Even though I haven’t played it, I’d imagine that the PC version of Big Pharma might be quite an interesting prospect. Four or five hours of console experience has certainly whet my appetite, but despite the interesting prospect, iffy controls and a clunky tutorial dampen the experience somewhat.
Big Pharma, as the name suggests, positions the player as the CEO of a large pharmaceutical company. In this role, the player will send out explorers to discover new materials, they’ll research new machines, expand their factory, build production lines and of course, sell the resulting drugs for a tidy profit.
If that sounds like a pretty standard take on the economic management sim, then that would be a fair assumption to make. The difference here is that Big Pharma places a lot more focus on the actual production line element and a lot less on the periphery aspects. Staff management, for example, barely features at all.
There is a sandbox mode, but there are also a large number of prebaked scenarios for players to work through, beginning with a series of about six tutorial-style missions intended to teach the basics of the game. Unfortunately, whilst full of good intentions, the text-based instructions often don’t match the buttons and icons that you’ll be asked to click on.
There are a few other issues that raise their heads early on, primarily because of the conversion to console. One of these is the general challenge of how to access the various menus and options which is a mixed bag of both well-implemented choices and slightly iffier ones. You can get used to it, but it will take a few hours of play.
Where the user interface does get a bit more frustrating is through some of the information screens about specific drugs or ingredients. When clicked, these screens use an auto-scroll to work through the three screens that inform the player about the characteristics of the highlighted element.
The problem with this is that the scroll often goes too fast for the player to pick up key information. I imagine that on PC these screens are static and can be clicked through at leisure, so whilst I feel that the scrolling was included for convenience on the console, I think the actual effect is the opposite.
All that aside, the puzzle of how to place your production lines is an interesting one. There is a basic spatial element to creating the early drugs which focuses on how to layout the various machines in as efficient a way as possible, whilst still achieving the desired effect.
I mention the desired effect bit because creating drugs is never as simple as importing an ingredient and then having it turn into a drug. You’ll usually import an ingredient and then need to put it through two to five different machines to increase or decrease its effects, then finally to turn it into a consumable form (like a pill, or a paste).
Things get more complicated when the effects of various ingredients need to be combined in order to create a single better drug. In this case, you may have two or more lines of ingredients being weakened or intensified before then being mixed with each other, and then requiring further refinement before final conversion.
The more complex a drug and the more refined it is (IE the fewer negative effects it has relative to the positives) the more money it will be worth. This makes the effort of creating the perfect anti-seizure drug or the cure for cancer all the more worthwhile financially, but it also makes the process of getting to it much more complex.
I can’t put into words how complex some of these production lines can be, and that really is what Big Pharma is about. Don’t expect any help to work out what you need to combine with what, working those things out is literally what you’ll be doing. Hence, this feels much more like an abstract puzzle to me than it does a management sim — the lack of a helping hand kind of proves that.
Big Pharma isn’t what I’d call a fun game, but it is fairly unique and very clever. It’s a shame that some of the rougher edges haven’t been polished off, but there’s a chance the controls and tutorials might be corrected with a patch or two in good time. This is a game that will be rewarding for those who stick with it, but if you want an immediate return on your investment, you might be better of looking elsewhere.