Review: Big Pharma Is A Curiously Addictive Dose Of Distilled Capitalism
Have you ever wanted to live out those Breaking Bad fantasies, minus the danger or insane profit margins? For reasons unfathomable, Big Pharma exists and could sate that itch. Or it could have adverse side effects.
- Worth The Time?Absolutely but only if you're willing to put in the time and have an attention span measurable in double digits.
- Things LovedThe game's mechanics are relatively simple to wrap your head around but tough to master; there's enough content to keep you busy for some time; most systems and mechanics have a marked effect on gameplay and your experience; there's generally always something happening to hold your attention; making, upgrading and improving drugs is surprisingly addictive.
- Things HatedThe lack of an undo button makes production line construction frustrating at times; the lack of significant time-scaling options makes games last a little too long; there is no clear indication or explanation of how money, revenue or profit works in this game.
- RecommendationIf you're a budding drug dealer then this probably isn't the game for you. It's hard to really recommend Big Pharma due to its bizarre choice of premise, despite it being a very good game. As a management sim it does its job admirably with a wide array of features and systems to immerse yourself into and, for the most part, they work well. It has its issues and hang-ups but on the whole Big Pharma is an addictive and well-made experience.
- Name: Big Pharma
- Genre: Requiem for a Dream
- Players: 1
- Multiplayer: N/A
- Platforms: PC
- Developer: Twice Circled
- Publisher: Positech Games
- Price: $24.99
- Reviewed On: PC
Big Pharma raises a few questions with its very existence, primarily “Why?” and “Who?”
Who is this game made for and why was it made? Then you realise that things such as Euro Truck Simulator exist. Suddenly Big Pharma isn’t the most peculiar simulator out there.
Big Pharma takes the form of a management sim where you’re in control of a big pharmaceutical company (the name is at least descriptive) and, according to the blurb, “wield the power and resources to save millions of lives.” We’re paraphrasing here but really it’s about making as many drugs and as much money as possible while trying to outdo your competitors, much like any real life corporation.
Walter White certainly didn’t care about enriching people’s lives with crystal meth, he just wanted a money throne.
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The aim of the game is simple – mo’ drugs, mo’ money – but how you achieve it is the tricky part. In order to make drugs, you need equipment, ingredients and money. At the outset you have a very limited amount of each and need to expand your resources through research (to unlock new and better equipment), exploration (to find new ingredients) and by taking out loans. You’ll likely find yourself taking out loans as often as possible to fund your operations.
How difficult it is to accrue or acquire any of the three key resources depends on what level you’re playing at.
The game offers several levels of difficulty, each with six unique challenges around production or revenue. Some later levels involve actually digging yourself out of debt and staying in the black (or green in the case of Big Pharma). We strongly recommend playing through the tutorial challenges in order to get to grips with the game’s systems and mechanics.
Each ingredient in Big Pharma has a specific cure or effect that it can provide when processed to the right concentration. With this comes side effects, but some ingredients also contain catalysts (more on this later). Each drug you produce has a rating attached to it which corresponds to how profitable it is and how effective it is in proportion to how prominent its side effects are among users. To make a drug more profitable you could refine and optimise its processing and delivery method as well as using research/ ingredient upgrade points to reduce the cost of using certain machines or said ingredient respectively.
This is a pretty limited way to approach it because ultimately, the bigger and better drugs are the more profitable ones. For example, an ingredient with psychological cure applications may, at its base level, be used to whip up an anti-depressant but can be upgraded to treat ADHD or further upgraded to treat bipolar disorder. Upgrading a cure is done by processing your ingredient to the right concentration, using specific machines and (in the case of higher order drugs) combining them with other ingredients which possess the right type of catalyst.
Still with us? That’s a fair amount to take in but rather necessary in understanding what Big Pharma gets right and wrong respectively.
Firstly, that is not how chemistry works. It just isn’t. However, we will concede that it serves Big Pharma’s aim of its mechanics and systems being relatively easy to grasp. The trick is in mastering them, the mark of any good sim, really. Secondly, while the palaver of processing ingredients, creating drugs, upgrading them, unlocking new ingredients, unlocking new machinery and managing your cash-flow may seem overwhelming, it really isn’t. Everything is quite easy to figure out such that you can plan a few drugs or years in advance.
Yes, years. Research and exploration take a few months respectively so you’ll have to wait a while before new upgrades, ingredients and machinery become available to you. The sequence of events is rather simple though. Your Cures tab shows how each drug can be upgraded and what the demand is for drugs that treat various things from bronchitis to genital warts. This informs your decision on what drugs to pursue which then allows you easily look up each ingredient and see what is required to make said drugs. It’s then simply a case of putting your scientists to work on researching the necessary equipment and your explorers on finding the necessary ingredients. It’s formulaic by design because the hard part is yet to come.
Figuring out which drugs to make and how to make them is easy. The hard part is that you have limited funds and limited floor space in your factory. You can purchase more factory space but there are still constraints such as entry points for the ingredients and exit points for finished products. What makes this even tougher is that each piece of equipment can be rotated to suit your layout but has a defined input and output point. Linking these up with conveyor belts while trying to maximise floor space to fit in all the machinery required for higher order drugs becomes an intense game of tessellation and planning. It adds a nice variable to mix up the corporate experience.
Many a time I found myself pausing time to fettle and fiddle with my factory layout in order to fit that extra agglomerator and a sizeable condenser into my production line. A huge issue here is no undo function. Once a piece of equipment is placed, it’s there. If you chose the wrong machine or discover that you miscalculated in your production line layout then the only options are to sell (at about 50% of what you paid) or find another use for it. While this makes planning crucially important, it is also cause for much frustration at times.
As you play, competitors will release their own drugs and cures which you’ll need to outdo if you want to claim market dominance over them or simply corner a different market. What you’ll need to watch out for is market saturation which isn’t of much concern in the beginner or intermediate levels but becomes a nightmare in later levels where you have three different competitors. World Events will also occur which can reduce or increase demand for certain drugs. The legalisation of certain substances reduced the demand for antidepressants because nobody has ever been sad while going through an LSD high, right?
While it is great fun to have a company named EGMR, run by a bloke who looks like Wilson Fisk and peddling drugs with names like Harassment (eases migraines), Patriarchy (treats genital warts) or Twitter (relieves hypertension); Big Pharma throws alerts and messages at you willy-nilly. At first this can be disconcerting but the thing is that this game is about marathons, not sprints. An alert of a rival company releasing a drug or a new world event is not something presenting an immediate threat to you. You’ve got a year or more to address said world event and even longer to fight back against the competition.
That said, Big Pharma’s competition, profit and world event mechanics don’t have much of an effect on gameplay until you hit the advanced levels.
If you’re looking to get out from under the relentless pace of industry, you can pause things to examine everything in your own time or simply create your own game with custom settings. If you’re invested in the rat race then you’re welcome to speed things up although you can only scale by a factor of five which isn’t nearly fast enough. This results in a 10 year cycle (the standard for most challenges) lasting over seven hours in real-time.
Fortunately, Big Pharma is well-made and oddly addictive with its many gameplay elements and challenge-based structure that the time passes rather rapidly. It’s an addictive experience because every aspect has at least some weight and effect on your experience.There’s never a shortage of things requiring your attention. For the most part anyway. If you’re used to higher intensity, energetic games then the pace of Big Pharma can at times become cause for annoyance as you wait for research or exploration to be completed.
At the higher levels of difficulty Big Pharma opens players up to more of the progression trees for research and cures. Cures still function in much the same way but have an additional tier or two to which they can be upgraded. It’s in research where things get rather real with players being able to establish corporate espionage in order to obtain information about competitors, patent cures, establish a team of lobbyists and even make connections to smooth certain bureaucratic processes.
On paper it all sounds absurdly dull but in practice it’s… still a little dull. Corporate espionage isn’t nearly as exciting as it sounds while competitors will find a way around patents. So not everything has enough weight or effect to really mean much. Furthermore, money doesn’t quite seem to work the way it should in Big Pharma. Revenue and profit doesn’t seem to translate to new funds for expansion and there is no clear indication of how to turn a profit. While money isn’t really and issue, the tutorials are great fro everything aside from explaining how it works in this game because by all indications it doesn’t.
One thing that certainly aids players (if used properly) is Free Mode, which gives you access to everything right off the bat (no lengthy research or exploration required) and an unlimited supply of capital. This affords players a testing bed to plan layouts, experiment with the best way to utilise certain drugs and just generally dick about. Without any set goals or challenges, Free Mode offers little incentive aside from its use as a simulation for the real simulation.
On balance, Big Pharma is a peculiar experiment in taking and unconventional concept and making a surprisingly addictive and very well-made game out of it. Consider the experiment a success.