By John Walker on April 14th, 2009 at 10:59 pm.
If you look at a British £2 coin, you’ll notice there’s a motif in the design of one of the circles that shows a series of interlocking cogs. When the coin was originally launched, the Royal Mint declared that these cogs represented “the evolution of technology from the Iron Age to the internet”. Another thing you’ll notice if you look carefully is there are nineteen cogs, an odd number, all interlaced, thus any attempt to use this mechanism would lead to its snapping and spraying bits of cog everywhere. (Unless it were on a Möbius strip, supernerds.) This is the sort of thing you’ll become expert on after playing a Cogs for a while.
I’m torn over this. Lazy 8 Studios have created a beautifully presented and extremely smart puzzle game. But no matter how you approach it, it’s still a sliding tile game. And if twenty five years spent playing adventure games has taught me anything, it’s to run screaming from the room with my arms above my head whenever I see a sliding tile puzzle. But you know what? Cogs just might be the cure to this ailment – each of its fifty puzzles contains more smart ideas than the entirety of any stupid game that might throw in sliding tile nonsense to fill time. This might be what sliding tile puzzles should have been for. Look, it’s important that you realise my being supportive of this game despite its core concept is about the highest compliment I could possibly pay. It’s like a Scottish nationalist waving the St George’s Cross out his window.
The tiles in question are covered either in cogs or pipes, which must be slid around to create pathways of motion. Either you’ll be directing steam/fuel/air through the pipes to fill a balloon or power a rocket, or you’ll be arranging cogs in order to create a mechanism that turns a crank, powers some wheels, or even rings some bells in the correct order to play a specific tune. The further you progress, the more complex this becomes, with cogs of various heights, pipes on two or three levels, and most best of all, multiple surfaces to the puzzle.
The latter group are where Cogs is at its most effective and rewarding. Sometimes it means the puzzle is double-sided, meaning you need to arrange tiles so their fronts and backs match up on either side, and sometimes it means there’s multiple surfaces on a cube, or even more complex shape. My absolute favourite level was Rocketship, where six sides had to be linked to one another, feeding rocket fuel from one source to six separate engines, as well as passing the feed onto the next face of the puzzle, and without leaving any leaks.
Each puzzle has multiple targets for completion time and number of moves. While you don’t need to ace these, you’ll have to receive at least a few rewarded stars to unlock further levels. However, even if you mostly get two or one stars, you’ll still gather enough to have the next few puzzles open. The three star time limits are extraordinarily tough, and in many cases require prior knowledge of how to solve the puzzle. If there’s one frustration, it’s the feeling that you’re not really being given enough time to experiment, let alone pause to think about how you might solve a puzzle. There’s too much fussing and clocks ticking and alarms going off, and when you’ve got two tiles the wrong way around, it’s very hard to keep a cool head and sort it out. This becomes more of a problem once you’re halfway through the game, and things start getting extremely tough. Trying to juggle a puzzle on two faces, where each move undoes the last, and fathoming multiple heights of pieces at the same time, what you really want is a relaxing environment to casually solve the challenge, rather than feeling like you’ve got a frightening gym teacher running toward you blowing a whistle.
Once a puzzle is solved in Inventor Mode, it becomes available in Challenge Mode, where as you might expect there are extreme time limits or move limits applied to puzzles. It’s in the latter that I find Cogs most fun. The puzzles are rearranged so they can be completed in a maximum of ten moves, and your challenge is to figure out which ten. There’s no time limit, and it’s a much more sedate challenge. (And an easier one, in fairness.)
The presentation is absolutely lovely. Moments after it was released on Steam today, World of Goo’s Kyle Gabler emailed me to point out how beautiful the menu system is. He’s therefore a giant geek, but he’s not wrong. Everything clicks and clunks with gorgeously animated mechanisms, from the opening menus to the in-game timers. Restarting a puzzle has the counters wind back, while smaller menus rotate and flip around. Changing screen is always pleasurable, and it’s not often you find yourself thinking that about anything. Three dimensional puzzles are elegantly presented, the right mouse button letting you drag to rotate the object on the screen swiftly and accurately – things feel weighty and tangible. The sound is equally impressive (albeit agitating), and the whirring mechanics and metallic clunks are very satisfying to hear. A smart puzzle game like this doesn’t need such a level of detail to work, but it’s a real pleasure when so much effort has been put in.
It’s £6.99 on Steam (€8.99, $9.99), and if you can put aside any lifelong prejudices you might have against sliding tiles, it’s a pleasingly tough, cerebral puzzle game that’s gorgeously designed. I think it may get too difficult a bit too quickly – I found myself giving up on a few later puzzles simply because I couldn’t find the energy to think about either side of a tile at the same time. But that’s because I’m grotesquely lazy, and anyway, it meant I could go have some fun with Challenge Mode. At such a sensible price, I’d say it’s well worth giving a go. With puzzle games it’s worth finding out if it’s your sort of thing first, and there’s a demo to get a feel for it via Steam too.