Impressions: Splice

By John Walker on June 18th, 2012 at 5:00 pm.

And I wrote this whole thing without making any references to biology or DNA.

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.

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18 Comments »

  1. Bassem says:

    These are my exact impressions upon playing the demo. Utterly gorgeous presentation – I can’t stress that enough. It looks and feels just beautiful. The mechanics are simplicity itself. But the puzzles lack any sense of adventure or accomplishment.

    I wonder though. I also gave RUSH a try, then bought the full game, and it compares closely – beautiful look and feel, simple mechanics. And yet I find I am enjoying its puzzles much more than I did with Splice, even though they are comparable in approach.

  2. Stomatopodal Pride says:

    It is unfortunate, but I was afraid of Splice suffering from such issues. Whenever descriptions provided by the very developers employ phrasings such as “exploration and experimentation are key” (sic Steam), I read an explicit hint that the puzzle is not going to be mechanically sound and rather rely on obscure trial&error “tricks” without much method. My experience with Fractal, another title by CipherPrime, reinforced this fear. (Auditorium was still nice, albeit easy and a bit unpolished, and I am looking forward to its sequel.)
    The studio’s releases are certainly among the most visually (and acoustically) gorgeous in the indie scene. Their background as graphic designers just shines through, visibly so, and their musician is clearly skilled. I know that I will end up purchasing for these reasons alone, but I still wish that I could be equally impressed by their game design—you know, their products being games…

  3. KingCathcart says:

    What was the other game, John?
    Tell me.
    TELL ME NOW!

  4. Yargh says:

    sounds like they needed to read the Spacechem development post-mortem, particularly the bit about open puzzles.

    • MondSemmel says:

      They would have needed to invent a time-machine to do that, though. From Steam, it appears the game was literally released on the same day as the SpaceChem post-mortem.

  5. Docslapper says:

    I played the demo through, and when it pinged up at me that I’d done 50 splices, I genuinely thought to myself ‘thank f**k for that I can stop ‘. Which was the first hint of ‘yay I’ve won!’ I got in the game.

    There was no sense of achievement or progression in the game. the puzzles didn’t get harder, they just had more steps. The split mechanic introduced halfway through the demo didn’t actually change any of the dynamics of the game, it was just a different way of clicking on blobs.

    Good review, glad to see I didn’t miss anything by not buying it.

  6. MadTinkerer says:

    “The knowledge that you’ve basically got to plan four or five moves ahead before you can meaningfully change anything became distinctly unappealing”

    Sounds like the perfect puzzle game for Sudoku, Chess, and Go fanatics.

  7. Dervish says:

    I liked this picking apart of the puzzle mechanics. Wish more reviews focused on such impressions.

  8. wodin says:

    Puzzles make me mad…real mad… I hate em I do.

  9. heyandrei says:

    Hey John! One of the Splice developers here, thanks for reviewing our game!

    A lot of the issues you discuss are things we debated about endlessly during development. How much to let the player figure out on their own, how to order the levels, how to escalate difficulty. After testing we ultimately we came to a number of conclusions:

    People who don’t like puzzles where you have to reverse-engineer a solution four, five, or more steps in advance simply aren’t going to find the game as fulfilling as those who do. The main puzzle mechanic of the game is close-ended, just like Sudoku, with many puzzles having single optimal solutions that require making educated guesses through trial and error to discover. I enjoy Sudoku as well, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come close to “completing” a puzzle and then realizing I’d flubbed a number five minutes into the puzzle and have to redo 30 minute’s worth of work. Rearranging binary trees isn’t all the different.

    The weird spike in perceived level difficulty is very hard to avoid. Every beta-tester we had try out the game would have a different reaction to different puzzles. A person might take 30 minutes on a puzzle that another person would solve in their first try. Everyone thinks differently. We tried to order the puzzles based on the average completion times and perceived difficulty based on testers’ input, and hopefully getting metrics from the game now that it’s released will help us fine tune the game further.

    We also based the ordering on the angelic optimal solutions. There are number of angelic solutions that are damned difficult to get. We added regular solutions just to make sure that people who wouldn’t be interested in a frustratingly difficult experience could still make their way through the game. I do think we were a little bit too cryptic when it came to making people aware of the angelics though.

    Anyhow, not ragging on your review, it was a good read. I just felt compelled to answer since this is the first “harsh” review we’ve gotten and we can’t help but protect our baby! The binary tree rearrangement mechanic featured in Splice is, as far as we know, a novel type of puzzle. We knew from the start it wouldn’t be universally appealing, but we’re interested in refining it as we see how more people react to it.

    • John Walker says:

      Hey there. Thanks for such a gracious reply. And I’m delighted you’ve responded to protect your baby!

      I do want to say that I don’t think the Sudoku comparison is right, and perhaps that gets to the nub of the issue for me. With a Sudoku, each next step is possible to work out from the current situation, until you eventually reach the goal. I don’t think vanilla Sudoku is that interesting a puzzle, but while it’s possible to make mistakes and then have to undo a bunch of ‘moves’, that mistake is on you rather than the puzzle. I prefer Killer Sudoku, as there the next move can always be worked out, but it’s a lot harder to figure out.

      However, there’s no reason your game should adhere to that methodology.

  10. Verizian says:

    I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of Slitherlink until I read this article. It’s terrific, thanks for mentioning it.

  11. Vitellus says:

    I wanted this to live up to what it coulda been

  12. brulleks says:

    Interesting to read your Pic Pic review, John. I’ve only just discovered these ‘drawing’ or ‘Pic link’ puzzles myself, although for me it was Puzzler World 2 that introduced them.

    They are brilliant, aren’t they? I can’t understand where the cheeky little devils have been hiding themselves for the thirty years that I’ve been playing puzzles.