This is a first for me. After years and years of reviewing videogames through various channels and formats, through wild, unpredictable, untamable prose and skits and songs and haikus and diatribes and AIM chatlogs and smoke signals and even Braille, I finally get to judge a game on a more professional level. So apart from this opening paragraph, I intend to don a journalistic suit and tie and play the straight man.
Here we have a small, independent puzzle game called Chains. I want to call it shareware, because shareware games are the only ones I can remotely tolerate. You don’t need a $6,000 system to run them; you can’t get hopelessly addicted to them, waste months and years of a finite existence, and fail to mature naturally as a human being; and they’re unpretentious. Cheap graphics with smooth animation? Yep. Cheap and catchy music? Awesome. Much more playable than even console games, made by gamers who love games and have jobs and families of their own so you know they understand something about balance? Usually.
The great thing about shareware, and I can’t say this with a straight face because I’m not sure if this game specifically qualifies as shareware, is that you get the purest essence of gaming for a reasonable price. No frills, little if any packaging—just a game with a price tag of pocket change…usually…. In this case, Chains evidently retails for $15. A steep price for an independent puzzle game with only 20 levels. But let’s talk more about the game itself before we get into that.
Chains is a game where you create links across a series of three of more of the same color of spheres. Each level has you use this simple mechanic to unlock the next level and usually to a much different effect than the one before it. While you play, Belgian electro-band Silence supplies a Silent Hill-style soundtrack. The game is up to the shareware standards of graphics and WiiWare-style incongruency for artistic sake and simplistic design. Vector graphics and big bright colors, mostly.
But if you take a look at the screenshots, you’ll probably ask yourself, at some point, “Would I really pay $15 for this?” I know graphics don’t make the game, but nothing here is so attractive that you have to download the demo to see it in action and get the credit card ready. So, naturally, we look to gameplay to hook us and make the sale. Does it deliver?
Chains is a game that looks great on paper, or in bits and pieces during development, but it just doesn’t work in play. All the levels and how the developers use the mechanic to make each level unique are fantastic by themselves. There is some real creativity here, and they got what is usually a hard fundamental quality about gaming done right, but they screwed up on the other major reason people play puzzles like these.
There is simply nothing here that entices you to play much further. Partly because better testing is needed and partly because the mechanic itself is boring and a chore to do. Much of the “challenge” comes from a frustration factor, which is never a good thing.
Level 4 is a great example. You’re supposed to make chains to keep the spheres from piling up along an artery for five minutes straight. A good idea on paper, but when you try to actually keep up doing it, it becomes a headache. The spheres fall faster than you can dart your eyes around to look for chains and then make them. I had to start over on this level seven times, and always with 28 seconds left on the clock. I was not happy. It could have been easier if the chain reach across spheres was just a little better, or, heck, if the spheres fell at a more reasonable pace.
Many other levels have a similar problem. The challenges are creative but not realistic. One level asks me to make a chain of 30 out of… what, 45 total spheres? Which all congregate to the center and disperse when new spheres come in. Sometimes I had a hard idea understanding what it wanted me to do, and after a while, the colors were really starting to burn my eyes as I had to keep looking across both sides of the screen to accommodate the game’s demands for completing the level while making sure there weren’t too many spheres on top, or falling off, or whatever.
Frankly, besides level design, this game doesn’t succeed anywhere. Even the soundtrack done by a real (that I know of, anyway) band fails, not only because none of the songs are great to listen to, but because they’re all hard-panned to the right stereo speaker.
$15 doesn’t go as far as it used to in this economy, but you should still expect it to go further than 20 levels of a frustrating puzzle game. If you’re charging that kind of money, you’re putting yourself in serious competition—because most professional puzzle games are cheaper than that and appear on the Nintendo DS. Puzzles you can take with you. Even knockoffs of already great puzzles are usually free and can be easily found.
Now, as I’m aware, the version I played is a beta and is not complete. Good, I say, because that’s the only chance it has of going somewhere. It needs a LOT of fixing. The music engineering, the price, the demands, and the amount of actual content all need to be fixed. If I’m paying $15, I should get 80 levels, two-player or Internet competition options, maybe a level editor, and music that makes full use of stereo.
Personally, I’m a little disappointed to have my first semi-professional review go over like this. I hate to bash hard work by regular guys, but that’s the name of the game in this business. Luckily, unlike everyone else, these guys have a chance to go back and fix it, and I really, in my semi-professional opinion, suggest they take it.