Big Pharma. Big Pharma. Of course I’d go for being Big Pharma. There’s no point in being Small Pharma, is there? If I’m not getting the power to slap troll patents around, and suppress the cure for cancer solely for kicks, giggles, and profits, why even bother in the first place?
Okay, that went too real for a moment. The reality of the situation is that I got my hands on Twice Circled‘s medicine factory simulator because it looks shiny and colourful, and because I haven’t done anything with conveyor belts in way too long. The power to dictate the health and happiness of an entire virtual world — if that’s even included — is just a neat little side effect.
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, non-existent. Mechanical, fairly low.)
(Game source: Patreon bucks.)
The title that greets me is a bustle of activity. Machines hiss and churn, hard-hatted workers fiddle with controls, and brightly coloured conveyor belts carry around bowls, potions, gas canisters, and pots of crème. And it’s all set to a simple, but energizing tune, almost the epitome of ‘whistle while you work’ music.
Ye olde options are of the relatively simple variety. There isn’t much more to the Video tab than screen size, resolution, and some stuff about decals and tab transitions. Audio has a grand total of four sliders: Music Volume, GUI Volume, Factory Volume, and Announcer Volume. Fancy, that. And the Controls tab hides your garden-variety list of key bindings… even if I’m not entirely sure what anything is currently actually bound to.
The only options tab with any serious meat to it is the Game Settings tab. There’s a lot here that I can’t quite parse yet, as usual, though I can preemptively appreciate the thoroughness of it. But I’m taken aback a little when Big Pharma, quite uniquely, offers me a few ways of expressing my unique Europeanism. Not only can I select the currency symbol, but there’s actually a menu option for what symbol to use as the thousands-mark separator.
And that’s kind of it as far as menu settings are concerned! Unless you were hoping I’d dive into Mods immediately. In which case, sorry to disappoint. Let’s get to the game proper, yo.
Or, well. I say that. But the New Game menu reveals a… I want to say staggering amount of pre-game choice. Jesus. I think these are all scenarios. But how many are there? Twenty-five, I think?
No, wait, there’s more! Oh god, the list scrolls horizontally!
Okay, okay, relax. It may look as though I’m drowning in a sea of hyper-specific game information, sure. But it’s not quite as bad as it seems. The first six scenarios are helpfully labeled as tutorials, my ever-present friends in the dark waters of new game territory. Let’s do those first. And I’m sure that, after getting that done, I’ll have all the mental handholds needed to make sense of this incredible mess of possibilities. Right?
Tutorial one, go!
Unsurprisingly, the tutorial screen looks pretty similar to the title screen background. It’s still the same tiled factory floor, just… less bustle. This particular floor seems empty, except for one wall part that looks for all the world like a conveyor belt disappearing into the grey squared beyond. The image of a blue potion floats above it. Mysteries upon mysteries, this big pharma business.
Looking on, I see a small black tab bar on the left side of the screen, a white bar on the bottom (where I immediately pause the flow of game time, because I don’t need any temporal stresses while learning to play), and a black text plot on the right. The latter is actually the tutorial; that is to say, this is the actual learning-to-play information. It turns out that in lieu of the organized structure some other game tutorials use, Big Pharma is content to just text-dump the whole thing in advance. I could read through the entire tutorial in one go, if I wanted to.
The early tutorial bits are all fairly standard fare. Here is your empty factory plot screen. Move the camera with WASD, or right-click-and-drag, or panning the screen. Zoom with mouse wheel. You get the idea.
And then, just as quickly, I get to the good part. Oh boy! Time to make my own drugs!
Making medicine in Big Pharma, I learn, is a combination of ingredients, machines, and ‘concentration’. The weird conveyor belt wall-slot is actually an ‘ingredient importer’: when hooked up to a conveyor belt, it will spew forth an endless supply of… ‘effervescent jackear distillate’. Yeah, that sounds appetizing. Luckily, I’m not running a restaurant; and from a medical point of view, ‘effervescent jackear distillate’ has the potential to be an excellent painkiller.
The distillate has the potential to be a painkiller… but if that potential was already realized, well, then we wouldn’t need a whole drug factory, would we? Big Pharma’s key word here is ‘concentration’. The active ingredient in the distillate, the stuff that actually does the painkilling, exists in the larger jackear stuff in a certain level of concentration. Level four, to be exact: four parts per thousand, or four parts per million, or some other concentration ratio related to four. The game is never too clear on this.
The active ingredient, the stuff that kills pain and induces nausea, exists at a concentration of four. But in order to actually be active as a painkiller, it needs to have a concentration of at least five. Five to twelve, to be exact: that’s the golden range for pain-killing. Similarly, a concentration between six and fourteen activates the nausea-inducing part of it. And, as you can probably guess, changing that concentration…
Well. That’s where the machines come in.
Two machines are at my call. A Dissolver to lower concentration, and an Evaporator to raise it. And before we continue, can I just say that I’m pretty impressed with how accurate everything is so far? Scientifically speaking. It would have been so easy for a game like this to avoid going into specifics, to make its machines just magical black boxes. But even with my passing high-school chemistry knowledge, I can tell you that most of what I’m seeing here is correct. Yes, the concentration of ingredients is a big thing in drug effectiveness… if probably not the only relevant thing. And yes, you would dissolve and evaporate to lower and raise ingredient combinations.
I mean, you probably wouldn’t do that one step at a time, chaining dozens of identical machines to gradually change it. I figure if you want to dissolve a concentration from eight down to three, you just build a machine that dissolves it down to three. But hey, on the other hand, what do I know? And also, why would any of that matter here? It doesn’t, that’s why. Back to the game!
Running the effervescent jackear distillate through one Evaporator raises its concentration to five, activating the pain-killing effect. Conveyor belts take care of the ingredient-moving drug work; thanks, belt friends! For my next step, I then run the resulting product — a purple crystal called ‘satagacite crystals’ — into a ‘pill printer’. This machine turns my now-active ingredients into a convenient pill format. Finally, I connect the printing machine to another one of the generic input-output wall slots. Hooking the conveyor belt up to the slot conveys the signal that I’m about to dump pills here; the slot opens on its own, eagerly awaiting the life-saving payload. Or, well. The mildly pain-killing payload.
As soon as the first pill hits the output slot, I’m prompted for a name. The game suggests ‘Tutorialis Ache Punisher’. I instead take a page from Tom Francis’ drug-naming playbook.
Tutorial one completed! Am I a drug overlord yet? Haha, nope: there’s still tutorials two through six to consider.
In tutorial two, I ‘decide’ to up my med-producing game. Painkillers are a baby drug, strictly entry-level stuff. But what if I could… upgrade them, somehow?
It turns out that in Big Pharma, similar drug effects are combined in a tiered system. Painkillers are the lowest level of the Pain drugs category, a tier 1 drug. But with a little careful concentration-wrangling, it’s possible to upgrade that effect to the second tier: migraine prevention.
First, I unlock more of my factory floor. Bye, two thousand euro! I’ll never forget your sacrifice.
Then, more machines are needed.
As you’ll remember, the effervescent jackear distillate has a concentration of four. And my current pipeline brings that up to five. But by hovering over the effect tab, I learn how the effect can be upgraded: if I bring the concentration into the 7-to-10 range, and then run the ingredient through an Evaporator machine, I’ll unlock the Eases Migraine effect.
Two additional Evaporators take the concentration from five to seven. Then, one final Evaporator performs its magic… a pain-killing concentration 7 ingredient comes in, but a migraine-easing concentration 8 ingredient comes out!
Am I getting the hang of this? I think I’m getting the hang of this.
Tutorial three introduces the ‘exploration’ sub-mechanic. Here, I can hire explorers, and send them out into the world’s untamed wildernesses. For kicks and giggles, yes, but also to find me more interesting ingredients to work with. In Big Pharma, as in real life, a lot of medicinal advancement comes from scouring the jungle for cool-looking plants and beetles. And then crushing those into powder and seeing if they’re any good on toast.
Similarly, I can hire researchers to design and build new machines for me. Like the Ioniser, a fancy machine that lowers concentration by a whole three points per application!
And hey, wouldn’t you know it? Combining the juice I get from crushing those beetles with the Ionizer machines leads to an excellent angina treatment! I immediately set up a fancy production line (as dictated by the tutorial), and fun and profits are had by all.
Level 2 cures are nice and all, but do you know where the real money is? The fourth tutorial puts forth that level 3 cures are even better… that is to say, if you can set them up. Going from painkillers to migraine relief was a relatively simple trick, but upgrading that migraine relief to antiseizure medication requires a few more tricks. It requires ‘catalysts’, special colour-coded ingredients that serve to enable upgrade reactions. And it requires mixing different ingredients together…
…and even using fancy shimmy-shakers to ‘change the order of ingredients within a drug’.
Finally, I have six completed tutorials under my belt. If I’m not a drug-producing master now, I don’t know if I’ll ever become one. It’s time, I think, to whet my teeth on an actual scenario!
…an actual low-grade scenario, sure. But still. I understand now that the massive list of scenarios I saw earlier is actually divided into difficulty-based categories. The lower difficulties have easier goals and less ‘opposition’, but also filter out some of the more advanced research and possibilities. The later scenarios, on the other hand, add extra modifiers: less input slots, crippling starting debts, or every single machine and ingredient unlocked from the start — but you’re not allowed to have any active side effect, ever.
I decide to start with a simple scenario. ‘Earn one million revenue inside ten years’, I can do that. And in preparation of the play style I intend to take, I find the optimal combination of avatar and company name to convey my intentions to the world.
Time to rock it, medicine-style. Be back when I’ve won the scenario forever!