptive all-in-one super drug without any side-effects? Can it be done? In free build mode you can find out. Free of the shackles of costly pointless mistakes and not having to research the necessary machines or ingredients makes the game feel more relaxing, enjoyable and begin to actually make sense.
And that’s the issue with Big Pharma, it tries to combine two genres without actually considering the reasons either are enjoyable. If you want a brilliantly designed logistical puzzler then so many other games offer so much more. SpaceChem and its successor Infinifactory are ultimately more fulfilling experiences, with problems that make you feel like a genius if you can ever find a solution. Meanwhile the management side feels underdeveloped and uninteresting. With its heavy monetary penalisation for editing your production line, it forces you to wait for money to roll in and provides no distractions in the meantime. Rollercoaster Tycoon, Theme Park, Theme Hospital even Zoo Tycoon understood that the player needs to be entertained while the cash counter ticks over. Big Pharma with its infinitely repeating animations ends up more like a screensaver that quickly gets tiresome. There is something to be had here, particularly in the free build mode, but it’s nothing that is not done better elsewhere.