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Wot I Think: Hexcells

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Well this is me consumed. I adore gentle puzzle games, and they gobble up vast amounts of my time. A day doesn’t go by without at least a couple of Killer Sudoku completed, and currently Kakuros help me slide off to sleep each night. I’ve spent literally hundreds and hundreds of hours playing Slitherlinks and Picrosses on my various Nintendo handhelds, and can’t walk past a Nurikabe without shading. But goodness me, the PC is starved of quality offerings in this field. So thank goodness for Matthew Brown Games’ Hexcells. Because it’s absolutely stunning. Here’s wot I think:

Hexcells falls somewhere between Picross and Minesweeper, but is far more than a grab bag of ideas from elsewhere. Adjacent hexagon cells, that need to be shaded or destroyed according to the numbered cells that are dotted throughout. At first – it soon gets more complex.

There’s no doubt that this is most similar to Minesweeper, except crucially, it’s not terribly executed. Unlike all the great puzzles I mentioned above, Microsoft’s freebie is a blight, with its enforced guessing and lack of a fair, logical solution. It should be struck from the records of human history, locked in a lead cage, and buried a hundred miles beneath a desert. Hexcells, thank goodness, takes the gem of an idea that exists within that rotten core, and realises it brilliantly. Here your moves are deduced through reason and logic, and however tricky it might get, if you can’t figure out what to do next, the fault is with you.

Get a couple of puzzle groups in, and the game then evolves, introducing a much more distinctly Picross element. Numbers start appearing on the outside of the grids too, determining how many hexagons must be highlighted in that column. The two rules need to be applied at the same time. Further, should that external number be in curly brackets, that means the hexagons are consecutive (to a degree – gaps don’t count, interrupting numbered cells do). At this point the tactics really start to flow in. So if you’ve a column of seven hexagons, and you’ve got a {4}, you know that the middle cell needs to be highlighted. That there, it may be adjacent to a “1” cell, so you can then eliminate any others that number cell is touching. Oh, and then -3- means they’re not connected. And so on.

Where the game makes a slight misstep is with how it recognises mistakes. Quite unusually for puzzle games of this ilk (although to be fair, this is a pretty original and smart new style), you’re penalised both for trying to destroy an incorrect cell and for incorrectly highlighting one. This has a rather counter-intuitive side effect: it ends up making the puzzles easier, rather than tougher. If you can’t incorrectly highlight a hexagon, then you can’t make a mistake that won’t be discovered until later. Pretty much every great puzzle allows you to make those mistakes, whether it’s putting the wrong number in a lowly sudoku cell, or greying the wrong square in a picross, you can realise you went wrong a while back when you find a dead end. And computer-based versions of such puzzles suit this even better, letting you ‘undo’ your way back to the point of error. Having that taken away from you – and with there being almost no consequences to making mistakes (you need to collect enough not-making-mistake points to open later levels) – ends up unnecessarily simplifying the experience.

I would really love to see highlighting cells be ignored by the game, such that a level is complete once all the correct cells are eliminated. (For the puzzle nerds out there, it minds me of the Wario levels of Mario Picross, but without the twists.) It would smooth things out, and importantly, allow the levels to get harder.

I’m picking, because this is magnificent. Where so often new puzzle games are vague variants on old formats, Hexcells – despite the two easy comparisons – really carves a niche of its own. Which is a massive accomplishment. And it’s interestingly complex, the puzzle revealing itself as you play in a way a paper puzzle never could. That means it does lack that simple perfection, but juggling its many rules becomes a real treat of its own.

It quickly reaches those magnificent moments where you’re working out new rules on the fly, realising that if you apply previously acquired understandings you can make logical leaps and eliminate or highlight in a brand new way. Those are special moments that only very few puzzle games manage.

It’d be nice to see the slightly more response from the menus as to how well you’ve done in previous puzzles. Highlighting those that aren’t yet completed with no mistakes, that sort of thing. But otherwise the presentation is absolutely splendid. It’s elegant, smart, and accompanied by some extremely soothing ambient noise, reactive to your clicks. Elegance seems to be a word that applies to an enormous amount here.

In there are only 29 puzzles, but they’ll keep you going for a good few hours. But you can get the whole lot for just $3, and that’s fantastic, and means it’s worth picking up whether you’re idly curious, or a puzzling aficionado. A really superb creation. I desperately hope creator Matthew Brown is already working on huge piles of extras, because I’m in love with these things, and need some more sharpish.

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John Walker

Senior Editor

One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and general hero of humanity.

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