Oct 052010

Status: Complete, most challenges met.

Put this on your (nonexistent) box: Play Biochemistry 101!

Most intriguing idea: Modeling a puzzle game after natural regulatory systems.

Best design decision: Keeping things simple in these complex systems.

Worst design decision: The visually confusing quantitative and rainbow modes.

Summary: Having picked it up on a whim (it is just a buck, after all), I very much enjoyed BioHack. BioHack is a puzzle game loosely based on some kinds of regulation that take place in biological systems, although a knowledge of biochemistry is neither necessary nor particularly helpful. Each level is a routing puzzle where the goal is to quickly get a certain amount of desired products by using reactants to accelerate or decelerate the activity of the enzymes that move molecules from one reactant pool to another. Because these systems are not operating at steady-state, an appreciation for how populated each reactant pool becomes at each phase of the reaction is essential for success. The puzzles have a fairly good difficulty progression, although the most devious ones are all based on actual biological systems (although these sometimes undersell the importance of inhibitory regulation).

The presentation is minimalist and fairly clean, which is to the game’s advantage; the busier the screen got, the worse the game was. Text from the screen elements sometimes obscures the pathways, particularly if you have the quantitative mode on in some of the more complicated puzzles. Having a button to press that could hide text elements (one of the triggers, maybe) would have been nice. Similar visual confusion results when you use the rainbow coloring instead of the default scheme; the presence of red and green reactants and enzymes suggests information that isn’t really present. I also thought the music, while nice enough, was a bit too obtrusive and repetitive. A more subtle, ambient soundtrack might have worked better. In the more difficult puzzles an ability to pause a test run would have also been useful, as it was difficult to monitor the evolution of reactant pools in, say, the gluconeogenesis puzzle.

Like many of the XBLIG games, BioHack is relatively short. Maxing out the score on the main set of puzzles and trying out some of the random “mutant” puzzles can extend this time. The former would benefit from having a real high-score benchmark, for instance the developers’ score, to know what to shoot for. The latter are all right, but the mutant puzzles don’t allow you to use inhibitors, oversimplifying the gameplay. These puzzles have a tendency to include recycling loops that generate products ad infinitum. The mutants also play fast and loose with the rules, and it’s not unusual to have pathways that have, or appear to have, two enzymes or two substrates adjacent to each other. Although they are limited these puzzles are still reasonably entertaining. Overall, not a bad way to spend your gaming buck.

BioHack is available through XBox Live Indie Games

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