One of the most fascinating aspects of the video-gaming medium is the variety of prophetic visions it has presented of planet Earth’s possible futures. If development teams aren’t pulling back the curtain to allow gamers a glimpse of futuristic hovercraft racing (WipeOut), they’re offering them an opportunity to eavesdrop on the squabbles of nano-tech augmented law enforcers and crazed AI interfaces (Deus Ex). Faced with such an incredible range of potential tomorrow’s, no doubt many joypad-wielding youngsters would gladly accelerate a few decades of their lives just to see which title will prove closest to the actual reality.
The folks behind Puzzle Dimension seem to have decided in years to come the world will be dominated by spherical beings, moving across tiles in search of… sunflowers. Whether the ball-people are using their floral pickings as a source of nutrition or for decoration purposes isn’t entirely clear. In either case, once a pre-determined number of flowers have been attained, a mystical portal opens up to transport our collecting friends to pastures new.
As astute readers will have ascertained, that convoluted introduction was laced with a drop of sarcasm. Puzzle Dimension is not, in any way, concerned with storylines, protagonists or anything like that. There are no claims that this is what’s going to be happening in 2085. No, in fact, this is a game which harks back to simpler times; times when a huge ape could throw barrels at a man wearing dungarees, or when oddly-shaped blocks fell from the sky. Back then nobody ever dreamt of questioning why these things were happening or what was motivating the characters. These were the game’s world; you could take it or leave it.
And so it is here. The player is tasked with directing a ball across a series of narrow ledges, taking care not to plummet into the abyss below. As already mentioned, finishing a level involves rolling into a handful of sunflowers (in whichever order you like) and then passing through the portal. Don’t ask why; that’s not important. The question you should be asking is how, and believe me, you’ll need to pull on your thinking cap if you’re going to find the answer.
At first navigating the stages is relatively straight-forward. Rolling the ball forwards, backwards, left or right and jumping onto the next-but-one tile (when a gap needs to be avoided) is essentially all that’s required to get through the early portals. It isn’t long though before the layouts become far more intricate and players are forced to carefully weigh up which roll to make next. The difficulty lies in how, as the ball rolls about, the world turns with it. Sometimes you’ll be on the upper side of a path, but the sunflower you need will be found on the underside. In such cases you normally have to head off to one of the level’s extremities, roll round a corner to turn everything on its side and then jump down to a tile which links to the other side of the path. It’s nigh on impossible to do it all justice in words but, needless to say, you’ll need to appreciate the full three-dimensional make-up of the environments if you want to succeed.
Alongside these geometrical complications, there’s an assortment of different tiles to further confuse proceedings. Some disintegrate after they’ve been “stepped” on, others are made of ice and the ball cannot stop on them, and there’s even some hidden tiles which only appear once you’re right next to them. Doctor Entertainment deserve a great deal of credit for how they gradually introduce these new elements, taking care not to overwhelm the audience, while keeping them on their toes. It was also a wise decision to not force players to tackle the levels in one predetermined order. If one stage is proving too abstract and frustrating, there’s always the opportunity to try one of the others you’ve unlocked with your earlier successes.
In regard to presentation, Puzzle Dimension is quite typical of the genre. There are a few nice lighting effects on display and it does support 3D, but the most critical thing with any puzzler is that its graphics and music are not allowed to detract from the gameplay/concept. Thankfully the developers have born that in mind. Now and again there is a spot of juddering which is pretty disappointing when you consider the power of the hardware and lack of things moving about on screen, but it’s not the end of the world. One clever little touch which certainly warrants a mention is the way the tiles and sunflowers start in pixelated form and then get a quick graphical update once the ball rolls over them. Whether that should be viewed as a metaphor for PD bringing old-school puzzling into the 2011 or just a quirky bit of visual fun is open to debate.
In terms of negatives, there are moments when manipulating the camera proves slightly irksome, and on certain complex stages the gravitational laws can be erratic, but these are minor quibbles. Admittedly, once the 100 stages have been completed there isn’t an awful lot to draw gamers back in, but that doesn’t stop PD being a real treat while it lasts. Puzzle fanatics might be able to cite countless other recent offerings that provide an equally delicious combination of cranial exercise and fun, but for those with personal catalogues dominated by shooters and racing games, the delightful change of pace will prove refreshingly different. In times when many titles demand lightning reactions and faultless accuracy, it’s nice to just sit there, like some veteran chess-master, carefully meditating on where the next eight moves will take you.
If it does transpire that by the end of this century, earthlings have become fixated with sunflower collection, I for one will be more than happy to climb into a ball.
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