Developed & Published by The Quantum Astrophysicists Guild
Available on Steam, PS4, XBox One, and Wii U
I usually play puzzle games to feel smart, but sometimes they remind me that I’m not. A man’s got to know his limitations, and one way to do that is by admitting defeat, but the contest has to feel fair, not like I’m bringing my knife-like brain to a gunfight. I had conflicting emotions about my own intelligence at times while playing Tumblestone, a new and deeper take on the “match three” genre, so much so that although its rock-solid gameplay and creative variety made it hard to put the controller down, at times I would’ve liked to do so with a shattering smash.
Difficulty can be a hard thing to measure in puzzle games; the way one person recognizes logical patterns may be completely different than the next, leaving some people stuck for half an hour and some people moving on within mere minutes. Nothing works for everyone, but the best in the genre take basic concepts understandable to anyone and build complexity from simplicity, tasking players to refine their strategies to solve increasingly more fiendish problems. Tumblestone mostly adheres to this philosophy, offering up a board of colored stones which must be cleared by moving back and forth, shooting them in matching groups of three. Because only those on the bottom-most tier are accessible, choosing a path that prevents that last block in a needed triad from being obscured by one of a different shade is where the challenge lies. Luckily the stones are static, meaning there is plenty of time to analyze the situation for a sure solution, and the first few stages of the game serve as a breezy tutorial for those unfamiliar with the idea. The mechanics quickly become addictive in a Space Invaders meets Dr.Mario kind of way, and there’s no question as to the fun of staying a step ahead and flawlessly blasting one’s way to victory.
To keep things interesting throughout Tumblestone‘s massive single-player campaign, which spans 12 worlds containing 30 stages a piece (!), different variables are introduced that must be contended with, such as blocks that alternately appear and disappear with each shot taken, wild cards that can be used as a stand in for any colored stones present in a number not divisible by three, or the inability to eliminate trios of the same color twice in a row. These tricky modifiers definitely spice things up, leading to an increased need for some planning before firing away. This is where the depth of Tumblestone really shines through beyond the normal match-three game, and the developers have used the tools at their disposal to construct some truly devilish tests.
Unfortunately, some of these end up feeling less like challenges and more like ordeals. It was not uncommon during my play sessions to be sailing along, clearing boards in one or two tries, only to encounter a random roadblock that bucked the sense of progression and mired me in a repetitive marathon of futility that might last 50 or more attempts before merciful completion and resumption of my former cruising speed, at least for a while. As things get more complicated in the latter half of worlds as modifiers are combined, the puzzles in Tumblestone seem more obtuse and get less and less satisfying to solve. Much of the time I felt I was merely lucky in my guesses as opposed to actually figuring things out, turning self pride into humility. The many moving parts almost require one to be Rain Man in order to progress on merit, and while stumpers can be skipped by earning tokens, those get out of jail free cards are rare. I never wanted to use one for fear that something wickeder this way would come, and that something usually did.
Still, the variety is engaging. Each world also contains a “boss fight,” where several boards must be dealt with under a time constraint, lest the slowly descending blocks flatten the tiny hero or heroine like pancake. Pressure is amped up, reminding me of Indiana Jones escaping a temple booby trap, and the kind of gaming pleasure derived from successfully passing these areas is of the best sort. Head-to-head battles periodically pop up as well, best of three matches that send your character into direct competition with another to see who can clear their tumblestones the fastest. Quick trigger fingers are rewarded, but make one mistake and you’ll be starting over, only to most likely watch your opponent pop their last rock. This setup is further expanded upon in Tumblestone‘s excellent multiplayer mode, which can be played both online and by up to four people locally. The short but sweet nature of the matches is sure to produce gaming marathons that will no doubt be played to determine which friend in the group is the brains of the outfit. Some arcade-ish modes offer even more ways to blast bricks, giving Tumblestone a wealth of content.
Crisp visuals have a nice cartoon appeal, with little touches like the different faces on tumblestones adding charm, and while the story in the campaign mode is fairly forgettable, some clever dialogue induces enough chuckles that it’s worth reading during breaks in the action while you compose yourself for whatever twisted obstacle the game throws at you next.
With a campaign that could outlast many JRPGs, intense multiplayer, and a host of other fun modes, Tumblestone is a puzzle game for puzzle gamers. Though its sometimes seemingly unfair difficulty may cause players some frustration and self doubt, the depth of the concept, diabolical craftiness provided by the various obstacles, and solid gameplay is hard to walk away from. Just be sure to gently set your controller down when you do.
Editor’s Note: This review is based on the Wii U version