Demo Driver 8: Lumines

That's kind of where I am here.

Elegant and simple sometimes leaves a distressing amount of space wherein you’d like to say something without much to say.

I am not very good at Lumines.  I would like to be, certainly, but I’m not.  And I don’t think I quite have the patience to get good at it, probably because some stupid part of my monkey brain looks at the amount of time I’d need to unlearn my stupid habits to get good and asks if I could be spending this time on killing enemies and earning experience in something else.  But that’s not a failing of the game.

Lumines is a port of one of the early titles on the PSP, and despite the airs it puts on it’s a pure puzzler.  Like any good pure puzzle, it’s remarkably simple in its execution, allowing nearly all of the complications to emerge purely through game states.  It looks a lot like Tetris at a glance, but the demo makes it clear that trying to play it like Tetris will just result in you not being very good at the game and getting a game over screen repeatedly.

Guess who keeps doing that despite himself?

Here’s how it works – cubes composed of four blocks drop from the top of the screen.  Four blocks of the same color together make a square.  A line moves across the screen regularly, clearing away fully-formed squares beneath it as it passes.  If multiple squares can be made from a gathering of same-color blocks, they all go boom.  Unlike Tetris blocks, the cubes aren’t sticky, so placing one half-over a drop will result in the blocks dropping down to the floor.  Also, occasionally a special block forms that eliminates all of the blocks of the same color touching that square, even if they aren’t in squares.

That’s it.  That’s the whole game.

There are other game modes when you have the full game, of course, but if you’re trying the demo all you get is the basic version.  And for the life of me, I cannot seem to turn off the part of my brain that wants to make orderly little rows of colors.  Years of practice have told me that connecting enough of a color is all I need to do, and the idea that I need to arrange everything into disciplined squares somehow just keeps not clicking.  I know that’s what I need to do, and I start playing, and the next thing I know I’m losing and my reaction isn’t “where can I set up for a square” but “all right, let’s get this in a nice row so I can… wait.”

I'd believe either.

I kind of assume that every single one of these screenshots was assembled in a test version or that one of the developers is an actual wizard.

The game also features a nicely reactive soundtrack, but it’s entirely informed by play, not the other way around.  It works out quite nicely, though.  The colors shift over time, but as there are only ever two in play at a given moment, that shift doesn’t really throw you for too much of a loop.  All the soundtrack does is reflect how thoroughly you seem to be in the zone, without being intrusive when you make a mistake or two.

And as frustrating it is when you notice things falling out of control, the element of accountability is always there.  Never did I find myself thinking that the game had screwed me over; all the information was on my screen, and even when the movement of the clear line sent a planned confluence of blocks falling apart I still felt as if I had just sort of screwed up along the way.  I may not have liked the clear line, but it was my own stupid fault.

Well, mostly.  I do think that the fact that the clear line can remove two blocks from a square if it’s moving over the square as it forms is kind of bullshit.  Minor nitpick, then.

The full version allows you to cut your favorite skins together, offers things like score attack modes, and has a variety of features designed to stretch out the basics of what is, really, a pretty straightforward puzzler.  You turn on the game and you play, and the darn thing works.  It’s perfect for mobile play (which is what it was designed for) and it’s just as good for wasting an idle half-hour or two.  Elegant simplicity.

It isn't.

From the other side of the screen it all looks so easy.

In fact, the biggest issue the game has is its controls, or rather the lack thereof.  You can play with your mouse using an intensely unsatisfying setup, you can use your keyboard, and you cannot use a gamepad.  Considering the game’s origin it seems like a glaring omission.  I also saw no remapping options, although that might just be the demo; either way, the controls are crisp enough, but the limitations of what you can use to control the game leaves something to be desired.

Not to mention that the frustration factor has to be considered, since that subtle change of only eliminating blocks based on shapes rather than on connected groups is going to screw up lots of people, myself included.  You can no doubt get plenty out of the game even if you’re not very good at it – sort of by design, even – but I can see some people getting pretty damn frustrated when the game doesn’t work the way you expect it to, even though it’s not as if the game ever promised you how it was going to work.

And even if you pass those hurdles, you still might just not be very good at the game, which is the uncomfortable position I’m in.

But all of that pales compared the the basic fact that the game is fun, it works, and it delivers exactly what it wants to deliver, which is a spot of active puzzle-solving and some smooth music and graphics to go along with it.  Give it a quick whirl first to make sure that you’re not going to be totally blindsided by the game once you unwrap it, but otherwise just lean back and enjoy the sounds.

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About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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