Reviewed: January 19, 2003
After 20 years of playing computer games it’s hard to pick my biggest favorites but there are a few titles that I always look back on and smile. Two of my favorite titles were the Dr. Brain games from Sierra and another little non-game title called The Way Things Work. If you were to combine those two titles taking the gameplay of the first and mixing it with the educational aspects of the second you would have the makings of a very interesting game.
Physicus is by no means a new title. It’s been around for nearly four years and spawned a pair of sequels (Chemicus and Bioscopia), but this unique hybrid is currently being repackaged and remarketed as an entertainment title. Previously billed as “edutainment”, Physicus takes everything you learned in high school and college physics courses and blends it into a fascinating Myst-style adventure.
The scariest, and perhaps the most interesting element about this title is how much you actually learn while playing it. Early in the game you find a cassette recorder than contains the wealth of about 3 years of physics classes spanning subjects like Acoustics, Optics, Electricity, Heat, and Mechanics. Before I knew it I was totally engrossed in the multimedia lessons that even allow you to participate by clicking on items to generate (cause and effect) responses.
Only after I had spent about an hour learning more than I ever dreamed about Optics, did I remember there was a game included on this 2-disc set. I ejected the cassette and return to the virtual world that was laid out for me.
Games that try to educate or educational games that try to entertain seldom succeed, but Physicus manages to rise above this unspoken curse and delivers both a fun and educational experience. We start off with a respectable story that is worthy of a movie or at least an episode of the Outer Limits. A meteor has struck your planet and stopped it from spinning. I’m sure this catastrophe would cause plenty more problems that we have to deal with, but the bottom line is one half of the planet is too cold (the dark side) and the side facing the sun is too hot.
A scientist has created a giant cannon that when charged with enough energy will fire a giant boulder. The resulting recoil should get the planet spinning again. Now that’s a gun! The only problem is that the scientist was unable to get the gun powered up and now you must locate the three generators and get them working to generate the power to fire the gun.
Gameplay is much like the original Myst. Using a Macromedia interface, you travel from screen to screen and interact with any objects you can find to gather clues and solve the various physics-related puzzles. It’s all pretty standard adventure gaming stuff with various hotspots on the screen that will change your cursor into an arrow or hand. As with most games of this type, some items and hotspots are often hard to spot so you need to thoroughly scan every pixel of every screen to make sure you didn’t miss something you will need later.
The puzzles are quite ingenious and naturally relate to the information in the encyclopedia portion of the game. On a brilliant move by the designers, each puzzle comes with a bookmark to the portion of the encyclopedia that you need to study to solve that puzzle.
The encyclopedia is my dream of what textbooks will be like in the future. Fully narrated and loaded with interactive models and diagrams, you can enjoy the visuals while you listen to the text then click on various objects to conduct virtual experiments and observe the results. It’s like a lecture and a lab all rolled into one.
The island is deserted so you won’t be interacting with too many people. You will find plenty of notes and recordings that give you information, and your inventory is expertly managed with a clever interface that is integrated right into the border of the game window. The nice thing about the items and the puzzles that require them is that you never have a huge selection of objects at any given time.
Physicus is marketed for ages 10-102 and rightly so. If your preteen plays this game they will be well on their way to developing a love affair with the wonderful world of physics – personally, my favorite science. Adults may choose to skip the game and just explore the informative interactive lessons in the encyclopedia, or families can come together to learn and have fun at the same time.
Physicus has a visual style that is charming and pays homage to traditional slideshow adventures. The static screens are colorful works of art with the occasional animated objects like a swaying bridge that creaks in the wind. Transition animations such as doors opening and handles moving are all nice subtle touches that add a bit of flair to the gameplay. Just clicking on a door won’t get you into a house – you actually have to turn the handle.
As mentioned earlier, the interface is exquisite. See if you can tell from the screenshots where the game ends and the interface begins. To make it even less unobtrusive, the interface remains darkened until you pass the mouse over it then it brightens, waiting for you next command.
My only minor complaint is that the game runs in a locked 800x600 resolution and does not use DirectX. This means you may need to adjust your screen settings before and after playing this game. Thankfully, the game doesn’t require this resolution so you could conceivably play Physicus in something higher, but it will be in a tiny window in the center of your screen. There were times I really wished the game played in a window, such as while I was grabbing screenshots and writing this review.
The music for Physicus is pretty good and there are plenty of ambient sound effects for the outdoor environments. All of the gadgetry and puzzle items have creative sound effects that fit the game perfectly.
The voice work steals the show, starting with the charming voice of the scientist doing the opening narration to the English accent of the “instructor” who guides you through the massive volumes of physics information.
Physicus is only $19 and frankly I thought the information alone was worth that. The fact that they threw in a game was just icing on the cake. I re-learned things that I had forgotten and learned some new stuff I never knew. Chances are I will never use any of this knowledge, but it was still fun to learn and who knows, someday I may get on Jeopardy or something.
Seasoned adventures will walk through this game in 10-12 hours and those with a good knowledge of science, particularly physics, will probably do it faster since they won’t be consulting the encyclopedia as much. If you have a family then this is one of those games you can keep handing down as your kids prepare for junior high.
Physicus has very modest system requirements. Chances are, if you have a computer capable of getting online and reading this review then you can play this game. It even runs on the Mac.
Physicus is a perfect example of how learning can be fun. This game should be in every school’s computer learning center, and whether you have a personal interest in physics or just want to get your kids excited about the science and how everyday things like electricity and light work, this is the perfect title to add to your software library.