Inside Pulse 12

Review: Picross 3D (Nintendo DS)

Picross 3D
Publisher: Nintendo of America
Developer: Hal Laboratories
Genre: Puzzle
Release Date: 05/03/2010

Taking an established 2D franchise and making the jump to 3D isn’t anything new in the video game world (and it’s starting to become the norm for movies as well). Even when you’re talking about puzzle games, this holds true. Games like Lights Out and Tetris have made successful transitions, though they drastically changed the way the game was played.

Nintendo’s Picross series has been fairly successful on hand held systems. I got into the series with Mario’s Picross and I’ve kept an eye out for Picross DS ever since I got the system. I hadn’t even heard this game was coming out until about a month before it did. I was willing to pay any price to get my hands on it, but Nintendo was charging a mere twenty bucks for it!

Given the pedigree of the series, it wasn’t out of the question to think that this could compete for puzzle game of the year. The only thing left to do is see how it all panned out.

Modes

Picross 3D might seem sparse in its offerings at first, but when you discover just how much content is on the cartridge, the fact that there isn’t even more will no longer be a concern.

From the start, you have two options. You can play through the campaign on either beginner or easy difficulty. The former contains an in depth tutorial that teaches you all of the basics and gives you a few easy puzzles to kick start your game with. Easy is simply the beginning of the game. After you’ve finished easy, you unlock normal and then hard. You also have the ability to have the game randomly choose a puzzle for you, based on some prerequisites of your choosing. Since you won’t know what object is hidden within the blocks, it can make an old puzzle feel new again.

The newest and biggest addition to the series is the My Picross section. Here, you can create and share your own puzzles. All you need to do is create the shape that you want, color it, and the game will generate a puzzle around it. You can then upload it on Nintendo Wi-Fi, as well as download others’ puzzles. You can share your puzzle with another DS player to play as a demo as well. The tool can be a bit clunky at first, but once you’ve got a few puzzles under your belt, it can do pretty much whatever you want. The only real downside is that you have to build off another block. Meaning, if you want a single block separated from the rest, you first have to build to the location you want and delete the ones you don’t want. It is far from ideal.

From there, you have the gallery. You can view any of the items you’ve unlocked complete with animations. There are hundreds of these things, so the dedicated player will feel a great sense of reward as it fills up.

It may not look like much, but there is so much content and value in these few modes that anything extra would feel like it was diluting the game. This is a pretty spectacular set of modes for a puzzle game.

Graphics

When you’re making objects out of large gray blocks, graphics are clearly not your primary concern. For most of the game, you’re looking at a large group of blocks that need to be chipped away one by one. You can mark which ones you want to keep, which does add a little color to the proceedings, but it can often be very hard to tell what a shape is supposed to be until after you’ve beaten the puzzle. Then, the blocks are all colored and the shape is revealed. In these cases, there are some extremely cute animations that go along with it. Whether a mermaid with her hair flowing in the water or a charging rhino, these animations have the same kind of undeniable charm as the LEGO series.

The rest of the package is a bunch of pretty lame backgrounds and menu options. You can choose which background you like from the full compliment at any time, but each level has a clear theme it’s going for. In either case, it doesn’t give the game any extra flare.

I know I didn’t write much here, but this is a puzzle game that features gray blocks. There isn’t exactly a lot to write about.

Audio

Yet again, there isn’t much to write about. This won’t be a long section.

The music covers a fairly good sized range of midi tunes. You get a Latin beat, an 8-bit throwback, and one fit for a Disney princess movie. Oddly enough, you also have the “tropical rain forest” and “babbling brook” options that you tend to find on those sound machines to play while you’re going to sleep. I can only imagine it was put in as a joke. The music is OK, and at times pretty darn fun. The problem is that none of the songs are long and they loop. This is fine for the early puzzles, but when you start getting puzzles that last for fifteen minutes, it gets extremely annoying. It has gotten to the point where I no longer play with the sound on.

If you turn off the music, you’re left with sparse else to listen to. There’s a beep to let you know when time is running out, a rather nice crumbling sound when you chip away a block, and a sound that reminds one of a depressed owl when you break a block that wasn’t supposed to be broken.

I will say this. For as low key as the audio is, the tune that plays when you win is pretty epic. You long to hear it for the sense of accomplishment it bestows.

Gameplay

The whole concept behind Picross is that you use numerical clues to remove blocks in order to reveal a hidden picture. Previous Picross games have only included width and length in their equations, but 3D adds depth. This may sound redundant, but adding that third dimension significantly increases the depth of the gameplay. As you can imagine, this also drastically changes the way you play.

At the start, you’re given a group of blocks that have various dimensions. These blocks have numbers on them that give you clues as to which blocks are a part of the hidden picture. For instance, a zero on a column or row means that none of the blocks are a part of the picture and that they should all be removed. A one, however, means a single block should be kept and the rest removed. Generally speaking, you won’t always be able to figure out a specific row right away, as gathering clues from from other rows and columns is the only way to progress.

The game furthers its depth through circles and squares around the numbers. A normal number means all of the blocks are subsequent, making it easy to chip away at stranglers. A circle around a number means the blocks are split into two groups that equal the circled number. For example, if you have a row of three blocks and you see the circled two, you know that the center block must be removed and the ends kept. Squares around a number are tricky. They mean that the enclosed number is split into three or more groups. For a low number like a three, this makes it very easy to solve, but as the number rises, so does the complexity.

There are two ways to fail a puzzle. Firstly, there’s a time limit. Unlike in previous titles, this time limit doesn’t decrease when you make mistakes. Rather, it merely counts down throughout. It ends up being pretty hard to fail a mission because you ran out of time. The other way is to get five strikes by breaking the wrong blocks. Such blocks are brought back and colored in so you know not to do it again, but on the harder puzzles, hitting that five strikes limit is not a hard proposition.

Apart from losing, there is an incentive to finish puzzles timely and without mistake. Each puzzle is worth up to three stars. You get one star for merely completing the puzzle, but the other two are harder to get. One is for making no mistakes, and the other is for completing the puzzle within a separate time limit. More than just a ranking to brag about, you unlock new puzzles by earning stars. You won’t be able to complete your gallery without these puzzles, so it is worth the effort.
The gameplay isn’t entirely the same puzzle format. Throughout the game, you’ll be given challenges such as a puzzle you’ll fail if you make a single mistake or another type where you need to break blocks in order to add time. The best of these is a puzzle that requires you to solve several puzzles in order to put the whole picture together. These are great distractions from the main game and they usually offer some of the better pictures.

Control is done with a combination of the stylus and d-pad. Sliding the stylus on the screen rotates the image in the desired direction, allowing you to see the puzzle from any angle. You can hold the up button to use the hammer and chip away blocks. Holding right on the d-pad allows you to paint blocks with color. This not only lets you know not to break the block, but it also provides protection from the hammer so you can’t break it unless you remove the paint. It does take a little while to get used to, and expect several moments where you break a block you were trying to paint, but that goes away eventually.

You can “slice” into larger puzzles in order to access the inner blocks of a large puzzle. This temporarily removes blocks either depth wise or width wise. Without this tactic, the game would be impossible to play and it soon becomes second nature.

Overall, the gameplay is fun, addictive, and challenging and controls perfectly for a DS game.

Replayability

If there’s one thing this game does well above all else, it’s give you plenty of bang for your buck. There are well over three hundred and fifty puzzles in the game to start with. The early ones take only a minute or two, but the normal and hard difficulty puzzles average around ten to fifteen minutes, meaning there are dozens of hours of gameplay potential.

Apart from that, the create and share aspect aspect will no doubt add value to most players’ games. Nintendo will also be offering bi-weekly downloads for free to further the content. I’ve also heard that contests will be held and players that have the winning creation will have it be made for download (normally, you have to outright share a puzzle with someone).

For a mere twenty dollar price tag, this game packs in more content than almost every other DS game I’ve played. On top of that, it is the kind of game where you can simply play a puzzle a day on a bus ride to kill time and have it last for well over a year before you’ve beaten them all. That’s replayability to a tee.

Balance

With all of those puzzles, there are a ton of options no matter what your skill level. Some puzzles take mere seconds to complete while others will confuse you for over fifteen minutes. It all comes down to how well you can interpret the clues and use logic to clear out blocks that simply can’t be a part of the puzzle.

The structure of the game works rather well. Each difficulty level is split up into ten levels. Each level houses eight puzzles that gradually increase in difficulty until the toughest one at the end. Then, the next level features eight puzzles as well, but the difficulty is lowered a bit, giving your brain time to rest between tough puzzles.

It is the kind of game where you get more and more skilled as you go and those skills are constantly being put to the test and allowed to grow. The challenge is great and pushes you to move forward.

Originality

There’s nothing this game does that hasn’t been done before. The 3D aspects have been covered in other series and even the creation mode has roots in other puzzle games (for the love of me though, I can’t think of any names right now).

Adding that third dimension does make the game feel new as compared to the other Picross games however. While it will feel eerily familiar to those of us versed in Picross, that feeling goes away after a while as the gameplay is simply a whole new animal.

As such, the game isn’t wholly original, but it is far from derivative.

Addictiveness

My god. This game can suck away hours like no one’s business.

At one point, I started playing, merely intending to clear a few puzzles and then go out and do something. I didn’t realize just how long I’d been playing until my low battery light clicked on. Unknowingly, I’d been playing for something like five hours straight. My entire day was shot.

I’d say I was addicted.

Even when you’re doing back to back fifteen minute puzzles, the incentive is there to continue on. It is so easy to give into that voice in the back of your head telling you that you’ll do just one more. Even my sister, who never plays puzzle games, got sucked into the game and harasses me until I let her play whenever I’m over for a visit.

To make a long story short, this game is addictive as hell.

Appeal Factor

Picross taps into the same part of your brain that games like Sudoku have hit upon to great effect. In that regard, Picross 3D is a game with mass appeal. The stylus controls fit the game like a glove. Furthering its cause is the fact that it is one of the few of these types of puzzle games that isn’t plastered all over convenience store racks. On the other hand, the lack of recognition might hurt it as well.

The biggest thing this game has going for it is its low price point. A mere twenty dollars is a pittance to pay for this amount of fun and content. Nintendo published titles tend to be some of the most expensive games on the DS and they rarely go down in price. I’m glad to see this game as an exception.

Miscellaneous

I’m not sure what else there is to cover at this point. The creation tool and the ability to share puzzles and/or send a demo to a friend shows the game uses the DS functionality to its fullest (apart from using the microphone, of course).

I’ve played my fair share of portable puzzle games. I love them. This game sits firmly as one of the best I’ve played on any hand held.

The Scores
Modes: Incredible
Graphics: Decent
Audio: Decent
Gameplay: Classic
Replayability: Amazing
Balance: Classic
Originality: Decent
Addictiveness: Incredible
Appeal Factor: Very Good
Miscellaneous: Great
Final Score: Very Good Game!

Short Attention Span Summary

What it lacks in presentation, Picross 3D makes up for in sheer fun, addictiveness, and replayability. The game fits the DS like a glove from top to bottom, making it almost a necessity for DS owners. If you’re in the market for a challenging puzzle game or merely looking for something to kill time during a daily commute, you should definitely keep this game in your sights.

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