A Fresh and Spooky Puzzler
There’s something special about a good puzzle game. By combining simple rules with gamers’ drive to rack up high scores, titles like Tetris and Dr. Mario have mesmerized countless players for decades. Those classics remain the king and queen of puzzlers, with today’s teenagers buying suped-up versions or downloading the originals to computers, Virtual Consoles, and cell phones.
The latest attempt to usurp their throne comes from the DS title Dropcast. It features an unusually clever story, especially for a puzzle game, and it has a fresh take on the age-old concept of trying to break blocks before they reach the top of the screen. However, it lacks that mysterious “it” factor that makes a game like this succeed, and there’s a mismatch between the difficulty and the presentation.
The story revolves around Ingrid, a Wednesday-from-the-Addams Family-like young witch. She’s brought her stuffed-animal collection to life and taught each pet a different set of magic spells. They fight each other through Ingrid’s puzzle.
There are two game modes. The first, Ingrid’s Curse, involves simply playing the puzzle for a high score. Here’s how it works: You turn the DS on its side, with the touch screen on the right (if you’re left-handed, don’t worry, there’s an option to reverse this). Rows of blocks pop up from the bottom of the touch screen. When two or more adjacent blocks have the same color, you can break them by touching one with the stylus. When you break a set of six or more, they drop on the left-hand side (non-touch) screen. The goal is to make entire rows of blocks on the left-hand screen, which (just like in Tetris) disappear and give you points. Unlike in Tetris, you don’t have to worry about fitting different shapes of blocks into each other (the blocks that fall together don’t hold their pattern, but fall as far as they can). You just have to make sure to spread the blocks out evenly, so they form full rows and disappear before the taller columns reach the top.
The interesting twist is that it matters where you break each cluster. Let’s say on the right-hand screen you have a set of seven like-colored blocks, and at least one of those blocks is in the second column from the right. Let’s also say that on the left-hand screen you have two whole rows completed, except for that very column. When you break the set on the right-hand screen, do so by touching the block in this column; this will concentrate the blocks on the column you’re missing on the left-hand screen, completing both rows. (It sounds complicated, but it’s easy to figure out with the game in front of you.)
There are twelve columns total, so it’s hard to target specific ones toward the middle of the screen, especially when things start getting fast and hectic. For this reason, it might have been better if the developers had left the DS screens on top of one another, instead of side-by-side; that way, to target a specific column, you could just break the set by touching the column directly beneath it.
The strategy, of course, is to break the right blocks. The idea is to find places where breaking smaller clusters of one color will create clusters of six or more in a different color. As time progresses, new blocks pop up from the bottom faster and faster, so the game requires both thought and reflex.
That’s an impressive feat for a simple game offered at a discount price, but it’s also the reason Dropcast is no Tetris or Dr. Mario. It’s rather difficult to develop a winning strategy, because in order to put small clusters of one color next to each other to create a big cluster, you have to sacrifice (potentially useful) small clusters of the other colors. It’s not at all intuitive how to make this tradeoff, especially with new rows of random blocks popping up constantly. If you over think it, you end up with your stack approaching the top of the screen, and you have to pop clusters at random just to stay alive. That’s great for hardcore puzzle fans looking for a challenge, but most puzzle fans aren’t hardcore; they’re just looking for something fun, simple, and immediately addictive to waste some time with.
After learning the ropes in Ingrid’s Curse, most players will spend the bulk of their time playing Battle Royale, and within that, Story Mode. The basic mechanic is the same, with one important change: on the left-hand screen, the pile of blocks you send over has been replaced by a computer-controlled opponent. When you break clusters of six or more, the stuffed animal you control now casts a spell, which (depending on the color of the blocks you broke) usually attacks your opponent in some way.
A spell might make some of his blocks “dead” (unbreakable for a brief period of time) or “inactive” (unbreakable until he can maneuver them next to active blocks of the same color), or it might just dump extra blocks on his screen. If you pull off a great move (breaking a whole bunch of blocks at once), you’ll get a special-move block, which briefly takes over his screen with animation and casts a spell to royally mess him up. The goal with attacks, of course, it to target the opponent’s highest columns, for if one reaches the top of the screen, you win.
In Story Mode you can unlock various characters with slightly different attacks. These provide a little variety, though the basic idea of getting like-colored blocks together and aiming your spells at enemies’ highest columns remains the same. In total, there are eight characters and 14 achievements to unlock.
Before each match, the two stuffed warriors have a conversation. The dialogue, though well-written (provided the developers wanted the living toys to sound a little off), is childish; it sounds like something out of a Paper Mario title. The same goes for the visuals. There’s a dark feel to the game, something like what director Tim Burton captures in his movies, but in that sense it’s much more akin to the gentle Nightmare before Christmas than to the gory Sweeney Todd. In a word, the game looks cute. This creates a weird gap between the presentation and the game itself, because this is not a game for children. There’s nothing inappropriate, of course, but the enemies in Story Mode are quite challenging from the get-go, and the strategy can tax even an adult’s cognitive resources. A little more dark humor in the dialogue could have really helped bridge the gap.
Also in Battle Royale, you can take up single matches against one, two, or three CPU opponents at once (this is basically the same thing as multiplayer, through which you can host up to three other players on a single cartridge). Unfortunately, with more than one opponent, their screens are tiny, making it even harder than usual to figure out which columns of yours to break to attack their high ones. You can only attack one opponent at once, meaning that you have to kill one enemy at a time, try to figure out what opponent the others are going after and gang up on him, or somehow try to attack all the opponents at once by matching the spells you have available to their weak spots. None of these tactics is particularly fun, though ganging up on one opponent seems to be the most effective. Also, you can only play as and fight characters you’ve unlocked, so the options are limited until you’ve gotten a ways in Story Mode.
In terms of technical accomplishment, no one expects much from a $20 game, except that the graphics, controls, and sound do their jobs. Dropcast clears that bar, with characters that look equally spunky and spooky and blocks that look like, well, blocks. The stylus controls are responsive, and the sound is about what you’d expect (we’re especially impressed by the way the music blends a traditional puzzle vibe with a Halloween one).
For someone who’s mastered lots of puzzle games and wants a fresh challenge, Dropcast is the way to go. Casual gamers, on the other hand, will probably struggle.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.5 Graphics
They get the job done. What did you expect for $20? 3.8 Control
The stylus controls are responsive, but in Battle Royale mode, it might have helped if the screens were atop one another instead of side-by-side. 4.2 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Unusually well-done music for a discount game, but the sound effects are just OK. 3.2
For a hardcore puzzle fanatic, this presents a fresh challenge, but it will frustrate children and casual gamers before it addicts them.
3.6 Overall Rating – Good
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.