Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Review- GravBlocks+ (Wii U eShop)

Puzzle games have been around for decades. It seems as though the formula that is most appreciated (if not perfected) is the "match 3 by swapping 2 pieces" style popularized by Tetris Attack (aka Pokémon Puzzle League) years ago and, more recently, Bejeweled. GravBlocks+ enters the fray armed with a new gameplay mechanic; the ability to shift the gravitational pull of the game grid. This unique twist is activated by matching 3 "gravity blocks" (those which possess directional arrows rather than colored symbols). Hence the game's title, "GravBlocks+." So is this twist enough to make Sir Isaac Newton proud? Find out after the jump.

GravBlocks+ stands out from the many "1980s throwback games" (some of which are admittedly quite good) currently available from digital download services. It stands out because it is not an 80s throwback but chooses instead to represent the mid 1990s. I'd like to think this is by design rather than accident. Everything from the X-files-esque storyline and soundtrack to the heavily pixelated "photorealistic" loading screens just about made me double check to see if I had booted up my Sega Saturn instead of the Wii U. Now, this is not to say the game suffers in any way because of this or that nostalgia bogs it down. Matter of fact I applaud the fact that we see elements of this oft-neglected era of gaming in GravBlocks+. Since Tetris Attack is the forefather of this subgenre of puzzle games, I guess it only makes sense that GravBlocks+ reminds me of the 1990s.

Puzzle Mode with the Stone blocks. There are now 8 block types to choose from. This puzzle must be solved in two moves. The really complex puzzles involve multiple gravity changes! (www.fromnothinggamestudios.com)

There are 4 modes of play- puzzle (clear sets of blocks with a limited number of moves), destruction (clear the entire board to advance), challenge (the familiar "Tetris style" with falling blocks), zen (challenge mode without an increasing difficulty), and story (clear specific goals to advance). Anyone who has ever played a puzzle game will be able to jump right in to any of the aforementioned modes.

The game controls and plays well and can be viewed on either the TV or Wii U GamePad screen. The GamePad may be easier since you can turn the screen as gravity shifts...but this does take away from the essence of said gravity shifts. It can be controlled directly on the GamePad screen with a stylus or by using the analog stick or D-pad. I preferred the D-pad.

Here is a screenshot from story mode.
New backgrounds and block styles are unlocked as you progress through the game. 

It is a tad difficult to review puzzle games because there are so many of them and whole lot is only differentiated by minor nuances and tweaks. That being said what GravBlocks+ does, it does well. There may be nothing revolutionary about the game modes or "match 3" action but neither is there anything wrong with how this particular game presents them. The new twists (changes in gravity and "hazards"- electrified areas on the edge to disintegrate blocks) are significant enough to make GravBlocks+ memorable. Also, for a long time gamer like myself, the 1990s atmosphere gets "mad props." So, grab some overpriced Surge from Amazon.com, a big bag of Sour Patch Kids, and fire up GravBlocks+. 

Before defining my reasons for scoring this game so high, let me acknowledge some of the reasons I have seen other reviewers cite for lower scores. First, I have seen a few people say the game is too easy/slow/boring. I do believe a player could get this impression from GravBlocks+ initially but if the player puts a bit more time into the game they will see these issues fade. As I said before, GravBlocks+ looks like a 90s throwback. Well, it plays like one too. "Back in the day" games like this (Pokémon Puzzle League, Kirby's Avalanche, and the oft-forgotten gem Tetrishpere, to name a few) all had a slow and steady learning curve. Puzzle games would guide you along until you reached the harder levels and only then would they turn you loose. If you don't believe me just go back and play Breakout! on an Atari 2600 or Tetris on an original Gameboy. Sure, they might not make 'em like this too often these days but that doesn't mean they shouldn't.

Second, I have also seen the graphics get low scores. Without getting into the whole "are videogames art?" debate; Can I at least ask that we be reasonable about this? After all, this is a puzzle game (typically a genre not renown for visual prowess) and, unless I am waaaaaaayyyy off base here, I think From Nothing were going for a 1990s "throwback" theme... and in that regard they nailed it.

Bottom Line: In the slew of similarity that is the puzzle game genre,  GravBlocks+ stands out from the pack. It does so by effectively using creative visuals and sound. Plus, the "gravity shift" dynamic is indeed cool ....even cool enough to warrant being the game's namesake. I score the game a solid 7 but it gets an extra point for the creepy aliens (who, in my opinion, have been criminally underused in videogames).  

Though I did not play the original Android version of GravBlocks, From Nothing Game Studios lists these improvements and additions to GravBlocks+ for the Wii U:
  • Overhauled and rebuilt game engine
  • New graphics and backgrounds.
  • HD graphics.
  • Twice as many block styles.
  • New 90-level story mode to explain what the deal is with all the aliens!
  • 50 more extra-challenging puzzles.
  • 20 more Accomplishments.
  • Unlockables tied to Accomplishments.
  • Saving for high scores in Challenge and Zen modes.
  • Off-screen play on the GamePad.
  • Optional touch-screen controls.
  • Refined controls for fast and accurate gameplay.
  • New dynamic music.
  • And quite a bit more!

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