Saturday, April 07, 2012

Lumines - Puzzle Fusion

I Dream of Psychedelic Falling Blocks.
Review By SFUNPSP.
Puzzle games are tricky to create. While there doesn't seem to be any magic formula for achieving the type of fun and longevity that results in classics, when everything clicks it usually fits together perfectly. Case in point – how long has Tetris been around? Longer than most gamers have been alive, I'd wager. But for every Tetris there are dozens of games that only retain their intrigue for a scant few months, if that. However with Lumines, I believe there may now be a game that can measure up to the king of puzzle games.

Like most good puzzle games, the mechanics of Lumines are instantly familiar and easy to grasp. Two by two blocks fall from the top of the screen and players are tasked with dropping, rotating and getting rid of them before they fill the grid. To get rid of a block, you have to at least create a two by two square. The twist is that blocks are made up of individual squares that come in two colors. In case I'm making things overly complicated, each block has four smaller units. These units can be different colors. For instance, upper left and bottom right units might be white while the upper right and lower left are orange. The player then has to maneuver these until creating a two by two square comprised of the same color.

After a block is created, it will turn solid to signify it is ready to be cleared. However, blocks don't disappear as soon as they are created. A meter scrolls across the screen at a constant rate. It is not until this meter passes a solidified block that it disappears, causing any blocks on top of it to drop down into the void. This meter is actually a very important part of the game so it pays to keep an eye on it. Because blocks don't immediately vanish, it is possible to build off of them, meaning you can create larger blocks. For instance, if you create a white block you can then drop two more white pieces next to it that will link up to form a rectangle and then vanish as one piece. Creating large blocks is advised, not only because it clears space faster, but it nets the player more points.

This meter can also drastically change how the game plays out depending on its scrolling speed. A fast meter means blocks are cleared quicker, but it is much harder to create large combos. A slow meter allows for huge combos but it takes longer for blocks to be cleared, which may lead to a game over from a full grid.

One added nuance comes in the form of special blocks, signified by a flashing gem in the middle. When incorporated into a square, these blocks will take out all the same colored units they are touching. In this way it is actually possible (but difficult) to completely eliminate one whole color from the grid, which results in LOTS of points. 

While the core concept of Lumines seems pretty simple (and it is), I found myself continually picking up new strategies that enabled me to create larger and larger combos. I began to think further in advance, using the block queue, and plan my moves out and even to the point of setting up chain reactions where a cleared block would fall and automatically create new blocks. The pieces continually fall into place (pun unintended, but accepted) and a sort of Zen state takes over as all the possibilities become clear, until you're reacting without thinking. Because of this, time itself seems to stop and you become a single-minded machine hell-bent on clearing the screen of those dastardly falling blocks. Suffice it to say, Lumines is supremely addicting.

However the game would be much less addictive if not for the stellar graphical and audio design which are central pieces of the puzzle (again, pun not intended). The action doesn't just unfold on a blank black background; there are numerous skins that depict all sorts of things. Usually very strange, psychedelic things. The color scheme also changes from skin to skin. Although the game has a love affair with orange and white, you can expect to see pretty much every color of the rainbow. The blocks themselves will even change appearances. The blocks can be spotted, take on the look of tiny stacked CD's or solids and dotted lines (one of the trippiest skins the game has to offer).

The most interesting thing is how the skins interact with what you're doing. As you clear blocks lights will flash, the background will change colors and things will explode. All this has a tendency to intrude on your concentration and interfere with the ability to position blocks and create combos. This is usually due to a combination of the skin's color scheme and the aforementioned graphical effects. Take for instance a very trippy skin. As you clear blocks the red background explodes into waves of crimson red and words flash on the screen. These things infringe on the Zen-like state that arises from intense concentration. While this may sound irritating, it is actually to the games credit that it finds clever ways of challenging the players. At no point do the graphics interfere with the onscreen action; they just draw your eye away from it. This means you've got to maintain your concentration and hone it to a razor sharp level that can resist all the game has to throw at you.

The audio functions much like the graphics in that it is intensely reactive. Each skin has its own theme song that plays on a constant loop. The songs are all of the trance/techno/electronica variety, but chances are even if you're not a fan of the genre you'll still succumb to the trance inducing effect of the constant, steady beat (they don't call it “trance” for nothing). When blocks are cleared the game produces numerous audio flourishes such as beeps, explosions and yells. The bigger the combo chain, the longer and more extravagant these flourishes become until they climax into a full-on aural assault. The coolest thing about these random sounds is that they fit the nature of the song and always sound as if they're being mixed in on the fly, without breaking the flow of the music itself.

Lumines has three single-player game modes that include challenge, single skin, versus and puzzle. The challenge mode is the closest thing to a progressive “career” and takes players through a steady succession of skins while slowly amping up the difficulty. As you complete skins you'll unlock them for single skin mode, which lets you play one skin to your heart's content. Versus mode divides the playing grid in two and pits you against the AI. Blocks fall on either side at the same time and the meter scrolls as usual. The objective is to outlast your opponent. The twist is that you've got to clear blocks faster than they do as the dividing line will shift towards the underdog, giving the person with the upper hand more room to drop blocks. This goes on until one side fills up. This mode also unlocks new skins. Finally, the puzzle mode requires players to create a symbol by dropping alternate colored blocks. Oh, and there's a time limit. It should go without saying that this mode is insanely hard.

If there's one complaint I could level against the game, it's that in both versus and challenge modes you have to complete all the skins in a set order. Once you lose, you'll have to complete all the prior rounds before getting back to where you were to continue unlocking skins. This leads to a fair amount of repetition but it isn't enough to qualify as any significant drawback to the game as a whole.

Lumines takes old ideas and twists them into something fresh and exciting. Its mix of classic falling-block gameplay, psychedelic visuals and trance inducing songs creates a very compelling and addictive mix. I wouldn't be exaggerating in the slightest if I said that I continue to see block patterns and flashing lights when I close my eyes. It's such an addicting game that, even after setting the PSP down for a break, I continue to think about patterns and strategies. Either that or the never-ending onslaught of light and sound has produced some sort of short-circuit in my brain. Regardless of any brain damaging potential, Lumines is a must have game for any PSP owner. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm jonesing for some more action.

SYSTEM: PlayStation Portable, Mobile, PC, PlayStation 2, XBOX Live, PlayStation Network. iOS



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