Review - ChemCaper: Petticles in Peril

By Tof Eklund 07 Apr 2016 0

Review - ChemCaper: Petticles in Peril

Released 14 Mar 2016

Developer: Ace EdVenture
Available from:
App Store
Google Play
Reviewed on: NVIDIA Shield K1

ChemCaper is a hugely ambitious and greatly admirable project, seeking as it does to present educational content about Chemistry in the form of a fully-realized Final Fantasy-style RPG. Taking a page from Telltale Games, Ace EdVenture is releasing the game in chapters. ChemCaper: Petticles in Peril is the first “act” of the story, and it’s release so soon after ACE EdVenture’s successful Kickstarter surprised many. It may be that Petticles in Peril should have been left in the oven a little longer, but scope and style of this game make it an absolute first in its class.

Let’s take a short trip back to the 1980’s, where we see my young self, feverish and covered in chicken pox, playing a chemistry game on an original IBM PC. This game, which appears to be lost to history, was equal parts scientific rigour, bad design, and nearly-static pastel graphics. I wanted to love it, but found it to be tedious and frustrating: the only time I ever played it for more than five minutes was in this half-delirious state. Other early edugames, like Reader Rabbit and Math Blaster, were eye-rolling combinations of rote work and poorly executed minigame “rewards,” but only that early chemistry game approached complete unplayability.

Screenshot 20160406 101920

Math Blaster? I got yer math blaster right here, pal!

Petticles in Peril is visually engaging and immediately playable. The game’s art direction and level of detail puts me in mind of Final Fantasy IX,and perhaps even more of Crystal Chronicles, with it’s diverse cast of youkai chibis. There are no humans in the world of ChemCaper, only “races” associated with different parts of the periodic table, such as the Hydrogen-molecule Drogen who can be “found everywhere,” the armored centaur-like Feirs inspired by the transitional metals, and the Moon Beings, who are modeled on the reactive metals… meaning that, like pure Sodium, if you get them wet, they go BOOM.

The game opens with an evocative but cryptic dream-prophecy of doom, and then immediately transitions into a fetch quest that gets preempted by a tutorial. This is standard RPG design, a functional cliche. Motivating and directing the player is one of the the least original aspects of Petticles in Peril: it’s basically fetch quests all the way through. Camp Unguku, where the game starts, looks a lot like any other 3D JRPG’s first zone, with huts, trees, grass, and flowers that want to kill you. The game’s sense of style comes to the fore when you get to Reac Ta, the home of the fragile Moon Beings, with its purple-blue color scheme, iridescent crystals, huge astrolabe-like structures, and piles of grey wreckage.

Screenshot 20160329 203437

Yes, this game has the same sense of humor as your High School Chemestry teacher.

To avoid spoilers, I’ll just say that the game’s story has potential but is delivered inconsistently, almost incoherently. Many of the game’s interactions read like they were written with the assumption that the player would already know things that are either buried in lore or never mentioned at all. Several times I wondered if I’d accidentally skipped a crucial cut scene, only to be surprised at how uninformative the actual cinematics were. I suspect that the cinematics and other game assets may have been rendered before the script was final, because some of most dynamic moments in the story aren’t in the cinematics, or even shown on-screen at all. Imagine a Final Fantasy game where you travel by airship but never see one and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

There is every reason to think that future episodes of ChemCaper will be more clearly and consistently plotted: the writing in any given scene is good, it’s just that there are some non sequiturs between scenes. For example, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out exactly what happened in Reac Ta, only to discover that not only was I wrong, but that nearly all the NPCs knew what had happened and just hadn’t bother to tell me.

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Fine, blame the intern. I'm sure management bears no responsibility for the failure of the Oil Shield.

The is one story decision that I really have to take the dev team to task for: it really bothers me that the gender of the game’s protagonist is locked-in as male. There’s no reason for it. The Moon Beings, with their squat, round forms and full, loose clothing have few gender markers to begin with, and young Roub is particularly androgynous, even genderless, in appearance. Nothing about Roub’s personality would need to be changed. A simple choice of pronouns would have made this internationally-distributed STEM edugame just as accessible to young women as young men. We know that representation matters, and it’s especially important in overcoming systemic bias against women in STEM.

Petticles in Peril does better with system than story. Roub doesn’t fight his own battles, he summons Pokemon-like Petticles to do it for him. Combat is quick-playing and simple, using an “Active Time Battle” system in another nod to the Final Fantasy series. On my Shield K1, combat animations sometimes stuttered, making preparations even more important. You create petticles by combining atoms (“Orbs”) of different elements into real-word molecules, and then equip them to attack, defense, and support slots.

The Petticle creation system doesn’t teach you about the different kinds of bonds between atoms, or even offer an optional explanation, but it does refer to the idea, with buttons for “Iobond,” “Covabond,” and “Metabond.” You can tell which one to tap because the buttons are color-coded to match the background on each Petticle’s card. This typifies Chem Caper’s soft sell: instead of trying to teach chemistry, the game reinforces terms and concepts, associating them with cute characters and minigames.

Screenshot 20160329 235935

I don't think real chemists have to hand-spin their centrifuges, but pouring liquids without spilling them? The struggle is real.

The potion-making minigame is, to my way of thinking, one of the best parts of the game. It engages the player in tasks modeled on the real-word techniques used by chemists, and the equipment is realistic but has a pleasingly alchemical look to it. The best parts of potion making remind me of the drink mixing mechanic in the Bar Oasis games, albeit with more variety and gravitas. The only problem with potion making is that you have to acquire a lot of different components to make potions, and that most of the potions are pedestrian in effect (healing and one-battle stat boosts), unlike the excitement that results from the less-involved process of bonding a new Petticle.

The raw ingredients for your potions are found or purchased, but you have to play an item-tracing minigame to create your lab equipment. This is just as simple and dull as it sounds. At first, the item-tracing game threw off my sense of who the target audience for the game was: having to draw a u-shape before using the beaker might work for the 3-6 year-old set, but Petticles in Peril is recommended for ages 10 and up for good reason: it’s no Hunger Games, but there is one plot twist in particular in this game that would scare the padoodle out of younger kids.

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I could have shown you a picture of me tracing a bunsen burner, but instead, here's Hizo, the forbidden water petticle.

Like many ground-breaking works, Petticles in Peril is flawed in significant ways. It falls short of being an amazing RPG that also just-happens to be educational, but it’s still the best thing out there for a number of audiences. First and foremost, this game is for for tweens who are interested in chemistry, and teens who are struggling in their High School Chem classes. It’s also a game anyone who has a strong interest in chemistry or educational games should pick up.

If you’re looking to teach chemistry using games, you’ll want to pair Petticles in Peril with something that’s more of a virtual chemistry set, like ChemCrafter (ChemCrafter is the hip, functional analogue to the terrible chemistry game of my childhood). It’s harder to recommend this game to a general RPG audience, but the problems with Petticles in Peril are mostly correctable, so the next episode of ChemCaper could very well fulfill the dream.

A bold, fun chemistry edugame bedeviled by plot holes and a little fuzziness about its core audience.

Review - ChemCaper: Petticles in Peril

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