By John Walker on June 18th, 2012 at 5:00 pm.
My need for puzzle games is insatiable, constantly fed by the teams of enslaved designers I have generating me new Slitherlinks and Doodle Fit levels, as Telegraph cryptic crossword setters weep as their fingertips bleed from setting me more and more clues. Gathering them all a few seconds pause in their toils is Splice, a new puzzler from Auditorium developers, Cipher Prime. Will it do?
I like puzzles. I’m not sure if I can emphasise enough just how much I like puzzles. My house has a Killer Sudoku book in most rooms, with another in my bag for when I’m out. My phone is loaded with very many puzzle games, one played each night as I fall asleep. I once worked out I’d played Slitherlink on my DS (one of two games I ever gave 10/10 in my entire career) for over 300 hours. I’ve spent more time with picross puzzles than I have RPGs. And if there’s one thing I know that’s important about them, it’s balance.
Splice, an immediately beautiful and aesthetically delightful game, has seemingly no concept of balance at all.
From the very start you realise that the game is the menus is the game, and you’ve started. No tutorials here, silly. Which, in the right place, is fine and dandy. Exploration and experimentation are much of the purpose of a puzzler, and having too much explained for you actually tends to hint at a game that relies on repetition rather than evolution. Here, a slight hint what is going on would have been nice.
But it doesn’t stop you from figuring it out. The closest you get to any guidance is a two screen guide that tells you each of the blobs can have one or two blobs linked to it, and that there are limited moves per level. That’s your lot. The aim is to get the layout and number of blobs to match those shown in hollow ghosted patterns on the screen. This is achieved by rearranging the shapes, or using their abilities, hinted at by the emblems upon them. Perhaps they split in two, replicating anything that extends from them, or elongate, adding an extra blob to the chain(s). With limited turns you make the foreground match the background. Sorry for the spoilers there.
Gosh though, it’s gorgeous. That integrated menu and game thing is lovely, and the puzzles you’ve completed drifting in the background creates such an interesting atmosphere. Then there’s the means by which you can go back and forth through moves you’ve made, rolling the mouse wheel to fast-forward and rewind time, the music and visual effects matching the illusion. As a piece of design, it’s exemplary. As a puzzle game, it leaves rather a lot wanting.
The issue is, how unwieldy so many of the levels feel. Balance, as I mentioned, is missing, meaning challenges can become clumsy, not helped by the peculiar sets of rules you have to figure out for yourself, often contrary to logical expectations. For instance, successfully have the blobs match the background, but not have followed an unstated and seemingly arbitrary rule, and the level won’t be over. Oh, I can’t leave any of the blobs unactivated, even though I’ve succeeded? Huh? Okay, I’ll add that to my mental instruction booklet you didn’t write.
I’ve no objection to a puzzle having only one possible solution, and even only one possible path to a solution, so long as it’s carefully engineered. The point of Splice is to reverse engineer the goal into something you can achieve with the tools presented at the start, and that offers a lot of potential for fun. But the issue comes when you’ve got three splice moves available, and three or four blobs to activate, and experimentation doesn’t reward you with entertainment. Instead you realise you’re just working out how someone else did it, through your trial and error, and then repeating the same. It’s a fine line between that, and the fun of reverse engineering, but I think Splice too often falls the wrong side of it.
Not always, though. But as I progressed, too often rather than seeing a starting position and my goal and thinking, “Okay, how can I go about this one then?” instead I’d think, “Oh boy, I think I’ll check Twitter.” The knowledge that you’ve basically got to plan four or five moves ahead before you can meaningfully change anything became distinctly unappealing. And I go back and forth. One puzzle can provide entertaining challenge, and the next make me blow air through my lips and wander off to get coffee. It’s not like I can’t solve those latter ones – I can. But I derive no pleasure or satisfaction from having done so. The result is, “Oh, so that was the order in which I had to click on things.”
And this bloat really begins to reveal itself by the time puzzles have five splices available, at which point any hope of inspired planning seems too tiresome to contemplate. It, to me, gives the impression of a lack of care in the puzzle design. Again, I want to stress that it’s not too difficult – it really isn’t. It’s just fiddly and fussy, and my patience for that is thin.
For those wanting a more difficult challenge, each level contains a solution that’s one step shorter than the more obvious. This gets you an “Angelic” result, but again this is barely communicated by the game, so intent is it on its mysterious tool-tip-free environment. Which, while utterly gorgeous-looking, ends up feeling a little cold and alienating in the context of everything else.
This has come out pretty harsh. Splice isn’t an especially bad game, and it’s a stellar presentation. But it manages to wrangle me in all the wrong directions with the nature of the guessy-work puzzles. Or maybe I’m just thick. But I see a puzzle like the one above and I think, “I just don’t care.” Like I say, I adore puzzle games and spend ludicrous amounts of my life with them, but Splice isn’t one that clicks for me. Maybe it will be for you? There’s a great way to find out via the demo Nathan mentioned this morning. You can get the full game on Steam for £7 right now.