Yet another action puzzle game comes across the review desk this week. The constant and relentless onslaught of tile matching, marble popping and combo crunching has started to take its toll on me. Iím seeing falling blocks and tantalising powerups when I close my eyes to sleep at night. But for the greater good I forge on. Actually, from the first glance at the screenshots, Puzzle Dimension looked very appealing with its quasi-retro style and obscenely colourful graphics. I booted up my Steam client and started the download with anticipation. And it might be an opportune time to mention that as of time of publication of this review, the game is only available through the Steam digital distribution service. I am a big fan of Steam and have had nothing but a great experience from it, but a lot of others seem not to share the same love of it. Steam haters be warned!
So once installed, I jumped straight in to the first level and almost cried. Itís another one of those bloody ďroll the marble over a few checkpoints and into the goalĒ games. But wait, after a few more levels, the funky 8-bit soundtrack and awesome pixelated (or are they?) graphics have started to grow on me, and Iím getting into it. Then at about the sixth or seventh level in, a ďwhat theÖ!?Ē moment that defines the game. This level is not flat - itís got a section that curves down and under the puzzle, and as I roll my ball down it the puzzle itself rotates so that Iím always rolling on the floor and never the wall or ceiling. Or am I? Iím totally disorientated and realise that I have to now fall off the ledge that Iíve rolled down and am on the underside of the original starting section. The concept of gravity acting as you would expect it to - perpendicular to the floor that you are always rolling on - is intuitive, yet the way the puzzle rotates around to change what the player perceives to be the ground is a very simple yet clever and disorientating feature. I love it.
Almost (but not quite) as cool as the first playthrough in Portal where you have to jump off a ledge into the yellow gate on the floor and fly out of the blue gate positioned high above on a vertical wall section to navigate a jump. The principle is not similar, but the ďAha!Ē moment that the player gets when they solve a good level in Puzzle Dimension is comparable to that.
Of course there are other obstacles in the levels to ensure that rolling over the flowers (requiring collection in all levels) is no easy task. Decaying blocks, teleporters, ice, spikes and barbeques are just some of the perils faced. There are no annoying time limits though, and once all the flowers have been collected, the exit portal is unlocked. But the real star of the show is the adaptive gravity concept and the way that the puzzles tease the player into thinking that they are like the figures navigating the impossible staircase world of M.C.Escherís famous ďRelativityĒ. Some of the levels donít feature this concept at all, or only in a very limited fashion and so they end up feeling a little mundane and conventional. Rest assured though that there are plenty of very tricky and disorienting levels in store as well. 100 in all, of which I have now battled my way through just over half in about 5 hours.
As you progress through the game, the total amount of flowers collected earns you unlocks. The 100 levels are divided up into tiers which are made available as the player progresses. Once a tier is unlocked, you can challenge any of the levels in it, and as more tiers open up, even if you get stuck on a level, there are plenty of others available to provide a change of scenery and to keep things fresh. Often I find that taking a break from a tricky level and going back to crack it later is a good way to approach the game.
Control of the ball is easily managed through keyboard commands. Arrow keys roll it in the direction pushed relative to the camera facing, and space bar lets you hop over one square as required. The camera is rotated and tilted by the WASD keys, and by pushing the C key, control of the ball is temporarily disabled and the camera can be zoomed and panned around the puzzle at will. There is support for game controllers as well, but the keyboard was more than adequate for me. Keystrokes can also be remapped as desired through the options interface.
As mentioned before, the retro style pixelated graphics lend an old school charm to the game, but as your ball rolls through each level it ďde-pixelatesĒ the scenery and applies beautiful high res textures to the tiles and objects. Also unlocked as the player progresses through the game are 4 different and equally attractive graphical themes for the game world. This sort of attention to detail isnít at all required in terms of gameplay, but certainly adds visual appeal and is absolutely consistent with the overall high level of presentation that Puzzle Dimension boasts - from excellent option screens to awesome music and sound effects to variable hardware compatibility (the game runs fine on my aging laptop as well). It even takes advantage of the Steam Cloud technology so that saved games can be continued from any PC that the user installs on without the need to manually transfer save files. Big thumbs up for this!
Iím really straining to find anything in terms of criticism of the game actually. If I had to have a very minor gripe, it would be that playing the tutorial teaches you to use the shift-arrow key combination to rotate the camera rather than a separate set of keys (WASD, for example). This leads to you using the same hand on the same keys for moving the ball as well as the camera and lead to a good few frustrating falls into the abyss for my unfortunate ball. Also when youíre mid-level and realise that the situation is hopeless, you have to go for the escape key, then tab down to restart, then wait a bit for the level to load. There is a instant reset level hotkey that is unbound by default but took me ages to find in the key bindings (which happened purely by chance). Perhaps a note should be made of this in the tutorial also? The more difficult levels are much less painful with an instant restart.
Iíve been pretty miserly with the gold stars of late, but Puzzle Dimension is a worthy recipient. The $10 price point is extremely reasonable, thereís lotís of content and most importantly, there is a solid and unique concept on display that will have you scratching your head and cursing at your monitor. The gameplay encourages lateral thinking, many levels have more than one solution and the game is fun and accessible to all. I donít think I could ask much more of a puzzle game. This and Tidalis have been the most fun Iíve had with the genre in a long while. Although Tidalis was good, I think I like Puzzle Dimension even better.
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