Picross 3D (DS) review
"You basically just knock blocks around with your stylus and hope that you hit the right ones so that you can keep chipping away at a mass of blocks and turn them into a three-dimensional image of a flower or a butterfly or some guy walking through a doorway or whatever else. It doesn't sound exciting—and it isn't—and it doesn't sound engaging... but it is."
The task of putting the appeal of a puzzle game into words always presents a challenge. Take Tetris, for instance. It's a game where you move falling blocks into columns and then watch with delight as they flash and disappear so that you can move more falling blocks into columns and repeat the process until things finally move too fast for you or you make too many mistakes. It's fun to play, but on paper it doesn't necessarily sound like it would be. Reviewers usually try to make the whole process sound exciting, but it really isn't. Instead, puzzle games are merely engaging time killers. That's not a bad thing, either, not when they're done well.
Picross 3D, the latest puzzle game from Hal Laboratory and Nintendo, is another engaging time killer and it's done well. You basically just knock blocks around with your stylus and hope that you hit the right ones so that you can keep chipping away at a mass of blocks and turn them into a three-dimensional image of a flower or a butterfly or some guy walking through a doorway or whatever else. It doesn't sound exciting--and it isn't--and it doesn't sound engaging... but it is.
What makes Picross 3D so engaging is (predictably) difficult to put into words. If you've played Sudoku puzzles or even Minesweeper, know that the process is fairly similar. Many of the blocks in a given puzzle have numbers on them. By looking at those numbers, you can figure out which blocks you can safely remove. For example, a row of 4 blocks with a number 4 on the side of each one means that you shouldn't remove any, while a row of 5 blocks with the number 4 on each side means that one of the blocks needs to be demolished with a quick tap of the stylus. Puzzles are three-dimensional, so you might figure out which block to remove by looking next to the vertical row, which hopefully (though not necessarily) has numbers arranged in a fashion that let you know where to strike next. As with Sudoku, your chances of success increase the further into a puzzle you progress.
Different sorts of number will appear on the blocks before you've played too terribly long, a fact that makes things more... interesting. For instance, suppose you have a row of 5 blocks, each emblazoned with a circled 3. That means that your solution for that row will consist of precisely three blocks but that they will be divided into a couple of groups. Meanwhile, a row of 5 blocks with a 3 that is surrounded by a square border indicates that there are 3 separate groupings. In that case, by process of elimination you can determine that blocks 1, 3 and 5 from left to right need to stay and that the ones between them must go. You'll really have your work cut out for you when you start running into groups of 10 and 4 of them must be broken apart while the remainder is left in three or more groupings.
So like I said, the process doesn't necessarily sound exciting and it isn't meant to be. What it tries to do--and what makes it such an enjoyable time killer--is engage the player's mind. Picross 3D is an excellent game to play in short bursts (maybe 10 puzzles at a time, but probably not more) when you've come home from a rough day at work and your mind is racing. Working through a handful of puzzles can slow your thought process down in a stimulating fashion so that you can settle in and relax with some other game or maybe just a delightful conversation with loved ones. The game makes for an excellent alternative to television in that regard.
If you do play a bit of Picross 3D and find yourself addicted (a likely outcome, if the three members of my household are any indication), you'll be pleased to learn that the experience can probably last about as long as you'd like it to. There are more than 300 puzzles included right on the cartridge, plus there are an assortment of packs available for download if you have access to wifi. I downloaded a pack of five puzzles released by Nintendo, one of several available. It took only seconds. More official puzzles are apparently on the way, plus there are regular competitions to design your own puzzles for others to enjoy. You can do that either locally or you can find some online.
Even if you don't choose to make or download more puzzles, you can replay the ones that you've already conquered by making a random selection. That particular mode opens up after you've solved the first handful of puzzles and it's a great way to make sure that you don't go into a puzzle already knowing the solution. You can limit yourself to one of the three difficulty tiers, you can give yourself more or less time and you can modify the number of 'Strikes' that are permitted.
One concern I had early on as I played Picross 3D was that even with such a massive number of puzzles, most of them would become too difficult and I wouldn't ever experience most of them because they would remain locked. That didn't prove to be the case, though. I was able to keep working through each of the levels, right up to the "Hard" mode, and the progression felt natural. Puzzles that at one point may have overwhelmed me became simple to solve, plus there was always a new challenge around the corner. Even after you've solved a puzzle, you're ranked on your performance. It's tempting to go back through to earn more stars by making fewer mistakes or by finishing more quickly, plus doing so will unlock still more puzzles.
For what it is, Picross 3D also has solid production values. There's cheery music that plays throughout, and the sound effects do a good job of making you dread each accidental strike that you inflict on yourself because the bells of death will ring. When you solve a puzzle, sometimes it can be difficult to figure out at first what you've just revealed in the drab remnants that remain, but color is soon splashed across the blocks and they spring to life with cute animations that remove any question.
The only thing I didn't really like about Picross 3D was that I occasionally had trouble telling what depth the blocks were at. This mostly happened when I'd been playing too long in a single session and allowed myself to get in a hurry. You can always use the stylus to easily move the camera around and it seldom gets caught on any corners except for on the larger puzzles. Even then, you can rotate things relatively easily and there's never a point where you can't see something that you need to solve a given puzzle without making errors. I sometimes wished that less fussing with the perspective had proven necessary, but even then I had to admit to myself that the presentation and controls are quite polished and effective.
If you hate puzzle games, there's nothing in Picross 3D that will likely change that. There are a lot of people who love a good challenge and won't mind the absence of rushing adrenaline. Picross 3D is perfect for such folks, with a low price tag and hours upon hours of enjoyable gaming just waiting to entertain and to exercise gray matter. Even though it's not exciting, Picross 3D is one of the best values available on the handheld today. I recommend it wholeheartedly.
Staff review by Jason Venter (June 06, 2010)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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