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Wot I Think: Hexcells Plus

Hexcellent News

My favourite puzzle game of the year just doubled in size. Another collection of 36 puzzles, this time far harder than the last. Here's wot I think:

My cat, Dexter, has been missing for nine days now. Which is horrible. While kitten Lucy is certainly more famous in RPS parts, Dex has long appeared on the site, and indeed in PC Gamer, and best of all, The Cat Magazine. I've been pretty much miserable for eight days straight, so it's with this context that I tell you how bloody delighted I am that there's a new version of Hexcells released: Hexcells Plus.

I adore Hexcells. I've mentioned that rather a lot. The reason being: I adore it. My original review is here, and I eulogised it further behind day 2 of this year's top 24 advent calendar. Not only is it one of the best pure puzzle games I've played (and I've played all the pure puzzle games), but it's also an enormously calming, relaxing experience. Despite the challenge, its ambient atmosphere and symphonic interaction enchants me, lets me feel absorbed, even safe.

That's just what I could do with right now.

Cue: email from creator Matthew Brown informing me that a new expandalone for the game, Hexcells Plus, is now out. Again it's only $3, but this time it's aimed at people who've already finished the original. Which means things are much more difficult.

They really are. It eases you back in with the first few levels, reminding you of the rules you'd built up before: a number in a hexagon indicates how many immediately adjacent hexagons are highlighted, how many destroyed. A number at the top of a column or diagonal row tells you the same for the whole line. A number in square brackets, then they can't be in an unbroken chain, and in curly brackets, they have to be unbroken. And from this unfurls an extremely elaborate and complex series of puzzles. A depth which the previous game just reached before it was over too soon.

The fear in these circumstances is that there will be too much reprise, not enough continuation. That's certainly not the case here. You're going to need all the skills and tricks you picked up in the previous game to make headway, pretty much from the start. And the end of the second collection of levels, expect to sit stumped, staring for good portions of your time.

And it's bliss all over again. Just this time, at a slower, more taxing pace. If you blitzed through the first games' puzzles and consoled yourself with the super-low price, this time I think people will be celebrating the absolute bargain. It's going to take an awful lot longer to get through things this time, simply because every puzzle is so much more involved and complex. They're puzzles to get buried in, wrangle over, declare to the room that there simply isn't a logical next move and plan on complaining to someone somewhere, before realising yourself and spotting what you'd missed.

There are new features here too. "?" containing cells will be your first confusion, for instance. By the second half you'll face the new menace of numbers inside blue cells, and the complications they add in. And there has been a minor interface improvement: for those who struggled to usefully follow diagonal rows (me included), you can how click on the number to cast a faint white line along it all. I've found this also makes for a nice marker for which lines I've completed, unhighlighting them once all the corresponding cells are sorted. This time out there's a further emphasis on having your clicks implement themselves into the ambient tune, this time with them fractionally delayed to match the rhythm. That's not so great, for me, as it creates a detachment from the click and the sound, and thus nicks away at the game's extraordinary sense of flow.

It doesn't, however, address some of the peculiarities. Levels are still numbered one way in the menus, and another in the puzzles themselves, which makes for much confusion when trying to discuss a puzzle you're stuck on with a chum. It also still hides the option to switch the mouse buttons over (as any right-minded human would) in the Unity launch settings, and then contradicts your chosen settings in the text in-game. And I remain disappointed that there's no direct reward system for completing puzzles without mistakes. You require a certain number of earned blue hexagons to unlock later levels, but never enough that it's punitive (unless you're terrible at the game, I suppose) such that you don't have to go back to earlier puzzles to improve on them to progress. That's good, clearly, but it underlines that the game would benefit perfectionists with a means of expressing to you that you could go back and improve. Just a three-star system, as the much missed HudsonSoft so frequently used so well.

But these are minor grumbles. The puzzles themselves, and clearly this is the most important point, are sublime. They are so well designed, so utterly brilliant in construction and delivery, that I wonder at Brown's brain. There's even a wit to them, moments that make me smile as I play, as I realise how carefully and deliberately a puzzle has been designed, giving me a false sense of the rapid progress more familiar from the first game, before suddenly stumping me with a demand that I think farther, push myself to intuit yet another interpretation of the rules to make another logical move. These aren't the sorts of puzzles a computer could construct - their design requires a human hand, the meticulous selection of given information to make the process of solving as interesting as possible.

It's $3 - what on EARTH are you waiting for?

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