Monday, September 29, 2008

loops of zen

It is perhaps instructive to compare Loops of Zen with Hexiom Connect (review here). Both are puzzle games built on the basic concept of connecting things, but there the similarities end. Where Hexiom Connect has clever level design, Loops of Zen has no level design. Where Hexiom Connect has a quality interface, Loops of Zen has a terrible interface. And while Hexiom Connect manages to be challenging yet rewarding, Loops of Zen is simply tedious. If there weren't a badge for completing 50 levels, I can't believe anyone would voluntarily do it.

So the basic concept of Loops of Zen is pretty straightforward. You have a bunch of pieces on a rectangular grid. Each piece has either one, two, three, or four free ends leading into its neighbors. Clicking on a piece rotates it; the object is to line up all pieces so that all the ends are properly aligned.

So what's my complaint? Well, the main problem I have is that the quality of a puzzle game is, naturally, dependent on the quality of the puzzles. Most puzzle games, thus, at least try to have clever level design so that the solutions are interesting, clever, and rewarding. Loops of Zen does none of this. Rather, all of the levels are randomly generated. This means that there's never anything particularly interesting or clever; you just rotate pieces until you happen to be done. One thing working against Loops of Zen here is that because you can't move pieces to a different location -- merely rotate them where they stand -- the puzzle tends to be rather local. That is, pieces in one part of the board don't really have any influence on far-away areas of the board. Hence, larger puzzles don't really get much harder, they just get more tedious. And there's plenty of tedium to be had -- the random level generator has no problem cranking out ever-larger puzzles. And if you don't like a level, well, just restart! You'll get a brand-new one. Anyway, the level generator clearly makes no effort to enforce unique solutions (I have no idea if that would be even possible and still have a reasonable puzzle), so there are probably hundreds of ways to solve any given board. With a bit of trial and error, you should have no trouble finding one.

The interface is not particularly useful -- a way to lock a tile, or at least to indicate that you'd like it to remain in its current position, is completely absent. While the game does autosave your progress, it does so in a completely unintuitive way -- when you start the game again, you begin at level 0, and have to hit right-arrow to advance through the levels to the first one you haven't completed -- many of the commenters are apparently unaware a save feature exists at all, which doesn't speak well for the design.

The graphics are extremely spartan -- simply black curves against a white background. There's no sound effects, only some background music which treads the fine line between pleasantly atmospheric and incredibly annoying. It's actually not too bad, but of course, when it's the only thing you have to listen to, it's not going to fare too well.

Loops of Zen is not a difficult game -- a bit of persistence is all you need to get through any given puzzle, and the amount of logic involved is pretty minimal. But I can't understand the purpose of having so many levels when the levels don't have anything particularly interesting. It just makes the whole thing a dreary slog. If the levels were more cleverly designed, or indeed designed at all, it's not hard to imagine this game being much more enjoyable, but as it is, it is simply not a pleasure to play.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sola Rola - The Gravity Maze

Sola Rola is kind of like Excit -- it's a pretty straightforward puzzle game, and likely you've seen the basic puzzle type before, but it still combines clever level design with a few additions to make it a fun game.

So, in Sola Rola, you have two balls -- well, actually they're spherically-shaped, uh, creatures, named Wiz and Waz. They're placed in a circular maze, and your goal is to get them to their respective destinations by rotating the maze. In nearly every level, this requires some degree of teamwork, as most levels feature colored switches and correspondingly-colored doors; often you'll find yourself needing to maneuver one of the pair onto a switch to open a door for the other. In most levels, the two balls move independently, but in some they're connected with a gravity beam, which basically serves as a rope which can pass through the maze walls. This requires somewhat different tactics, but the basic principle is still the same.

The level design is pretty solid -- the levels are generally not too difficult, but they generally require at least some care, thought, and cleverness. A few of the puzzles do require a bit of dexterity, but generally planning is much more important than quick action. None of the levels gets too complicated, but there are a few which require very careful maneuvering to get through.

The graphics are pretty simple, although Wiz and Waz have a nice amount of personality. (One small complaint I have is that the tutorial information, presented in the form of dialogue between Wiz and Waz, proceeds extremely slowly. A way to speed this up would be much appreciated.) The music is perhaps a bit on the overly cute side, but it actually stands up pretty well to many repeated listens, which is good, since you'll probably be hearing it a lot.

Overall, Sola Rola is not particularly revolutionary, but the game design and the level design are both quality, so this is a game you can easily enjoy. And, as an added bonus, unlike many of the puzzle games on Kongregate, you won't be going insane by the end.