Review: Big Pharma, the game that’s kind of a cross between Tetris and Theme Hospital

Cure disease, save lives, make profit. Big Pharma proves it's not easy to do all of these well at once.

I’ve been finding it increasingly rare recently that I sit down to play a game for an hour or two, and then look at the clock to find 9 hours have passed, my hair is a mess, my stomach is empty, and my eyes are much smaller and drier than they were. But with Big Pharma this is an entirely likely event.

Created by Twice Circled, a one-man game studio run by Tim Wicksteed and published by Positech Games, Big Pharma is a business tycoon game that invites you to become head of your own pharmaceutical company and deal with all the pressures that come along with this role. The game essentially combines the space management of Tetris with the ruthless profit driven gameplay of any tycoon game, and throws in the medical theme and bright visuals of Theme Hospital.

The first thing I would say about this game is that if you’re the kind of person who is tempted to skip tutorials and jump straight into gameplay, certain that you will pick it up as you go along, reassess your approach. I had to. Big Pharma is not a ‘jump right in’ kind of game; it has a very steep learning curve and whilst it’s rewarding, it kind of feels never ending. To be honest, it would be a quite nice to have a concise downloadable manual with the game. It feels like an achievement in itself getting through the many initial tutorials, so when I need reminded of one little thing, it would be nice not to have to go back through these tutorials.

The game seems fairly simple on paper: get your ingredients, adjust concentrations, mix in some more ingredients and find yourself with a medicine ready to be shipped off to the sickness-stricken masses. Just lie back and wait for their money to rain down. But honestly, when it comes down to it this game is so much more complex than that, requiring some seriously in depth planning when it comes to how you use the space of your factory for machine and conveyor belt routes. There’s no point in building an entire production line if you don’t have room to finish the product and send it out because you’ll quickly find yourself bankrupt.

Image: Steam

Even if you’re the master of efficient space use and don’t find yourself angrily muttering “this fricking machine better fit in this fricking space or I’m going to create more space by flinging my laptop at a wall”, there’s the process of developing the medicines themselves.

You can try and be the good guy pharmaceutical giant, you sweet uninitiated innocent, and provide the best possible treatments to your customers, using your precious time to adjust your medicines to expensive perfection. Or you can be slightly more profit-oriented and convince yourself that if people want their genital warts cured, they’re just going to have to look beyond the severe constipation side effect because it’s expensive to neutralize and you have neither the time nor the inclination to do anything about it. Sometimes you’ll find you’re curing a disease faster than people are catching it so you’ll have to adjust your production to suit; more sick people means more demand and more demand means more profit. You don’t feel even the slightest shock at your own anger towards these people who have the gall to get better until you look back on it. At the time it’s necessary, damnit.

It’s necessary because in Big Pharma, profit is key. Profit allows you to hire scientists to research new machines that will improve efficiency, or send explorers out into the world to discover new ingredients for new and more valuable medicines. You can even use your profits to buy more of that all-important factory floor space that will allow you to build more complex production lines.

Stopping the game from being too easy, and to reduce your temptation to be wholly benevolent, there are also other pharmaceutical companies for you to compete against. They will release medicines that compete with yours, drawing from your profits like the money vampires they are, driving you to impose patents and corner the market. I will not work with other companies for the good of humanity, no way. The money is mine.

Visually, Big Pharma is a delight with a cartoonish look to it that is reminiscent of Theme Hospital. The simplicity of these visuals is not just aesthetically enjoyable, it seems like it’s also key to the gameplay as anything more complex would make it very difficult to see exactly what’s happening in your factory, making it even more difficult to map out your production lines and keep track of profits.

Big Pharma, for the steepness of its learning curve and hair-greying nature of its puzzles, is absolutely worth the time and effort you will inevitably put into it. Any game that has you sketching out a plan to cure a life threatening disease purely to work out whether or not it will be financially worth it to you is a game it’s worth picking up, even if only to see how low you’ll go in your quest for profit.

Big Pharma is available now for £18.99 on Steam.

Main Image: Steam