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Review: Arcsmith is my favorite VR puzzle game of 2021

Proper mechanical puzzles mixed in with a cute story.

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Most of the best VR puzzle games trend in one of two directions: they’re either story-driven adventures that add puzzles to call themselves “games” instead of walking sims, or brain-teasing puzzlers with no story whatsoever. Arcsmith tries to tightrope between the two categories — scientific trial-and-error gameplay intermixed with story beats — and mostly pulls it off.

Made by Bithell Games (Thomas Was Alone, John Wick Hex), Arcsmith makes you an apprentice to world-weary master mechanic (or Arc-smith) Korith Dinn on a remote space station. As you construct life-saving devices for spacefarers fleeing a war, you and Korith find yourself unwillingly drawn into the conflict.

That’s the premise behind the real draw to this game: its brain-rending engineering puzzles. With every new assigned schematic to build, I would hit a logical wall and make mistake after mistake — until something always clicked in my brain and the path forward became clear. Once I got past the confusing tutorial and mastered the controls, I found Arcsmith to be one of the most satisfying VR puzzlers I’ve ever played — even if it wasn’t a perfect experience.

Arcsmith



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Bottom line: Build futuristic devices that properly balance power and heat (and hopefully look good doing it). Becoming a master Arcsmith to a snazzy soundtrack, egged on by friendly NPCs, alternates between frustratingly difficult and (once you break through and find solutions) intensely satisfying. It’s one of my favorite puzzle games of the year.

The Good

  • Wide range of design challenges and components
  • Natural difficulty curve
  • Charming characters
  • Boppin’ electronica soundtrack
  • Sandbox post-game mode

The Bad

  • Some mechanical glitches
  • Initially difficult to master

$25 at Oculus Store

Arcsmith review:

  • The best brain-blasting moments
  • The headache-inducing problems
  • Should you buy?

I’m (not) too old for this sh%t

Arcsmith: What made my brain hurt (in a good way)

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At the core of each mechanical puzzle is simple addition and subtraction. To build a functioning antimatter holder, spore incubator, or any other sci-fi-esque machine, you must ensure the exact amount of necessary power reaches its core without overheating the device. If you power on your creation with too much juice or heat, the overloaded part will break off and you’ll have to try a new configuration.

You can slot the Lego-esque block components any which way so long as the math checks out; there’s no one “right” solution or design for each project. But the game does grade you on the number of parts you use, especially how many heat-blocking radiators — so simplicity is the goal.

As you progress, certain components will need to point in particular directions, such as sunlight-absorbing panels facing upwards or light-ray emitters built at an angle to point at another component. Symmetry and balance matter as much as logic. And the more power a project requires, the harder it is to suppress heat output without the design ballooning into a misshapen mess.

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I love puzzle games but find many of them require leaps of logic, random guesswork, or giving up and finding a walkthrough. Arcsmith is legitimately difficult, especially as you’re learning the baseline electrical engineering behind every puzzle; but each machine design makes fundamental sense, so you always can find the solution with persistence.

Every Arcsmith puzzle has an internal logic that feels satisfying to figure out.

Arcsmith has an old-fashioned VR game design where you remain affixed to one spot instead of moving around. Some will find that restrictive; I found it relaxing, allowing me to focus on the puzzles. The game ensures everything you need is easily within reach, and the controls are intuitive.

I also appreciated that the game never chided, rushed, or punished me if I kept making mistakes. There’s no stat for number of failed attempts. You keep going until you perfect your design.

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Listening to the otherworldly soundtrack kept me chill and focused during the most difficult puzzles.

After each puzzle, you’re rewarded with a couple minutes of discussion with your boss Korith Dinn and his amiable (but succinct) robot assistant Toolie, plus some occasional radio news bursts. The voice acting in the game is top-notch, investing me in a fairly simplistic story about an evil galactic Order facing off against an Independent fleet, plus Korith’s reluctant-mentor-with-a-mysterious-backstory schtick.

The Arcsmith soundtrack (which you can listen to on Bandcamp) is superb. It has a variety of understated electronica and hip-hop beats, most with alien-language vocals for world-building ambience. They helped keep me chill and focused during the toughest designs. I do wish there were an in-game skip button for tracks I didn’t like, but that wouldn’t mesh with the radio broadcast premise.

With enough puzzles to give the game a decent length, plus a post-game sandbox mode, Arcsmith is definitely worth buying if you enjoy a challenge.

Not a game for everyone

Arcsmith: What gave me a headache (in a bad way)

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I found the first three building assignments challenging to the point of frustration. In-game tutorials tell you what to do, but after you continue on to the main game, you can’t read through old tutorial text to double-check how things work. Plus, while I appreciated the tutorials, some people will dislike the text-heavy game compared to others that are more self-explanatory.

Arcsmith has a steep learning curve and may turn off impatient players.

To test if your machine works, you have to turn on the power, quickly pick up your in-game tablet, and point it at specific pieces to see the power and heat levels. In my experience, you typically had about ten to twenty seconds to examine it before it overheated, which wasn’t always enough time to diagnose a problem. While you’re still trying to understand how pieces work, that could get pretty frustrating.

Put plainly, if you choose to get Arcsmith, push through the opening bits. It gets better with time but requires some patience. Younger kids probably wouldn’t have an easy time with it, unless they cast to your TV and you helped walk them through it.

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Attaching parts together requires more effort than it should. When working properly, they snap together quickly. Other times, parts would snap on crooked then fall off, or refuse to come together until I dropped them, picked them up, and tried again from a different angle. As designs became more complicated and pieces had to attach to a specific port to work, the attachment delay became increasingly tiresome. I’m hoping the devs can patch this in some way.

Mechanics aside, I already mentioned that the game’s by-the-numbers story plays out in a standard way. Perhaps my expectations were too high because of how much I loved Thomas Was Alone, but the story didn’t compel me as much as the puzzles did. And the puzzles mostly feel disconnected from the story; I wanted more moments where I could see a satisfied customer, for instance.

Arcsmith: Is it right for your brain?

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Unlike more experiential puzzle games like Myst and Sam & Max, Arcsmith roots you to a desk and keeps your mind focused on your engineering apprenticeship. There’s a plotline, but as a silent protagonist you can’t really participate in it. That type of game won’t appeal to everyone.

Despite that, Arcsmith has plenty of allure for puzzle game fans who want a change of pace. Instead of pointing-and-clicking at your environment or combining random objects until something sticks, you must master the rules of the world, with the game clearly indicating if you’re making progress towards your goal. I’ve had a hankering to build increasingly intricate machines ever since I started playing, and I can’t wait to dive back in.

4
out of 5


Despite some rough edges, Arcsmith is one of my favorite VR experiences of the year, and I hope the devs add some more post-game DLC down the line with new inventions to create.

Arcsmith

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Bottom line: On your first day as an Arcsmith, you and your reluctant mentor will help craft desperately-needed tools for refugees fleeing an interstellar conflict — and discover that the war is headed your way. This puzzle game will give you hours of mechanical trials to overcome, each steadily increasing in challenge until you’re ready to craft anything.

$25 at Oculus Store

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