Friday, March 14, 2008

Circulate Review

Circulate, developed by Pi Eye Games and published by Slave Circus Entertainment.
The Good: High replay value due to multiple winning approaches and numerous obstacles, good tutorials, unique and straightforward gameplay, lots of levels that don’t have to be completed in exact order
The Not So Good: Controls take some practice and aren’t terribly precise, some levels are extremely difficult
What say you? An entertaining gravity-based rotational puzzle game: 6/8

With all of the puzzle games on the market, you really need to have a unique idea in order to differentiate yourself from the crowd. There are tons of match-three titles out there, but more games are adding unique elements to spice up the gameplay. Faster processors have meant more believable physics, and puzzle games are slowly adding realistic gravitation as integral parts of their designs. Add Circulate to that list, a game where you must rotate a level to maneuver objects, kind of like those labyrinth games that make you tilt a maze to guide a ball to the exit, except here the “tilt” is always down. Sounds neat, but is it fun?

The graphics of Circulate are basic; that said, they still don’t look too terrible. The various levels have a generic feel that don’t make you immediately think of the game. The levels themselves are easy to navigate, and the colored balls are brightly colored. There are some nice effects in Circulate, such as when objects enter a black hole, but in general the game has a very simple and uninteresting look to it. The sound is similar: basic effects that accompany the in-game action. On the plus side, the entire game is around 30 MB in size, a far cry from the many memory-hungry titles that populate the market. Circulate also performs very well because of the lack of graphical excellence, so everyone should be able to run the game.

In Circulate, you circulate the map (who would have thought?). By doing this, you will (hopefully) match up balls and/or guide them to their goals, all the while avoid (or using) objects along the way. The game comes with 120 levels, including some introductory tutorial levels that introduce new objects one at a time. The game isn’t hard to understand and pretty much everyone will get the hand of it after the first couple of levels. Plus, Circulate gives very explicit directions before each level that lead you in the right direction. The levels provide a good amount of variety over the course of the game, with plenty of dangerous objects intended to impede your success. Depending on how fast you complete each level, you will get assigned a star rating (from one to five). These stars are used to unlock future levels; this means you don’t have to play each level in order and you can skip past a difficult one. This is a very nice feature because a lot of the levels in the game are extremely difficult. There doesn’t seem to be much difference between a five star and a one star rating; I usually end up getting one or the other. It would be nice to actually see the time breaks for each grouping.

Part of the reason Circulate is so difficult is the control scheme. You must hold down the right mouse button and rotate the mouse in a circle in order to rotate the map. This seems pretty intuitive, but I had a really tough time getting the map to do what I wanted. Many times, I would move the mouse to the left or right and it would swing the puzzle in a crazy direction, destroying all of the hard work I had done. Although it might not make much spatial sense, I would much rather be able to move the mouse in one direction and have it keep rotating. For example, moving the mouse continuously to the right would cause the puzzle to rotate clockwise. As it is now, you need to move the mouse in a circular pattern and this simply does not give the user the precision required to finish the game’s more difficult levels. Even though the controls “make sense” in their current arrangement, more options would be nice since I can’t seem to successfully employ the present scheme.

Puzzles in Circulate are mostly populated by balls. You can win each puzzle by guiding the balls to their color-coded container, matching all of the balls of the same color together, or mutually destroying them (in the case of fire and ice). The introductory levels may be simple mazes that only need to be turned to guide the balls to their home, but later levels introduce more objects into the mix. The left mouse button is used to activate objects that may be present, such as magnets that attract metallic balls, bombs, stop signs, and movers that cause balls to follow your mouse. To complicate things even further, you may also have to deal with balls that disregard the laws of gravity. Also, some levels restrict the amount you are able to rotate a level, and crystal sphere can only drop a short distance before breaking. And there are even shapes, doors, black holes, and force fields that can disrupt your plans. Circulate really has a lot of content when it could have stopped with the simple rotation gimmick. Circulate is also one of the most challenging puzzle games I have ever played, so veterans looking for a worthy competitor will not be disappointed. The difficulty may be due, in part, to the iffy controls, but most of it is due to the intricate, but not impossible, level design.

If the controls were a bit more polished (or tweaked to my specifications), then I could fully recommend Circulate. I suspect that not everyone will experience the trials I did when dealing with rotating the puzzles, but the inexact nature of the controls contributes to making Circulate more frustrating than it needs to be. Overall, Circulate has all of the ingredients you need for a successful game: a unique idea, lots of objects to provide variety, and tons of levels to play through. I like how the game allows you to skip past annoying levels, which allows me to forgive some of the control issues. Circulate certainly falls into the old cliché of “easy to learn, hard to master.” It’s always nice to play something different that all those click management and match-3 games that populate the puzzle genre, and the rotational mechanics of Circulate certainly are just that. Circulate breathes some fresh air into a typically bland and repetitive genre.