Algotica - Iteration 1 Review
Navigating a world of ones and zeroes
Many puzzle games offer a few central mechanics, making players think a certain way, and base most of the experience around that. Whether it’s learning how physics objects interact with one another, or observing a world from a unique perspective, making it to the end should be rewarding and also feel like you’ve mastered whatever mechanic that the game is organized around. Typically, these central mechanics are unique to the game and though many can develop your cognitive functions, they don’t have much application in the real world. Algotica - Iteration 1 tries to buck this trend by centering its puzzles around the concept of programming logic. While it may not necessarily achieve its lofty goal of being an educational game, it is nonetheless an entertaining and occasionally challenging adventure.
Players take control of Lony, a small robot, and the goal is to lead him through a series of levels. The story centers on you as the player, Lony, and the creator of the game. Via text dialog boxes, the developer speaks to you directly, teaching you mechanics and discusses the process that went into the creation of the game. Before long, however, Lony tells you that there is a lot more going on in the game than the developer has told you. From there, a decently well written and engaging story unfolds, as you guide Lony through around 80 small levels. There is some occasional humor, side characters, constant meta references (awarding you aptly named pointless points) and breaking of the fourth wall; it makes for an enticing enough adventure to see you through, and a unique aspect given that most puzzle games don’t really bother with a story at all.
Through the game, your objective is to guide Lony to the end of a level, viewed from an isometric perspective. But you’re not controlling the little robot directly; instead, you are able to type commands that he will perform. On the left side of the screen is a column where you can place command blocks (called memory cells), and type in each of them. So, to get Lony moving, you place a memory cell and type “forward” in it, to make him turn, you type “turn-left”, and so on. The basic idea is that you must provide a series of instructions that will help Lony navigate to the end goal, without falling off the side of the path and overcoming various obstacles along the way. Once you feel satisfied that your commands are ready, you “run” the code and watch Lony perform the movements. If he fails, it’s not really a big deal, as he simply respawns again.
As you progress through the game, levels become a bit more complex, with the introduction of portals and more obstacles. You also gradually get more commands to use, such as jump, activate, and true/false flags. The complexity sets in with so many possibilities in play, but the main challenge is that you only have a certain number of memory cells (moves) that can be made in a level. So, your job is to figure out the sequence of commands that will get Lony to the end, in the shortest amount of moves. Later on, you’ll need to use the fact that the series of commands you’ve created will also loop for as long as Lony is still on the path, which means you often have to think ahead. Another mechanic, called functions, allows you to enter multiple commands in a single memory cell slot, as a sub-algorithm of sorts. If you’re ever in trouble, the entire code can be scrapped and started over. It’s enjoyable trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t, and with the ability to simply run the code and wait to see where things go wrong, it helps you work towards a solution. In fact, you could theoretically just brute-force certain steps of each puzzle to see what works and what doesn’t, though that’s obviously less satisfying.
Essentially, the game teaches players the concept of control flow in a programming language. And while it definitely taps into that mindset, calling it a learning tool is rather disingenuous. The commands you are typing and the interface in use is not related to any actual programming language, so you’re not learning any true real-life skills. So after a while, it becomes a puzzle game with its own set of rules and mechanics that focuses largely on figuring out a solution in the fewest steps possible. Algotica is a good puzzle game, but it’s not going to inspire you to become a coder anytime soon, nor does it have the ability to teach you anything truly useful.
To speed things along, not long after introducing new commands for Lony, you’ll also be granted access to keyboard shortcuts, so that instead of typing out “forward” you can just use “Ctrl+F”. This certainly helps in the long run, but again you’re learning a unique game mechanic, and not something that can be attributed to a real programming language. Plus, it is annoying to have to wait a few levels for the keyboard shortcuts to become available. Another annoyance is that if you make a typo, the game will tell you that there is an error on a certain memory cell number – but the UI doesn’t have numbers, so you have to count manually to find the command with the issue.
Algotica is a presented with some pleasant, though lower budget visuals and audio. The graphics and animations look quite nice for a puzzle game, and it all runs without any technical issues. The art style is fitting and mixes tech with some nature in the background. Some of the menu navigation can be awkward, like quit being hidden in the options submenu. There are also one or two translation hiccups, though easily missable. Music is very rudimentary, and while relatively unobtrusive it does loop and becomes repetitive rather quickly. You can equip Lony with hats, if you’re into that.
Algotica - Iteration 1 is a well priced and engaging puzzle game, but don’t expect it to realistically teach you anything. The level of difficulty here already needs you to be at least a casual puzzle fan, and that likely means you’ve already got this part of your logic thinking quite well developed. It aspires to teach you the logistics of writing code and decision trees, but does so without teaching you a real coding language. The foundation for that is certainly here, but after a while it becomes clear that this is just a programming-inspired puzzle game - a good one at that - just don’t expect too much more.