Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Review: Stickets for iPhone and iPad

Match 3 puzzle games are a dime a dozen on the App Store. I don't find them particularly interesting, and usually stay well clear of them.
Stickets, however, is pretty darn good. It is highly original, exceptionally polished, and bloody hard.
Stickets is the lastest game released by the Australian developer Wanderlands. One of their earlier creations is the brilliant Impasse, which is currently only available as a Flash game. Sadly, it is so good that it has been unofficially ported multiple times to iPhone, and I even reviewed one of those copycats a few weeks ago, not knowing that it wasn't an original game (don't look for that review now, I've removed it).

But let's go back to Stickets. You play on a 5x5 board. It starts out nicely empty, but that won't last for long. At the bottom of the screen there are four L trominoes, each one using a random permutation of three colors. Every move consists of picking one of the tromionoes, and placing it in a free place on the board. When you do so, the tromino is replaced by another one with the same shape but different color permutation, and your score increases by 1.
When you put the pieces on the board, you need to try creating areas of the same color. When an area contains at least three tiles, you can tap on it to make it disappear. You can make larger areas if you like, but that won't give you more points.

When the board is full and you can't make any more moves, it's game over.

Playing this game is surprisingly challenging and interesting. Even if the rules are very simple, the random permutation of the colors makes every move different from the previous one. The game keeps you on the edge of your seat all the time, because even a single mistake can be fatal. You don't know in advance which pieces you'll be served next, so you need to take into account the four pieces that you can see, and develop a strategy to keep different options open.

When the game ends, the imprudent player will blame misfortune, because they didn't receive the pieces they were waiting for. The wise player will know that they made a mistake, which prevented them from taking advantage of the pieces they had available.

In principle, if you didn't make mistakes, you could play forever. Thankfully, the game will save the board state when you quit, and allow you to resume from where you left. I can imagine that some dedicated players will achieve very high scores over the course of weeks or months.

Here are a couple of tips to help you going:
- try to prefer L shaped matches. Avoid I shaped matches because after you remove them, you can't fill the space with a new piece.
- avoid creating checkerboard patters, which would be hard to remove. Try to ensure that every time you put down a piece, at least two of its tiles match the color of neighboring tiles.

Of course, that's easier said than done.
For more help, see the Strategy Guide that I wrote.

So far, I've only talked about Space mode, which is the game's primary mode. But there's more. Score 50 points in Space mode (which might seem impossible at first, but it's quite doable after you develop a decent strategy) and you'll unlock Time mode.

Time mode keeps the basic mechanics, but turns the game on its head. While Space moves at a deliberate pace and encourages careful, thorough thinking, Time forces you to think on your feet and move as quickly as possible. Every piece you put on the board turns into a time bomb, which will explode after a few seconds.
You have 12 lives at the beginning, you lose a life every time a bomb explodes. When you lose all lives, it's game over. In this mode, you can't get stuck: even if you do, eventually some tiles will explode and free more space. You earn more lives by making matches of 4 or more tiles, so it's necessary to develop a strategy less focused on precise placement of the pieces and more on creating large groups of matching tiles. And doing it quickly.

There would be a third game mode, called Puzzle. It sounds intriguing, and from what I could see peeking into the game's package, it features interesting challenges like:
- fill the whole grid
- lose in 4 moves (place 4 pieces so that there is no more room for another one)
- create a symmetrical pattern in exactly 5 moves
and my favorite:
- prove that Stickets in Space mode is infinite.

Unfortunately I can't yet talk about Puzzle mode because, despite my best efforts, I'm nowhere near the score of 50 in Time mode that would be needed to unlock it.

I think this is a major flaw in the game design, for multiple reasons. It's arbitrary, it's annoying, and it's just too hard for most players. Indeed, looking at the Game Center leaderboards (which, oddly, can't be accessed from inside the game) there are many people that have scored more than 50 points in Space mode, but few did the same in Time mode.

Maybe if I trained really hard I might be able to get that score, but the point is that I don't want to. I like relaxed thinking and I don't want to be forced to play with a clock ticking against me. So for the time being my optimal strategy to beat Time mode is just... waiting for a game update to be released :-)

I'm also going to mention that the user interface features three different themes, which affect both the color palette and the sound. Sound is very well done, and changes significantly depending on the game mode and the theme.

The creative mind behind this game is a talented 20 years old, Harry Lee. There's an interesting article about him on Kotaku. I'm sure he'll make great things. He'll just need to tune the difficulty of his games bearing in mind that most people in the world are a lot less intelligent than him :-)

Stickets is definitely one of the most interesting puzzle games released this year. It just needs to be fixed to allow playing Puzzle mode without being forced through Time mode, and then it'll be a winner.

Update 21th June 2013: version 1.1.2 has just been released, addressing the above problem. Thumbs up!

Summary

Nontrivialness★★★★★
Logical Reasoning★★★★☆
User Interface★★★★☆
Presentation★★★★☆
Loading Time★★★★★
Saves Partial Progress
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©2013 Nicola Salmoria. Unauthorized use and/or duplication without express and written permission is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicola Salmoria and nontrivialgames.blogspot.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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