StoneLoops! of Jurassica
If you're familiar with games like Luxor and Zuma, then you'll have a fairly good idea of what to expect gameplay-wise in this week's review game: "StoneLoops! of Jurassica". What you may not know is why there is an exclamation mark midway through the name there, and what that capital "L" is doing there in the first place. I've pondered long and hard over this for at least 5 minutes now, and can't offer enlightenment - but I can tell you that StoneLoops! is the best marble popping puzzle game out there right now.
But, you know what? Seeing Codeminion pop out another simple puzzle game is as frustrating for me as watching Ayrton Senna driving a Mini around Monza. Yes, sure he'll go bloody fast and leave everybody else's Minis in his wake, but at the end of the day, you're left wondering why he wasn't competing in the F-1 race the next day. We know that Codeminion can make great puzzle games. If you have never tried Magic Match (reviewed by our very own Andrew Williams back in 2006 - check the archives), then I suggest you download and take a look at that as well. A brilliant title.
In fairness, I am being a little harsh, and StoneLoops! is also a great game for so many reasons. Let's see - top notch graphics, polished presentation, speaker-crushing audio, multiple game modes, switchable user profiles, customisable difficulty levels... the list just goes on and on. The game is so sweet that I played through the classic mode completely in just three mammoth sessions. As a reviewer, I will admit that to play a game through in it's entirety is something that just doesn't happen all the time. StoneLoops is fun, addictive and fast paced. It sits at the pinnacle of the genre and smacks down inferior marble poppers with utter contempt.
For those that are not too familiar with these types of games, the object of each level is to clear the playfield of balls that roll in from one end of a predefined track before they reach the other end. This is accomplished by shooting balls from the bottom of the screen into the chain to match colour groups of 3 or more, which then explode and are removed from the sequence. As the player's skill increases, massive chain reactions can be set up and then detonated for big bonus points. The KISS principle (Keep It Simple Stupid) works a treat; the game never becomes a chore, and conversely, one can adopt an almost meditative state, pulverising massive numbers of marbles with combos, and numerous powerups that appear somewhat randomly after balls are cleared.
The powerups are a big drawcard for StoneLoops! Meteor showers, fireballs, lightning strikes and pterradon attacks all work for you to punish those little rock marbles for whatever it is they have ever done to you. They are very satisfying to release and come in many varied flavours, most being powerful enough to turn a level just in time when things seem to be getting a little hectic. The gameplay balance is spot on for me at the medium difficulty but there are two more above that for veterans of the genre. In Classic mode the balls move at a set speed around the course until they get to their goal and the level is lost, or when all balls are cleared and the level is won. Strategy mode is basically the same, but the balls only progress on the track when a player makes a shot. In Survival mode, the balls are never ending, and it's just a matter of the player holding out for as long as possible against the onslaught; this being my least favourite mode of play.
There's a trophy system where awards are doled out for the player meeting certain criteria, like say when you have won 30 levels on classic mode or when you have used 100 powerups in the game. Also present are mini-games such as a target shooting interlude, and a screen where progress through the game yields improvements on your house in each stage of the campaign. I found that it was little features like this that just keeps StoneLoops! a few steps ahead of the game with view to its competition.
Graphics are superb. Over the 5 different environments featured all of the levels seem to be hand drawn and none of them repeat. Each new level brings a slightly different challenge and all are visually stunning with little doodads like steam rising from lava flows and water dripping from rainforest foliage. The attention to detail is astonishing. Animations are smooth and engaging, particle effects fly as rocks are smashed and the screen just comes to life with various effects as elements burn, electrify, crush and are otherwise pulverised. Menu screens have been afforded just as much TLC as the in-game screens and are easily navigated. Possibly the only complaint that I have is that when the game is run in a widescreen aspect (and I suspect in any resolution greater than 1024x768) the game pixellates somewhat and does not stretch over the entire screen. The workaround seems to be to just play the game windowed, and although this is acceptable, it is not ideal.
It's amazing the difference to a gameplay experience that good quality audio makes. Often excellent sounds and music are not missed when absent, but the amazing audio that StoneLoops! offers is testament to the fact that a polished production requires just this. The music is varied from stage to stage and is a perfect fit to the atmosphere of each theme. It also changes dynamically in response to the danger level that the player is currently facing in-game, and adds to the immersion significantly. The explosions, ambient sounds, voice-overs and various other effects gave my sub-woofer a workout and are the best I have ever experienced in a puzzle game - period.
So I guess the only remaining question is whether StoneLoops! will still be getting played a couple of weeks down the track. I'm unsure of whether it has long lasting appeal simply because the gameplay mechanics are a little one dimensional, the amazing production value notwithstanding. I also can't help feeling that Codeminion have never gotten out of second gear with StoneLoops! and desperately want to see them turn their hand to something a little more engaging. Without doubt they are very good at what they do well, and that is make top quality puzzle games. StoneLoops! is no exception.
Keywords: stoneloops! of jurassica review, codeminion development studios reviews, codeminion development studios games, stoneloops! of jurassica scores, pc game reviews, indie game reviews, independent gaming.