You may not remember Bithell Games’ virtual reality (VR) debut, a simple sci-fi puzzler called EarthShape. That’s probably because it arrived in 2016 as an exclusive for the now-defunct Google Daydream View, never seeing a port to any other device. The studio’s next VR project Arcsmith also happens to be a sci-fi-inspired puzzle experience but this time it ramps up the complexity and should make it in front of more eyeballs as it’s exclusive to Oculus Quest.
There’s a vast difference between the two videogames though, Arcsmith instantly showcases the type of immersive, hands-on gameplay all VR gamers love. Set on a remote space station with the grumpy master arcsmith Korith Dinn and his robotic assistant – a rolling, talking tool chest called Toolie – you’re begrudgingly welcomed on board as an apprentice, ready to learn his engineering skills.
Arcsmith is a story-driven puzzler where you’re given an assortment of components to build all sorts of devices, all of which are orders from vessels about to engage in an intergalactic battle. As each device is built the next part of the story unfolds, learning a little bit more about Dinn’s life and why he’s in this corner of deep space.
Set up at your own little workbench each order will have specific parts which need to be combined with basic, core components that you can requisite like radiators, batteries, scaffolding and more. Arcsmith is one of the puzzle titles which is really easy to pick up and start experimenting with, with all the components magnetically snapping together like a toy set. Some can only attach at specific points but you’re given free rein to build the device however you please.
The one caveat to that process is dealing with the heat and power demands of each component, this is where Arcsmith’s complexity really ramps up. Every component has its own attributes when it comes to heat and power, so you can create a beautifully built device, test it and BOOM, one part suddenly pops out because it gets too hot.
You’re not left to blindly poke around in the dark when it comes to figuring out a solution. The active bench allows you to switch between heat and power distribution whilst a portable tablet gives you extra info such as the power output of the crystal generator. So much like an engineer sitting at their workbench solving problems, Arcsmith wants you to get comfy and take your time. There’s no rush here, think of it as good old fashioned block building, just in space, and you don’t have hands; just futuristic lasers instead.
Which makes for a very comfortable gameplay experience. Entirely seated, because you’re at a workbench there’s literally nowhere else to go, occasionally seeing spaceships fly by as the story unfolds. However, that doesn’t mean Arcsmith is a laidback, relaxing experience, because it can be incredibly frustrating at points.
The issue is to do with the magnetic coupling of components. On the earlier, simpler puzzles it’s not too noticeable. Sometimes pieces instantly snap together or they may take a couple of attempts. As Arcsmith progresses and the devices you need to build get ever more complicated, that snapping functionality becomes annoyingly erratic. Two components pulled apart abruptly rejoin whilst others at the same distance fail to. There were points where throwing the damn thing across the room felt like the best course of action, the whole process becomes more complicated than it needed to be.
Even with those frustrations, it’s hard not to quickly become fond of Arcsmith, offering the kind of classic puzzling solving Bithell Games is known for, updated for VR. The same goes for the beautiful soundtrack by Dan Le Sac and Sarah Williams White, a perfect mix of electronic beats to accompany your building exploits. It might not be perfect but Arcsmith is a little slice of indie VR gold, keeping most players entertained for a good few hours.