The Bestest Best Puzzles Of 2014: Hexcells Infinite

There really wasn’t any competition for this one. As a straight, purest puzzle game, Hexcells Infinite stands heads and shoulders above anything else. As the closing entry of a trilogy, it’s the finest, most refined of the three, and a puzzle lover’s joy.

John: Well, yes, it’s just me for this one! (In fact, it’s just me in the entire bloody industry, apparently – as far as I’ve seen, no other site has reviewed the game, which is such a massive shame.) But let my voice be enough! Hexcells! Hexcells! HEXCELLS!

And this year, most of all, Hexcells Infinite. It is extremely rare that something as special as this comes along. I think the last time it happened was in late 2006 with Hudson Soft’s release of the sublime Puzzle Series Vol. 5: Slitherlink for the DS – one of only three games I’ve ever given 10/10. It’s why I’ve been making such a big deal.

I think, bearing in mind the volume I’ve written about the three games in this perfect puzzling trilogy (I’m not going to explain how they work again in this article, so do check out the reviews), I should make it abundantly clear that I’ve never met creator Matthew Brown, only ever emailed to sort reviews, and I think I scare him a little with my enthusiasm. I’m not sure he realised quite what he’d created with that first Hexcells, and the development over the following two games is astounding.

I recently replayed all three games, twice through (probably for the tenth time) after my boy was born last month. Filling in night shifts from 2am to 7am, I was watching season one of the splendidly silly Once Upon A Time on one monitor, and ploughing through Hexcells on the other, and relished the time. And the puzzles are complex enough that given enough time spent playing others, I forget how to solve them the next time I come back to them. Hooray!

Going back to the original Hexcells now, they seem oddly sweet puzzles, and I can blast through the whole game in an hour or so. Hexcells Plus really intuitively brought things forward, added some superb new elements to the puzzles (numbers above columns, and numbers in blue, that further determine surrounding cell contents), and raised the difficulty. By the last couple, they were as tough as I thought they could get. Which is perhaps why Hexcells Infinite was such an incredible surprise this year. It raised the bar once again, without adding any new concepts, but instead even better understanding its own potential. The level of difficulty begins where Plus left off, and climbs, creating by far the most satisfactory puzzles.

On top of that sense that each new puzzle is smarter than you, and you’re going to have to level up your brain yet again to get through it, is the gorgeous presentation. It’s so simple, but so ideal, cells prettily exploding as you smash them, and then the sound. Each game has tweaked the ambient soundscape further, with your actions playing notes into its beautiful, hypnotic swirl. It’s genuinely calming, an incredible way to unwind after a stressful day. I’ve genuinely hankered to be playing it during some recent tediously stressful times, and physically relaxed as it’s loaded up and running.

It’s understandable that Brown doesn’t want to be trapped making new Hexcells levels for the rest of his life, and he has other projects on the go, so creating the “Infinite” mode (it’s not actually infinite, but no one could finish all the mathematically-created puzzles in their lifetime) makes a lot of sense. It’s worth noting they’re not a fraction as satisfying to play as the hand-crafted challenges, generally a much more pedestrian affair. But heck, better than nothing. But gosh, it wouldn’t be a bad thing if he felt compelled to make a few more. Just for me. Because I’m so lovely!

It would certainly help if any other site pulled their collective heads out of some FPS’s arse and noticed one of the best games of the last decade that they haven’t bothered to cover. Grumble grumble grumble.

34 Comments

  1. Continuity says:

    I didn’t think it was all that.

    • Person of Interest says:

      Hexcells / Hexcells Plus didn’t blow my mind or take over my life like SpaceChem did, but the games took me to a calm and happy place moreso than perhaps any other game in my library. The puzzles rarely stumped me for long, so the game was always a relaxing and satisfying experience. I share John’s feeling that most puzzles were clever/elegant enough to give me a big grin.

    • Harlequin says:

      I personally thought it was hexcellent.

  2. theslap says:

    I don’t want to kill the author’s excitement but, while I enjoyed Hexcells immensely, I have to say the lack of story and theme makes it hard to compare it to a game like SpaceChem (my all-time favorite puzzle game). Like Hexcells, SpaceChem featured difficult, yet rewarding puzzles. However, SpaceChem also included a strong theme and story which meant that solving the puzzles had a purpose. While I want to love Hexcells as much as the author here, I have to admit that the theme is almost non-existent.

    My second beef with Hexcells is the fact that each puzzle can’t be failed…. technically. I wish the designer would’ve included a Hardcore and Casual mode. Casual mode would make it so that 10 errors say would fail the puzzle. Where as Hardcore mode would make a single (or perhaps two) error(s) fail the puzzle. Sometimes, I would make an error (brain fart or sometimes lapse in logic) but wouldn’t have the willpower to restart the entire puzzle. When I completed that puzzle, I would like I cheated.

    • Premium User Badge

      John Walker says:

      You can entirely institute this rule yourself, you realise? I *always* restart a puzzle if I make a single mistake, no matter how galling it may be.

      And gosh, I’m pretty sure a story isn’t necessary! Although I do love the idea of a book of Sudoku having a surprise twist at the end.

      • MarkN says:

        Interesting. I absolutely don’t want a story in the game. However, I want a little *something* more (I just don’t know what). I’ll happily do the Guardian cryptic crossword everyday without needing more, but in a videogame I’d like a little extra something. I have played a lot of Hexcells’ procedurally-generated levels (and actually think in some ways I prefer them to the designed levels, because they feel more care-free, and less like I’m just unpicking a meticulously-designed tangle). It could be something as simple as a flawless victory streak counter with high score, or some other kind of metric to judge how well I’m currently doing against my past performances. I love the game to bits, but I can’t help feel I could love it a little more if it was a tad less sparse.

      • Continuity says:

        Ah, its not the same though, its kinda like minesweeper without the mines. The actual mechanics are better than minesweeper of course but that no failure state thing just kills the joy in getting it right.

      • theslap says:

        I realize that you can implement the rule yourself. The point I’m making is that the game should do it for you. 90% of the time I’d restart the puzzle on a single mistake (even though I realize you are allowed one mistake before your score is lowered). However, the game not implementing this is equivalent to a crossword with the answers sitting on the same page. If the game automatically restarted the puzzle for you upon making a mistake (much like how crossword answers are released later in the week or on a separate page), then I wouldn’t be tempted to reset.

        Don’t get me wrong. I love the game and I love the mechanics of the puzzles and I think the puzzles are rewarding despite having any story or theme. For me, though, a video game can be made it to something bigger than merely a puzzle if you implement theme or a story. Perhaps a story isn’t needed but some semblance of a theme I think would add a lot to the experience.

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      particlese says:

      There’s actually a touching story about a gamer finding the power hidden inside themselves to play by their own rules and complete each puzzle perfectly.

    • meepmeep says:

      There is a hardcore mode – if you make more than one mistake, then you don’t get the shiny version of the completion icon, and you can only get 100% by shiny-ing all levels.

      • Geebs says:

        …. Which is really frustrating when you’re playing on a trackpad that occasionally decides to left-click when you meant to right-click >:-E

      • Hyetal says:

        Yeah, I’m not sure you’re playing it right if you don’t shiny every level. Maybe the design should’ve been stricter with regards to enforcing that kind of playstyle, I don’t really know, but seeing that matte finish when I craved shininess was more than enough incentive for me to play smart, not fast.

  3. Laurentius says:

    Hexcells/Plus/Infinite are fantastic games.

  4. Vandelay says:

    I found this to be a lovely game. As John says, perfect for unwinding after a long day. I hadn’t played any of them before reading John’s review and I didn’t regret buying all three. They escalate in a very organic way, with new levels seeming complex at first until everything slots into place.

    The randomly generated levels are very mediocre though. I’m not sure if there are hidden gems in there somewhere, but all the ones I played followed a very similar pattern and completing them just felt like going through the motions.

  5. Radiant says:

    A thoroughly enjoyable game.

    Not hampered by trying to shove plot/emotional baggage/social commentary in the way like so many hipster games; this one is a joyful pure puzzler.

    And sadly I think that’s why it doesn’t get as much attention as other less enjoyable games.

    If you developed the same game but attached a slowly revealed plot about delving into the psyche to remove memories of the actual developer’s baby dying.
    You’d have a dozen think pieces all over the blogosphere.

    But who’s going to write a 10,000 word editorial on something as pure a game as this?
    Sadly no one.*

    *[actual answer? Walker].

    • Banyan says:

      That’s a good way to putting it. Hexcells is pure game.

      You don’t have to save the kingdom, survive the zombies, make the vehicle to go faster, experience ennui ironically, or whatever games add to dress up the mechanics. You just have to smack your brain against the problem and then, when you figure it out, realize that you are a genius. Great series.

    • Laurentius says:

      So true. I’m tired of all this game writers looking for “art: in games, transcendence, human condition, medium maturity etc. all these are good things but when at the same time all those game critics are completly overlooking gem like Hexcells is really getting into me. I mean I have a lot of beef with JW but tha way he keeps on writing about Hexcells makes me realize that he “gets” that games are something unique, that can share some things with other medium but there is also something in them that can be engrossing and satisfying even without story, character or self examination and that it should be written about and praised.

  6. SuddenSight says:

    (Gently, it begins raining)

    Hexcells is not bad, but Mr. Walker seems a bit too enamored to me. I bought Hexcells based on RPS’s suggestion, and I do not regret it. But there are interface issues (why is right click necessary? I have a one-button mouse and I would like to play the game) and I find the way the game prevents you from making mistakes a little annoying. It is not perfect.

    Besides, there are so many good games in the “puzzle” category this year. In the ever-contested puzzle platformer there are games like PID, Bridge, and Escape Goat 2. In the First Person Puzzler category are games like Q-Beh and Tri. And none of this even mentions the explosion of excellent puzzle-script based puzzlers, including the incredibly excellent “Aaaah! I’m Being Attacked by a Giant Tentacle!” and more that I find out about each day, including “Slidings.” And, of course, there is Drod: Second Sky.

    But what about the ever-important filling in a grid genre? Well, I have spent some time recently playing the delightful “Girls Like Robots.” It isn’t quite as “clean” as Hexcells, but the theme is nice (ignoring the cliche malignment of “nerds”).

    Hexcells is a good game, with a number of clever innovations. But calling it the “Best Puzzle Game Of The Year” – especially two years in a row – seems like a stretch to me.

    (And softly, the rain cloud floats away)

    • Llewyn says:

      There. Is. No. Puzzle. Category.

      There are no categories at all. There are no genres.

      There is simply a list of 24 games, the Hivemind’s favourites of the year, with snappy post titles.

      • SuddenSight says:

        So? There is a title up there that clearly says bestest best puzzle game, so that is the merits by which I will judge this game.

        The Hivemind has chosen to highlight this game, out of all the many gems in the rough. I am merely expressing my disagreement over the proper handling of the spotlight, and suggesting alternatives that users with similar tastes might prefer.

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          John Walker says:

          It’s because it’s the best pure puzzle game of the year.

          • logicgamesfan says:

            I didn’t play DROD TSS yet, so maybe my comment is out of place here, but unless it’s worse than DROD: GATEB there’s no way Hexcells is better. I played Hexcells (2 iterations, I think). I was pretty good, especially when it started to pick up in depth in the second part. If it really got that much better down the line, then my apologies for the rest of this post. It was good in a way as hard Hashi, Slitherlink or other Nikoli puzzles can be. They certainly have a fair amount of depth and difficulty, but it’s nowhere near to what DROD series is showing. And I mean showing constantly with new iterations, DLC and user made content. If DROD TSS is at least as good as DROD TCB, it’s a hands down better game. The difference is so large that I can’t see it being a subjective matter. The level of variety, depth and design is just to high. In DROD you often feel like you’re playing a new game when going to the next puzzle. A game like Hexcells could maybe compare with a few single themed rooms of a DROD game, and I don’t think the best ones either.

            When I see “Best Puzzle Game” or something similar in title, it really can’t be “My Favorite Game”. When in 2011 Portal 2 was winning in such categories and Spacechem wasn’t even mentioned, I was pretty much crossing out media outlets from my list. There is obviously a lot of subjectivity when choosing the best, but again there are also pretty objective metrics when you go into puzzle games. Often it didn’t even come to this, because clearly authors didn’t think some weird programming stuff could be worthy of their time. If you are making “Best X Game” you are obliged to make in depth research to see that you didn’t miss any worthwhile titles. First and foremost you owe it to the game creators. It is very hard and often something will fly under the radar, but a DROD release certainly must be played for such an evaluation.

            To my disappointment, I didn’t see any DROD TSS review or mention post release. That, of course, is fine. No one is obliged to cover this specific franchise, just because I personally think it’s one of the most important in the gaming history. What I do think is that without playing this title you can’t make a legitimate “Best Puzzle Game” topic this year, the same way you couldn’t without Spacechem in 2011. At the very least I would like to know why TSS lost to Hexcells. Maybe TSS really was terrible, I myself need to play it and see. The more important part is that RPS didn’t seem to give this game a chance before writing this “Best” topic.

  7. alex_v says:

    In terms of pure puzzlers, I enjoyed Lexica, Lyne and Kami.

  8. bonuswavepilot says:

    Agreed – a masterful series of games, with a lovely friendly developer (he responded to my email demanding more levels after I played through the first game).

    • SuddenSight says:

      If only getting more content in games was always so easy!

  9. Urthman says:

    Hexcells is a really good implementation of this kind of puzzle, but it’s not the kind of puzzle I enjoy very much. It all seems so mechanical and deterministic, like I’m methodically working through options that will inevitably solve the puzzle, regardless of how smart I am, rather than requiring me to have actual lateral-thinking insights. It doesn’t give me that “Aha! I’m brilliant!” feeling I would get from something like Braid. It’s mostly the smaller, bubble-wrap-popping, completionist pleasure of turning all the right hexes from yellow to blue.

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      particlese says:

      While I thoroughly enjoyed Braid and other puzzley games with larger, more complicated puzzle pieces than Hexcells, I found the latter immensely satisfying precisely because it can be mechanically worked through using a set of rules which doesn’t change often or much. My favorite bits are when multiple simultaneous branches of logic must be maintained to arrive at a solution. However, sometimes new insights into the existing rules are found, required or not, and those are nice and a little more like Braid-like in terms of the solutions they provide.

      However, the biggest difference I find is that Hexcells is less intense/more relaxing than Braid. Less Mario, more Chess, or something like that. Still love Braid, but ahhh, Hexcells…

  10. Premium User Badge

    particlese says:

    Of John’s volume of articles on this series, I’d like to point out the one about the community-made level editor. Although the subreddit linked there doesn’t look particularly busy with new levels, the editor does theoretically address John’s lament in this article about a future devoid of new hand-made Hexcells levels. I also think it’s awesome that the game’s creator patched his game specifically to support the editor, and he even contributed a few levels himself, complete with a new rule to do one’s logic by.

  11. Caiman says:

    I do love this series. I only recently started playing them… as in, two weeks ago, and I’m completely hooked. Puzzle games often don’t click with me, they’re either too easy or too difficult, and especially too tedious. When faced with certain levels in certain puzzle games that make me say “Oh no, I can’t believe I have to do that!” then it doesn’t last much longer. Escape Goat 2 fell into this category, despite the first Escape Goat being one of my favourite games. The difficulty (including the dexterity involved) just went a little too high for me to be able to do much more than complete the basic pathway. But I don’t get any of that sense of frustration from Hexcells, they’re bite-sized challenges that you complete a bit at a time, every tiny grouping of numbers that you solve gives you incentive to keep going, until the whole thing gradually falls into place. I love that sense of realising that by adding an extra blue hexagon I’ve suddenly opened up a whole new line of investigation in another area of the board. Yes, it’s really quite brilliant, especially going back for the Perfectionist achievement.

  12. Prolar Bear says:

    I love it. Haven’t played Plus yet, but Hexcells might’ve been my favorite surprise of the year. So relaxing and clever.

  13. jgf1123 says:

    Based on the RPS review, I got the 1st game of the series. Is the 3rd game better? I found the 1st game trivial to point that a time achievement would be more appropriate than a perfectionist achievement; I was limited by the speed I could read and click as much as logic. I wouldn’t say it was tedious, but it did more to clear my mind than test it.

    • theslap says:

      The series gets progressively harder but don’t add too much more changes to the strategy (from what I remember… they sort of blend together for me)