Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tidalis Review

Tidalis, developed and published by Arcen Games.
The Good: Atypical gameplay using directionally linked arrows, numerous game rules means its rarely repetitive, plentiful special blocks and items, custom games and adventure modes with an assortment of goals, online multiplayer with in-game matchmaking, comprehensive and helpful tutorials, all-inclusive content editors, multiplatform, $10
The Not So Good: Inconsistent campaign difficulty (but you can skip any level), the AI can’t handle the more complex versus rules combinations (but sometimes I can’t either)
What say you? An exceptional matching puzzle game with distinctive mechanics and impressive features: 8/8

So, what does a developer do after a highly acclaimed strategy title (at least by people much smarter than me)? The obvious: make a…puzzle game?!? That’s right, the spirit of innovation Arcen Games brought to the strategy genre are now being applied to the tired world of match-3 puzzles. What kind of innovations? Connecting chains of blocks using arrows to dictate the direction of epic linkage. Add in a bunch of crazy game modes and we have something that piqued my interested, mainly because of the developer’s pedigree. Does Tidalis restore my faith in match-3 puzzle games?

The weakest area of Tidalis is in the presentation. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s simply doesn’t stand out. The game comes with a number of themes (around twenty), which pairs an animated background image (some are impressive) with a musical selection. It’s all in 2-D, which seems quite quaint in today’s world of 3-D accelerated behemoths. This, of course, means Tidalis will run on a wide range of hardware, which will satisfy anyone in the target audience. The color scheme makes matches easy to identify, and the user interface is generally quite good, highlighting same-color tiles while you are rearranging the orientations, showing where blocks will appear next, and vibrating when columns become alarmingly tall. That said, there is nothing in the visuals of Tidalis that is distinctive. The music is simple but quite varied (the songs are why the install size is larger than your typical puzzle game), and the game includes informative effects for matches and other events. Overall, the quality of the graphics and sound do not hinder the gameplay at all, but Tidalis could offer a better-looking match-3 experience beyond simple 2-D effects.

Tidalis includes some very impressive features for a puzzle game. First up is the adventure mode, which features over one hundred puzzles with randomized layouts. You earn silly collectibles (apples? tires? coal?) and achievements along the way and don’t follow the story because you, like me, skipped right over the cutscenes the developers worked very hard on. Now, usually a campaign is a stupid, pointless feature because of the inherent repetition found in match-3 games. But not in Tidalis, and here’s why: objectives. Any level can include multiple goals: clearing specific numbers of blocks, a minimum score, achieving chains and combos, clearing lines, or having remaining blocks. On top of that, there can be negative goals as well. The possible combinations are very intriguing: clearing a number of blocks without exceeding a score limit (or vice versa), or only using small chains, or making three red matches without making any blue matches. This opens the door to a lot of variety and different strategies. That said, the adventure mode has very inconsistent difficulty, like hard levels followed by three easy ones. I had a particularly hard time passing anything that required advanced combos (my l33t skillz aren’t so l33t after all), but luckily you can just skip past any level once you fail it and come back later when you feel better. After you quit when the latest adventure level stumps you, you’re back trying it again ten minutes later. I guess that means Tidalis is “addictive.” I was certainly curious what crazy objectives and items would appear in the next level.

In addition to the more traditional blocks-fall-down-and-match-them, Tidalis also features puzzles that usually require you to remove all of the blocks on the screen in one click. They are very hard.

Tidalis features a lot of game modes that significantly alter the gameplay. Zen mode fills the board up for a more relaxed approach, Sun & Moon puts blocks that must be alternatively matched, gravitron adds gravity (while featherweight adds negative gravity), trampoline makes blocks bounce, water can slowly fill the board causing blocks to float up, wind can affect your stream directions, blocks can swap positions, and so on for almost twenty exotic options. You can combine any (or all) of these options in custom play, which lets you set the width and height of the grid, frequency of special blocks and items, time limit, color count, and speed. If you are feeling saucy, you can even click on “make something up” and the choices will be randomized. The game doesn’t check for “bad” combinations (like having both gravitron and featherweight), though, so you must pay attention a bit before clicking “play.” Still, the flexibility here is astounding.

Not that Tidalis is difficult to learn, but there are thirty tutorials covering everything the game has to offer, from basic mechanics to more advanced strategies and all of the special blocks and items you will encounter. This is a very effective tool that does a nice job illustrating tactics that might not be immediately apparent. In addition, the game offers brilliant in-game help that lists only the items that are currently on the board, absolutely perfect for quick reference. While Tidalis does feature lots of traditional single player puzzle action, you can also play against friends on the same computer or over a LAN or the Internet. The game has in-game matchmaking for finding victims to your puzzling prowess, and you can best others in a number of versus modes: garbage mode (which adds unusable blocks to your enemy’s side), endurance (which steadily increases the drop rate), and freeform. If you are feeling less antagonistic, you can also play cooperatively in normal mode, sun or moon (where alternating matches are made using items), item buddies (where you use items on the other board), or block vaporizor (where matches clear bad blocks from your partner's board). You can also Rounding out the list of impressive features are editors for levels, adventure mode, and background themes (you can’t add new items or modes, but do you really need to?) and availability on both Windows and Macintosh computing systems. Yes, Tidalis is quite remarkable from a features standpoint.

I’ve gone this far without actually saying what makes the gameplay of Tidalis special. The deal is that you must match three, like usual, but the way you do this is unique: you must connect blocks together using their arrows. You then click on one block and send the stream along its path determined by the arrows, connecting with any blocks of the same color less than three spaces away, sending the stream further. Planning ahead is simple thanks to the interface: right-clicking on a block highlights all blocks of the same color, and as you move your mouse, arrows you touch will align in the direction of mouse movement: very nice. The key to high scores is to make the dropped blocks (the bottom which automatically send out streams) connect with other blocks, making combos. If you are really skilled, you’ll plan out the next series of events for maximum matching power.

Enhancing the action is a large number of special blocks and items that must be dealt with and used during play. Some of these are simply blocks that can’t be matched, some must be removed by matching specific colors nearby, and others are more exotic: magnets that attract or repel, monsters that eat, and sick blocks, to name a few. You will also get items that can be used on the board: placing colored blocks, floods, feathers, wind, and others. There’s a whole bunch of options here that makes Tidalis very interesting and far more entertaining than your typical match-3 game.

The AI plays a decent game, although you should really take the game online instead of playing versus modes against the computer. The AI can’t play the more exotic game modes with crazy rules, but that’s such a minor complaint I almost feel bad about making it. Almost. More features include the ability to drops the next set of blocks in the highlighted location and slow down or speed up time (very useful for those tough puzzles). Because of the unique mechanics and many game modes, blocks, and items, Tidalis is rarely repetitive: quite an accomplishment in the usually dreary world of match-3.

Tidalis breaks from the pack by offering distinguished gameplay for the match-3 puzzle genre. Using arrows to direct streams and connect blocks is brilliant: it’s very simple and trivially easy to learn but also allows for some advanced thinking, especially if you want to chain together matches and increase your score. There is a plethora of game modes, items, and special blocks that change the game without becoming unfamiliar; custom games allow you to make crazy combinations to challenge your abilities. The adventure mode shows off some of the game’s variety, but the variable difficulty could be balanced better; at least you can skip the occasionally tough level. The range of objectives is quite nice: it’s not always “survive for three minutes” or “get 1,000 points,” and both positive and negative goals are included (example: make thirty matches but avoid using blue tiles) for added variety. The single-turn puzzles are a different animal: they still use the same basic rules, but require a lot of thought to execute the perfect series of matches to clear the board. The graphics don’t stand out, but at least the game includes a number of visual themes for varied backgrounds and musical scores. Rounding out the $10 package is competitive and cooperative multiplayer (complete with in-game matchmaking), compatibility across both major PC platforms (sorry, penguins), informative tutorials and in-game help, and excellent editors to make your own levels and themes. Tidalis is a match-3 game that doesn’t feel tired or repetitive: I actually want to play it, which says something considering how many puzzle games I’ve reviewed. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Tidalis is one of the best puzzle game I’ve ever played. Simply put, if you like puzzle games (and even if you usually don’t), you need to get Tidalis. Right now. Go!