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Alchemy is most commonly known as the lost theoretical science where its believers felt there was a way they could turn base metals such as lead into gold. But there is a lesser-known Alchemy that came about in the past decade, tapping into the same symbols and basic theory. Creators of games such as Bejeweled, Bookwork, Peggle and Plants vs Zombies, PopCap Games released Alchemy in 2001. Much like their other releases, Alchemy is a casual puzzle game that is quick to learn, easy to play in short bursts, and still provides a challenging experience.
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The game is played on a “lead" 8 x 9 grid upon which the player is tasked with laying out alchemical runes in varying colors to turn the board to “gold." A tile is transmuted from lead to gold when a rune is placed upon it. Runes may only be placed on empty tiles next to runes of a matching symbol or color. If a rune cannot be placed, the player is allowed to discard a rune, but is only allowed to do so three times in a row. On occasion a wildcard will be given that may be placed next to any rune, or a destruction piece that will destroy any one rune. The player scores points for each symbol placed, and when a full row or column is constructed, all tiles therein are removed and a bonus is scored. Though the short in-game tutorial does an adequate job of explaining the basics, it in no way presents any strategy or techniques that can be used.
Like many of PopCap’s early games, the focus is squarely on the simple gameplay mechanic itself. The only modes offered are a regular untimed game and a time attack mode. Three difficulty levels are available in both modes, with the higher difficulties simply starting at a later board in the series that will contain more runes and colors. The replayability of the game revolves almost entirely around a high-score system. A lack of minigames, challenges, or even other modes of play is surprising for a PopCap game, so unless the games core concept appeals to you, there is little reason to keep coming back.
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While any real story is lacking in the game, the visuals convey all the backstory needed. A wizard greets you to the game, and is the only character ever presented. The runes are based off of actual alchemical symbols, and the change of color from lead to gold tiles gives a feeling of progress and achievement. The audio in the game is rather interesting as well, but not in such a good way. The wizard is the only voice in the game, and he sounds like what one would expect in a standup arcade cabinet in the 80’s. The music matches this theme as well, a strange mix of synth rock and electronic music that could have easily been the song played during the credits of an action movie in the era. While it may be appealing to here the audio the first few plays, it quickly grows old and the mute button in game comes in quite handy.
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For what it is – a casual game created when the market was still being forged - Alchemy is a simple yet unique game from PopCap’s early catalog. With a simple style and very open-ended core mechanic, it is one of those games you can keep coming back to in your free time to try and top your own score. It is unfortunate the game is not more robust, offering twists on the gameplay, other modes, or even challenges and minigames. Overall, this is one game to download or keep bookmarked, as it is an experience that isn’t often found in other games.