Cubixx HD (PSN)
Developer: Laughing Jackal
Publisher: Laughing Jackal
Release Date: 09/20/2011
It’s an odd way to begin a review with ephemeral speculation, but I’d like to start by sharing a thought with you, dear reader, that might better root where I’m coming from when reviewing a game like Cubixx HD. But after a few days of trying to come up with a suitable analogy to root my impressions in, I’m still grasping for words. Heck – I still don’t know where to begin, so I’ll just try to walk through how I got to how I feel about it today, and maybe we’ll all glean some cosmic truth along the way.
It all started with a link to this trailer. I thought “Wow! That looks conceptually edgy and, by extension, may cater to my desires for something genuinely new and exciting!” In a market where stereotypes plague independently released games on the Playstation Network because there isn’t a big name publisher behind it, Cubixx HD stood out. What makes it stand out is its very interesting concept: a puzzle game that takes place on the faces of a cube. It’s not another Tetris clone, but it did make me think of Sony Computer Entertainment’s Intelligent Qube, if only for nostalgia so wistful and apocryphal to the US market.
But this wasn’t IQ. “It’s fresh,” I thought. So it was with zeal that I picked up my controller and downloaded Cubixx HD, feeling like I was on the precipice of something special. Like something that would start small amongst a small cadre of true believers and later flourish into a cult hit based only on word of mouth and internet postings. Maybe like the Ron Paul of puzzle games.
And if it couldn’t, that might be OK too. It could turn out to be a diamond in the rough, a really, really solid game that sleeps in the shadows of a game hyped beyond recognition. Think of Ikaruga with respect to shooters, and Cubixx HD could be that equivalent. A game you might overhear someone discuss at some random social setting, only to find out that you two are the only people in a 5-mile radius that have played it and appreciated it. Like St. Arnold’s Root Beer in Texas, or maybe Virgil’s Root Beer in Los Angeles.
Or maybe I’m setting it up to fail. Maybe it’s a sense of misplaced romanticism, a hope that the promise of Cubixx HD‘s concept and indie cred would vaunt it to some level of respect above “hipster” and below “mainstream.”
So, four paragraphs of narrative later, does Cubixx HD deliver? The answer, in this case, is an extremely, painstakingly qualified “yes.” Let me be clear: there’s a good, very competent game here. But unless you have the patience of a monk and the pedantry of a computer science major, there’s a good chance you’ll miss it.
As mentioned earlier, the crux of Cubixx HD is a traditional cube. Six sides, twelve line segments and a eight 90-degree angles for your conceptual pleasure. The object of the game’s primary mode, Arcade, is to slice off enough of the face of a cube, measured in area percentage, in order to advance to the next stage. This is accomplished by guiding lasers that flow off of any line segment to create a parallelogram in square or rectangle form (sorry rhombus). You draw lines across the face of the cube, and can chain lines across the faces for more points. Once one is formed, that segment is removed from the face of the cube, exposing some sort of pulsating sphere. When you’ve removed the required amount of surface area, the cube explodes, and the source of your laser – which looks like a cross between a projector and a UFO – flies onto the next level. You start with three lives, and can earn more through power-ups.
Description aside, it actually plays a bit simpler than it sounds. It’s an original take on puzzle game design, which is refreshing if only because you’re not playing another Tetris clone. Puzzle games need not be only two dimensions, especially with a machine as capable as the PS3. But into every expectation of puzzle bliss a little complication must fall. In Cubixx HD‘s case, perhaps a little more than one would wish.
Complicating this is a series of enemies. The first and second are namesakes of the game, the Cubixx, (note: I’m guessing it serves as a plural noun as well as singular) which are worm-like things comprised of little chained squares (parallelograms!) that float around each face of the cube. They come in two forms: one standard-sized in orange and a smaller, less lethal-appearing purple one. If you run into either, or if either runs into your line, said line is terminated and you lose a life. While the orange ones exist with impunity, the smaller purple ones can be killed by trapping them in a to-be erased area. In later levels, you also have blue and red dots that represent “fuses” of sorts that also follow the same line segments you do. When they turn red, they can take you out, even on the safety of one of the primary twelve line segments. There are other enemies according to the game’s official website, but due to the game’s difficulty – which I’ll discuss a paragraph or two later – I did not encounter them.
But enemies are meant to be there, and that’s OK. What makes the game daunting, especially in later levels, is the nature of the game design itself. Cubixx HD really, really is married to the idea of parallelograms, so much so that interrupting your line before completing one will take one life. That is, the only surface area you can carve is that which is adjacent to the existing face. This means you cannot carve little open islands on the face in order impede Cubixx or other enemies. When I first started playing, I instinctively tried to wrap the laser around a Cubixx, hoping that the face would disappear right from under it so that I could go chopping up the cube unimpeded. Alas, that wasn’t possible. Throw the enemies into this mix, and it’s rather challenging.
The game gets damn difficult, especially in later levels due to the obstacles in both enemy count and gameplay design. The official website boasts fifty levels in Arcade mode, but repeated attempts to progress beyond level seven were met with frustration. This was usually followed by acceptance, as Cubixx HD has leaderboards that chronicled my failure by sandwiching me in between everyone else. If you’re into leaderboards and trophies, Cubixx HD won’t disappoint, but you’re going to have a heck of a time trying to earn any past “n00b SauCe.”
But then, something hit me while I was playing the first level. With all puns on deck, I decided to think outside the box for a reason as to why I was playing so horribly. Cubixx HD‘s pace is unlike a lot of puzzle games I know and love, including Tetris, Dr. Mario and Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo. While they’re all iconic games that will sell until the end of time, they’ve conditioned me to such a degree that when I hear “puzzle game,” I expect to learn the one trick or dimensional manipulation needed to succeed. Twist a piece here, create a block there. Cubixx HD isn’t any of those games.
Instead, you’re forced to think about how you’ll navigate around an enemy – or how to run from one – while satisfying the parallelogram gods at the expense of time.
Oh- and to add to the difficulty, the music doesn’t help you focus on that one damn bit.
The soundtrack to Cubixx HD takes more than a few notes from Euro/British electronic music. We’re not talking about soothing, early Zero 7 type of music. We’re talking about your stoner friend with Chemical Brothers mixes. Some tunes are up tempo, some are down, but all are quite infectious and produced well enough. At times, I felt like I was waiting in line for a club or on the precipice of some marketing ploy for a Guy Richie film. This is OK, but not when I found myself needing to concentrate.
So I muted the music, with a hint of reservation about the absurdity of it all. To think, muting the music would have some tangible effect on the gameplay! And wouldn’t you know it, it felt more peaceful. Peaceful enough that I took my time thinking about what I wanted to do, taking into account every damn angle and button press before I did it.
I made it to level nine, up two levels from my prior zenith. This isn’t exactly rocket science, but I’m still trying to comprehend how something so latent and visceral as music had an impact on my in-game performance. But perhaps more importantly, I’m wondering why I had to kill off an entire dimension of the game just to stem the ebb and flow of frustration. Again, the soundtrack is great, but – at least in my experience – it was so intrusive to the experience that it had to be toned down.
The rest of the game is pretty much the same across the game modes. Time Attack is the standard “clear this area in a given time” mode. Score Attack gives you one shot at achieving the highest score on a given level. Line Attack ups the ante by making you score the most points with a single line. Challenges offer the most variety, as you’ll see if you can complete a given level in the least number of lines, or get rid of the most area, or just plain finish as fast as you can. Again, for the patient and detail-oriented, the replay value of this game is immense.
Cubixx HD also has a very, very robust multiplayer component, as every mode except Challenges features some degree of having up to seven friends locally join in. Unless I’ve made some blinding omission, online play is not supported. I would have tested this, but due to time, controller and “friends interested in helping” constraints, I was unable to do so. If anything, I imagine parties of seven sitting around having one of the most frustrating, shared experiences in trying to navigate cubes with lasers. But shared frustration often makes for fun times in some paradoxical way. Save this one for a lull in a Borg-themed party, perhaps?
All in all, Cubixx HD is a sound concept. But it’s not a concept that you can simply pick up and play with the expectation of being great right from the get-go. It’s a game that will punish your impatience with broken line after broken line, and not apologize. For the patient and possibly masochistic, however, the game offers something genuinely unique among puzzle games. Because of this, I’m confident that Cubixx HD will find its community, full of die-hard fans at the ready to profess how great the game is to anybody who will listen. You might count me in that crowd, but only if you have time for a few qualifications.
Story/Modes: Very Good
Control/Gameplay: Above Average
Replayability: Very Good
Balance: Decent (To the patient go the spoils…)
Miscellaneous: Above Average
Final Score: GOOD GAME
Short Attention Span Summary
Cubixx HD is a quirky, quality puzzle game that will challenge your patience as well as your conception of what a puzzle game is supposed to be. It’s not for the impatient. For those that climb the learning curve, however, you’ll have a unique experience you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. A strong multiplayer aspect, featuring up to seven players all but one mode, rounds out what Laughing Jackal has to offer.