Time waster style games were once the bastion of Flash games hosted on sites like Newgrounds. Since the introduction of smartphones they’ve slowly transitioned themselves away from the web and instead found a comfortable home on everyone’s mobile device. Thus it seems kind of odd these days to play a time waster style game on the PC as they’re no longer the platform of choice for this genre. Still when deciding on whether or not I should get Hook on my mobile or my PC I opted for the latter, if only because I rarely find time to play games on my mobile these days. Interestingly though Hook seems simple enough that it can service both platforms without needing to make any concessions with either.
Hook has a very simple premise: you have to pull all the wires back without any of them colliding with each other. You do this by pushing a trigger that initiates the pulling and, if you done everything in the correct order, it’ll slide all the way back. Other than that there’s not a whole lot more to speak of and the base game comes with a grand total of 50 levels to make your way through. If you’re a power gamer this won’t take you much longer than an hour to accomplish although I’m sure if you got this on the mobile you could stretch out that play time over the course of weeks if you were so inclined.
Hook, like many other minimalistic puzzlers, has a very clean and simple aesthetic. I’m sure part of this was an artistic choice but later on it becomes obvious that the lack of distinction between visual elements is actually a key element of the game play. The background music is similarly simplistic, swelling and fading as you solve puzzles or make a mistake that triggers the level to refresh again. I’m sure some would like the option to change the colour palette but in all honesty I don’t think I’d bother.
As I described before the mechanics of Hook are pretty simple, pull all the wires back without any of them colliding with each other. The puzzles start out pretty simple, literally just clicking any of the buttons in any order will solve them, but after that new mechanics start getting dropped in every 10 puzzles or so to spice things up a bit. Most of these additional mechanics come in the form of ways to block off paths however there’s also a few that break the line, forcing you to retrace the paths again. It would be easy enough to brute force the puzzles however if you make one mistake (or 3 in the later ones) the puzzle refreshes, forcing you to restart from the beginning.
There’s a pretty simple algorithm you can use to beat every one of the puzzles contained within this game although executing it may be a little easier said than done. What you first need to do is find the line that can be moved first, usually one without anything blocking it. Then you need to block off all other paths so that only it gets moved. Then from there it’s simply an iterative process to eliminate the rest of them. Using this process I was easily able to breeze through all 50 puzzles in just over an hour, something that many other reviewers have been able to do. This is probably one of those games that could benefit immensely from a level editor and Steam Workshop integration as I’m sure the community would be able to come up with infinite puzzles that would be orders of magnitude more difficult than the default set.
Hook is a great little puzzler with an unique mechanic. The puzzles, whilst not especially challenging, are rewarding enough that I felt compelled to blast through them all in one sitting. It’s shortness is something of a detraction, especially considering that the addition of a level editor and a way to share user created levels would ensure a near endless supply of content. Still for the asking price I don’t think anyone will really mind the lack of content as $1 for 1 hour of entertainment is pretty good by anyone’s standards.
Hook is available on iOS, Android, Windows Phone and PC right now for $0.99 on all platforms. Game was played on the PC with a total of 1 hour playtime.
Ever since games realised that they were no longer beholden to the Euclidean world we exist in the number of games based around messing with that idea has increased exponentially. The seminal title for this genre is, without a doubt, Portal which has then spawned a series of spiritual successors that have taken the idea of a non-Euclidean world to its logical extremes. They provide a special kind of challenge as they’re typically not the kind of puzzle game that you can simply bash your head against and get a solution to a problem, instead forcing you to think outside the realm of what would typically be possible. Parallax is the most recent entry into this genre, sporting an extremely minimalistic style and, as expected, mind bending puzzles.
There’s no story to speak of in Parallax, you’re simply unceremoniously dropped into a stark black and white world with a text box hover over a platform that says “Goal”. From there it’s up to you to figure out how to get to that place, usually through the use of the portals that bridge your current world to that of another where the only thing in common is the portals between them. I guess you could derive some meaning of the journey between two worlds that are inverses of each other, although even I’d struggle to find the imagery to support that one. Suffice to say you’re in a world that doesn’t function like you’d expect it to and you have to find your way to a portal at the end of a puzzle.
I’ve played my fair share of minimalist games in the past but Parallax really takes this to a whole new level. Everything is either one of two colours (which, if you so choose, can be something other than just black and white) lacking any kind of texture or lighting. I’m sure part of this is for aesthetic reasons, which in view isn’t misplaced at all, but it’s also definitely done from a game play perspective as the extremely similar environments do add another level of complexity in figuring out just where the hell you are. This is also what helps the game install down to a paltry 100MB, something I haven’t seen since the good old days of gaming when CDs were just starting to become popular.
As I mentioned in passing before Parallax is a non-Euclidean styled puzzler that has you making your way from point A to point B using all sorts of weird and whacky physics. There’s no combat or enemies to speak of but you’re never far from falling off the edge of the puzzle to your doom or potentially getting zapped by one of the laser traps. The puzzles start off relatively simple, only requiring you to understand which portal to go through and which way to point it, but it quickly raps up to add in relative gravity, timed switches and boosters that launch you great distances. It might not be as complicated as Antichamber but it does a pretty good job of emulating many of the things that made that game great.
The puzzles are for the most part challenging, often requiring you to experiment a little bit in order to figure out what the sequence of events is that is required to get you to your goal. Checking my achievements I managed to get just over half of the puzzles done in the “perfect” amount of moves, most of which I was able to do on either the first or second try. Don’t let that number fool you though, some of these puzzles took upwards of 15 or 20 minutes to solve, and some of them I simply lucked out on figuring out the developer’s logic before getting stuck in a downward spiral of doubt and black and white surfaces. The puzzles towards the end are truly mind boggling with the particular one below completely disorientating me numerous times over, forcing me to find a reference point to try and centre my brain again.
Probably my main complaint with Parallax is the amount of back-tracking that many of the puzzles put you through. Quite often you’ll find yourself all the way to the point where you’re flicking that one switch that you need to hit to open up the puzzle only to find yourself having to undo everything you just did in order to access that last door. Sure I get that that can be a challenge at times, especially given how easy it is to lose your bearing in this game, however when you’re doing it for the 5th time in a hour it really starts to grate on you and the pay off just doesn’t feel as good as it could be. Some of them are done well, like the one where the alternate world has numerous boosters all through it and you have to switch the laser gates around to access different sections, but the majority of them are just irritating.
The minimalism also starts to get boring after a certain point. Whilst many lamented the idea of Diablo 3 having such pretty and bright colours it’s hard to argue with the logic: we’re simply not wired to deal with the same kind of monotonous environment time and time again and so visual variety drives engagement. Parallax does a good job of this with the different environments however the stark black and white does make it a rather easy game to put down, as I found myself doing multiple times. Perhaps changing it up every so often ala Lyne could help to alleviate this.
For those who’ve been seeking a game that bends the rules of physics as well as it bends your brain it’s hard to go past Parallax, a great first entry from Toasty Games. It’s scope might not be as large as the big name titles that have come before it however Parallax manages to an incredible amount with the minimalistic stylings it branded itself with. The puzzles could do with some work however, forcing you to retrace your steps all too often adding tedium where there needn’t be any. The style also gets boring after the 3rd hour or so and, whilst you can change up the colours a bit, it doesn’t go far in alleviating the visual boredom. Suffice to say though I think it’s worth a play, even with those few caveats hanging over its head.
Parallax is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was 3.9 hours with 69% of the achievements unlocked.
Puzzlers are something of a mainstay of the indie community thanks to their relative simplicity and large amount of creative freedom they offer the developer. That being said it means that the same generic mechanics tend to crop up quite often and unique puzzle mechanics are few and far between. There is a lot of innovation in the indie scene however and every so often it manages to create a gem of a puzzle game that provides a fresh take on the genre. Grow Home is one such game, taking the more traditional 3D puzzler and shaking it up with some interesting game mechanics and a certain sense of charm that makes it a delightfully fun game to play.
You are BUD, the Botanical Utility Droid, who’s been sent on a quest to harvest star seeds from the elusive star plant found on some planets. Your ever watchful parent ship MOM has located one of these plants and has sent you down to the surface to cultivate the plant. Now it’s up to you to grow the star plant up to its optimal height, 2 kilometres tall in fact, so that it will blossom and produce those wonderful seeds that you’re looking for. MOM has sent down some resources for you in preparation for your journey and you’re going to need every single one of them if you are to grow this plant to any height.
Grow Home is a styled in a beautifully minimalistic way, using extremely low poly count models and, if I’m not mistaken, eschewing any kind of textures in favour of just solid colour polygons. It is lavished by a lot of other effects though, like distance hazing and night/day cycles, so the minimal polygons end up looking a lot better than you first expect them to. The game touts the main character as being “procedurally animated” which means that it attempts to move in a certain way based on the inputs which, for the most part, works and adds to the whole bumbling charm of BUD although it sometimes wigs out and causes all sorts of mischief. This is most certainly intentional though, as is most of the emergent behaviour you’re able to invoke in this world.
Your task is very simple: grow the star plant to the requisite 2000m height and then gather a star seed from the flower on the top. To do this you’ll need to guide the little stems on the star plant to energy rocks which give the plant a burst of energy allowing it to climb to greater heights. However to get to all these energy rocks you’ll need to climb the plant, inching ever higher in order to get to the next rock. This means, of course, that the higher you go the more you have to lose should you fall as one misstep can send you tumbling back down to earth with only a few things to stop you from making BUD jam on the ground below. There’s also other objectives for you to complete which tempt you to take even greater risks but should you get them it could be well worth the effort.
Grow Home tells you at the start that it’s better played with a controller and whilst I’m usually a stickler for keyboard and mouse I’m inclined to agree with the devs here. You see in order to climb you have to press and hold the mouse buttons, something that’s a little fatiguing after a while. A controller by comparison, especially the current gen designs, are much easier to deal with in that regard. That being said I didn’t have many climbing related incidents due to finger fatigue but it would’ve likely made the whole experience a little better. Once you get the hang of making sure that you have at least one hand connected to a surface the rest of the climbing flows pretty well, save for some times when the procedural animation engine tries to reach beyond BUD’s grasp and just leaves him reaching for a goal he can never get.
The few other mechanics are great little quality of life additions, with the flower and the leaf ensuring that one misstep doesn’t cost you the last 10 minutes progress. The crystal upgrades are also well worth it, making the whole climbing process a lot easier and quicker. I only got up to 30 something crystals before I finished the game but those improvements were certainly worth the effort. If you’re so inclined you can bring stuff to the teleporters and have MOM scan them for some rather comical data bank entries for you to read although since I’m not usually a “collect all the things” kind of player I left it to one side, only bringing things in that were nearby. Suffice to say that there’s a lot of stuff to keep you entertained in here should that sort of thing appeal to you.
Grow Home runs smoothly thanks to its low polygon use however the Unity engine its running on, for some reason, really doesn’t like being alt-tabbed out of. This highlighted another rather annoying issue with the game’s save mechanism as it doesn’t save anything unless you hit the save and quit button in the menu. I lost the first 30 minutes of my initial game because I alt-tabbed to check something and then couldn’t get back in, putting me right back at the start. There’s no option to run in fullscreen windowed either, something which would render my frustrations moot.
Grow Home is a delightful platform puzzler with gorgeous minimalistic graphics and a fresh set of puzzle mechanics that make it a joy to play. If you’re like me and play games to completion then the asking price might be a bit rich for the 2ish hours of game play it delivers but there’s certainly a lot more to Grow Home than just getting your hands on the star seed. That being said I still really enjoyed my time with Grow Home as it’s so far away from everything else I’ve played recently. If you enjoy a good puzzle game then you can’t go past Grow Home.
Grow Home is available on PC right now for $9.95. Total play time was approximately 2 hours with 15% of the achievements unlocked.
Ever since my rather devastating experience with Super Meat Boy I’ve been pretty adverse to twitch based platformers, mostly because I don’t want to give myself RSI or an aneurysm. Whilst I may have made a brief foray back into the genre with They Bleed Pixels there have been numerous others I’ve left by the wayside because of the sense of dread I get when I play them. However I am a sucker for minimalistic takes on game ideas and 140, spawned by the man who was the gameplay director for Limbo, strips away much of the typical platforming experience and then amplifies it with its own brand of unique mechanics.
You’re a square, but only when you stand still. You’re a circle, but only when you’re moving. You’re a triangle, but only when you’re flying. The only instinct you have is to move from the left side of the screen to the right, backed by an eerie and haunting sound. Things start to change as you pick up these strange little baubles that dot the landscape, reshaping that sound into a pulsating beat which the entire world reacts to in time. This world isn’t completely safe though as there are many things that would seek to stop your journey forward, but even they are slaves to the rhythm that weaves through everything around you.
The art style of 140 is probably the most ferocious example of minimalism that I’ve seen to date. Things that you’d usually expect to see in even minimalistically styled games like gradients, shadows or shading simply don’t exist here with everything being solid colours. This is not to say that it’s a visually dull game however, far from it, more that when something is done to this level of simplicity it’s anything but random, it’s a carefully calculated experience that’s designed to get you focused on the game play. In that respect it does well as you’ll do little more in the short time this game will keep you.
The main game mechanic of 140 is 2D platforming, seeing you leap from section to section and often failing, seeing you transported back to your last checkpoint. However the twist with 140 is that the entire world reacts to the background music which you build up by collecting the little orbs and then bringing them back to a platform. Every time you do this the world around you will change, either wholesale by transporting you to another place or by bringing another part of the environment to life. This opens up new opportunities for you to progress but also ramps up the difficultly level, forcing you to reconsider how you’ve been playing up until that point in order to incorporate this new mechanic.
The enemies and boss fights are also pretty intriguing, taking the same music driven idea and incorporating it into battles that have the signature trademarks of other genres (like bullet hell, for example). They’re a fun distraction from the rudimentary platforming, often forcing you to think radically differently in order to complete them. The final challenge felt like something of a cock block though and whilst I got close to completing the game the somewhat random nature of it (yes I know there’s a pattern but since it doesn’t repeat from the start on death it’s a real pain to figure out) seem to catch me out every time I got close to the final puzzle.
Unfortunately there’s not much more I can say about 140 as it’s an experience that you have to play for yourself to really appreciate. At the beginning it feels a little too simple, lacking pretty much anything to keep you interested, however that quickly changes as the music ramps up and the world starts reacting to it. It’s also a very short experience too, clocking in at just over an hour, which makes it well worth a look in if you’re seeking something radically different from the gaming norm.
140 is available on PC right now for $4.99. Total game time was approximately 1 hour.
Stripping away certain aspects of a game is the norm for independent developers as your limited resources constrain what you’re able to accomplish. Whilst on the surface this sounds like it would make for an inferior game often it results with a game that makes incredible use of its bare essentials, creating an overall experience that’s on par with much larger titles. Then there are those that eschew nearly all aspects of traditional games in order to focus on a single aspect. Notable entries include games like Gravity Bone, Thirty Flights of Loving, Auralux and, I’m most pleased to say, the new exploration game Proteus.
Like other exploration games Proteus is one where the narrative is primarily driven by your curiosity. Upon starting the game you’ll be greeted with your own little island (which I assume is procedurally generated so each one is unique). There’s no voice telling you to walk to it, nor any other indication that you should even go there, but of course there’s that little voice at the back of your head telling you to proceed forward. Should you do so the next hour of your life will be dedicated to exploring a world that undergoes wild amounts of change and, eventually, so do you.
Proteus is unique in terms of graphical style, straddling the boundaries of pixel art and early 3D first person shooter games. What I found particularly interesting was despite the bare bones nature everything was instantly recognizable, from the various types of plants and animals to the various bits of other miscellanea that covered my island. I’ll be honest and at first I just thought it was the developer being lazy but the more I played the more I began to appreciate the simplicity as that kind of refinement doesn’t exactly come easy.
There’s no real game mechanics to speak of, the whole point of Proteus is simply for you to explore the island that it has created for you. Whilst the island isn’t particularly huge there’s definitely enough to keep you interested, especially with all the various animals that react in different ways to you approaching them. There’s also a weather system that changes from time to time which, again, changes the island. But this is all just a lead up to the best part of Proteus and it only happens at night.
What could be considered plot spoilers follow:
I remember seeing this for the first time very clearly. The sun had gone down and little lights began to appear everywhere. Up until then I had wondered what the overall point of the game was as whilst it was cool to explore a procedurally generated island there wasn’t much more to it; no purpose, no story. But then the lights began to move in a strange way, they seemed to be all moving towards a single point on the island. Curious I walked towards it and they began to speed up with more and more lights appearing out of nowhere to join them.
The lights began congregating at one location, forming into a kind of vortex centered on a point in the middle of island. I walked towards it and they spun faster still, swarming around me until they erupted in a blinding flash of light. Afterwards I saw it was day time once again but the island had changed. New life had sprung up around me and the world looked very different. I realised then and there what had happened, I had been transported forward in time to the next season.
And so this process repeated itself several times over, each time when night fell I would wait anxiously for the lights to reappear in order for me to advance to the next stage. Eventually winter came to my island and it instantly became a desolate wasteland, home to no perceptible life. I wandered my island aimlessly looking for a sign, something to show that was still alive but alas there was none. I again waited for night to come but the lights never appeared so I kept exploring, hoping that I’d find the solution to a problem I felt I had created. It was then that my slow descent into the clouds began and eventually my eyes closed and my island journey came to an end.
Proteus wins my praise for the simple fact it went from a slightly confusing experience to an incredibly magical one by the use of simple mechanics that forced me to build my own narrative. If Auralux is the essence of real time strategy then Proteus is the essence of an exploration game as it does away with pretty much all extraneous elements in favour of the exploration mechanic. It’s short and bittersweet and definitely not for everyone but if you’re a fan of creating your own narrative or exploring games that strip away all things in favour of one aspect then Proteus is definitely worth a look in.
Proteus is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total game time was approximately 1 hour.
Cipher Prime studios have something of a reputation when it comes to making casual games that have a bit of auditory and visual flair to them. I first came across them in late 2010 when I snagged an indie bundle from them, mostly for the other titles that were included in the bundle. However Auditorium, a physics based puzzler that combined a gorgeous light show with some sublime music, managed to captivate me in a way I never thought a casual game like this would be able to. The infatuation was unfortunately short lived what with the torrent of titles that were released soon after as is custom for the holiday period. However since my first encounter with them all that time ago I’ve kept in the loop on Cipher Prime’s exploits and their latest title, Splice, managed to capture my attention once again.
Like all of Cipher Prime’s games there’s no plot or characters to speak of in the world of Splice. You are simply presented with puzzles that have a definitive solved state, although how you get to that point is, of course, left completely unclear. In Splice the main game revolves around attempting to match the sequence mapped out on screen with the various microbe looking tubes in a limited number of moves. This starts out simply with the puzzles being simple pattern matching exercises but the difficulty and lateral thinking required escalates quickly as you progress through Splice.
As always Cipher Prime delivers on their trademark visual style combining modern lighting effects with a distinctive modern styling that makes Splice a joy to look at. I think the minimalist approach is what gets me here as there really are no extraneous elements on screen making the puzzle at hand the centre of attention. This when combined with the soothing and unrelenting backing track makes for a very pleasurable overall experience even when you’re seemingly stuck on a puzzle that you just can’t get past. Cipher Prime really has mastered this style of game and Splice just seems to be their latest demonstration of how much they’ve mastered creating puzzlers in this fashion.
The core of the game is divided into 7 sequences, each of which contain 7 strands of an individual puzzle. As I alluded to earlier the mechanics in the beginning are quite simple being as close to a traditional puzzle as is possible in this format. However after the initial sequence new mechanics are thrown into the mix that challenge you to rethink your strategies. Additionally Cipher Prime also cranks up the non-linearity of puzzles quite dramatically after each sequence as well, forcing you to reconsider the obvious approach in favour of something a little more non-traditional.
The first of such mechanics is the split which allows you to split a segment, and anything attached to the end of it, in half. This makes for some interesting creations as when you’ve got a rather complicated structure on the end of a split it will duplicate the entire thing, usually leaving you with a tangle mess that’s no where near close to the solution to your problem. Most of the time though that initial mess is required to complete the puzzle which is where the heavy use of lateral thinking comes into play. You can also completely ruin a solution with a split in the wrong place but that’s why they included a reset button at the top.
The second mechanic to be introduced is the spawn additional segment, pictured above. It’s incredibly simple in its function, it just makes another segment at the end. Whilst most of the time its obvious where this should go this mechanic combined with the split can make for some rather intriguing puzzles. It goes hand in hand with the third mechanic which is the bomb segment. The bomb will destroy itself and anything attached to the end of it which is usually required at the higher end puzzles to cull the additional segments created by complicated splits. The final mechanic is simply the one that allows you to leave segments floating around, in essence letting you know that you might be given more pieces than you need.
Individually the mechanics are curious but nothing particularly revolutionary, providing a simple challenge that doesn’t take too much time to complete. When combined together however they can provide quite a deal of challenge to even seasoned gamers like myself. Whilst there’s a bit of a trick to working out whether or not you’re heading in the right direction (hint: try counting the number of segments you have, the number you need and then work it out from there) even once you’ve figured it out you’re still no where near the solution in some cases and you’ll often have to spend quite a while rearranging the pieces in order to solve it.
Although its not like their other physics based games where emergent game play meant that there was sometimes unlimited solutions to certain puzzles I did get the distinct feeling that most puzzles had more than one solution. The solution pictured above is just one example where I’m not completely sure that was the one that was intended as whilst it works I came to it in a really roundabout way. I guess since one of the achievements is to complete a puzzle with 1 splice left over the multiple solutions aspect is probably an intended part of the game rather than an artefact of its mechanics.
The one criticism I’ll level at Splice is its comparative value to other games. The core of the game is quite short being only two and a half hours long (although the epilogue might add another hour or two onto that) and for $10 it would be at the higher end of the price spectrum for a game of this nature. It’s a minor nitpick to be sure but its something to consider if you like to get more bang for your buck in terms of time played.
Splice is another great game from Cipher Prime studios combining an intriguing puzzle game with their trademark minimalistic visual style and smooth auditory backing. It may be only a short game buts one that’ll captivate, frustrate and entertain you all at the same time. Indeed nothing is more satisfying than going up against what seems like an nigh on impossible puzzle only to have solved it minutes later. If you’re after a distraction from the usual throng of mainstream games or just enjoy a good puzzler then Splice is definitely for you.
Splice is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total game time was around 2.5 hours with 63% of the achievements unlocked.