May 3, 2013

Postplay : Blocks that matter

On June 6 1984 Alexey Pajitnov changed the world of video games forever by releasing Tetris. From that moment on blocks would always matter in my favorite form of entertainment, something that developer Swing swing submarine wants to celebrate with their 2011 release Blocks that matter (BTM).
It was up to me to find out if this celebration has turned out to be a party.

BTM is charming right from the get-go. The art is simple but effective and the story is delivered with a good sense of humor. Video game fans will pick up on a lot of references both in graphics (a lot of Minecraft influences) and in dialog. It is clear that Swing swing submarine is genuinely passionate about games and that this one is their attempt to put them on a pedestal.

The story starts with a classic video game premise, someone has been kidnapped and it's up to the hero to overcome a series of obstacles in order to save his loved ones. For once it isn't a lovely princess or an innocent child that's in need of rescue though. The game opens with the kidnapping of the game's developers and the only one who can save them is their own creation: Tetrobot. They manage to communicate with their little friend and guide him in their direction and towards upgrades needed to perform the task at hand while 'The Boss' tries to stop that from happening.

The way you progress is by drilling or breaking certain blocks in the environment. Once a block is destroyed it is stored in your inventory and by going into puzzle mode you are able to place them somewhere else. In order to place blocks however, you have to form a tetrimino and at least one of the blocks has to touch a solid object. If eight or more blocks form a line you can destroy that line while in puzzle mode.
These mechanics are a clever and refreshing mix of minecraft and tetris concepts that at the very least have a lot of potential for creative puzzles.
The puzzle mode is simple enough but it does take some getting used to. Numerous times I wanted to scroll through my block types but instead cancelled my building action or closed the mode entirely. This is of course mainly my own fault for not being attentive enough, but I believe the awkward keyboard layout that was chosen for this mode is at fault as well.

Besides the drilling and breaking of blocks, Tetrobot is also able to run and jump. The controls are tight enough to support decent platforming but the game never truly takes advantage of this, so navigating the levels isn't where the fun is at.
As most puzzle games BTM shines most while solving the puzzles. You try different approaches, take a few moments to observe the problem and when you finally do solve it you get a feeling of satisfaction that lasts until you hit the next road block. 
Performing the steps to actually execute the solution is mostly just a way to get to the next puzzle and shouldn't hold you back. It is here that BTM makes a crucial mistake in my opinion. Most levels consist of multiple puzzles following one another. More often than not puzzle one has no connection to puzzle two, puzzle two has no connection to puzzle three and so on. If you get stuck on puzzle four however, BTM resets the entire level making you go through the motions of the previous puzzles again. As said before, once a puzzle has been solved having to repeat it is nothing more than frustrating. Adding to this problem is the fact that you can get stuck very easily. One misplaced block is often all it takes for you to be doomed to start over.
This changes the way you play the game. Instead of experimenting with the puzzles, you spend a lot of time just staring at the screen, trying different approaches in your head before you make a move. When you do make a move and you realize you are stuck yet again all the fun gets drown out of the game very quickly.
This problem could have easily been solved by adding checkpoints after solving a particular part of a level that has no influence on what's to come, as many other puzzle games do. It just baffles met that the developers chose not to do this. 
At the risk of sounding whiny, this lack of checkpoints has turned my experience with a game that I would have enjoyed otherwise, mostly sour. I have a hard time forgiving a game that makes me repeat actions that aren't fun over and over again without any good justification other than to drag out the length of the game.

When my five hours were over I decided I had to at least have a look at the level editor before writing my postplay, as well as try out some of the community levels.
I can be short in regards to the editor. I opened it, looked at it, poked around a bit and closed it in confusion. I'm sure it is fully functional and not all too difficult if you're willing to spend some time figuring out what's what, but I wasn't willing to, so I can't get into any specifics about it.
As for the community levels, this might be one of the strong suits of the game. There's a voting system in place very similar to the one implemented on Reddit or Imgur. If you like a level you can upvote it, if you hate a level you can downvote it. This results in a neatly sorted list of most popular levels.
The couple of levels I played were fun and focused on the strong parts of the game. Although you still have to restart a level when you stuff up, a lot of these community levels seem to be better designed to prevent this from happening than the ones in the campaign itself.

So where does that leave things? BTM has made it real difficult for me to make up my mind about whether I like it or not. The game definitely has many things going for it and has exceeded my expectations in almost al regards, but the lack of checkpoints has gotten me frustrated enough to quit the game on more than one occasion. I am genuinely interested to see where the story goes and what gameplay elements the game has in store further down the campaign, but I just can't say for certain if I'll ever find the motivation to see it through till the end.

If you have this game in your library, be sure to check it out. It's definitely worth a shot and maybe you'll be better equipped to cope with the level resets or to avoid getting stuck than I am.
For those who don't own the game, I think it's worth the €4,99 it's going for on Steam considering the length of the game (I'm only 33% through the campaign at five hours in) and the quality of the story and art.
Be warned though, during the course of the game you will most probably love it and hate it all at the same time.


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