From Nothing Game Studios makes their console debut with decisive Sci-Fi style and humorous panache. GravBlocks+ joins the ranks of eshop block puzzle titles like Puzzle Monkeys and Heptrix in what is becoming a veritable cornucopia of indie goodness. With relatively few block puzzle options on the Wii U, GravBlocks+ arrives to quench the thirst of puzzle fans starving for something other than a Tetris clone (looking at you, Heptrix). Not only does GravBlocks+ succeed in standing out among its puzzle peers, it demonstrates that puzzle games don’t need dopamine-enhanced baby animals or sickly saccharine coloring to be fun and addicting. GravBlocks+ is a self-aware, occasionally charming, and often sardonic foray into the puzzle genre…and it’s hosted by a filthy, human-abducting alien jerk.
GravBlocks+ is a revamped version of From Nothing’s mobile debut, and has a ton of updated features and modes new to the Wii U exclusive. The modes featured are Story, Puzzle, Challenge, Destruction, and Zen. The goal in GravBlocks+ is to line up matching blocks that disappear when you line up three or more, a puzzle game staple. The twist in GravBlocks+ is that when you line up three directional arrow-coded blocks (the titular GravBlocks), the gravity within the playing field shifts, and you’ll have to work with blocks falling either left, right, up, or the standard down. Another novel feature is the inclusion of stage hazards in the form of electrified sections on the playing field’s border. If blocks are moved on top of these hazards, the blocks will be destroyed and you’ll be penalized. Aside from the standard colored/symbol-coded blocks, players also have to work with bomb blocks and wild blocks, which can be used with any of the standard block to form a row of three. Bomb blocks destroy every block on screen that corresponds to whatever row of three you use it in, while the wild block will remove all stage hazards for a brief time. As you line up blocks, you’ll increase your score by increasing the number of blocks in a row you remove at once and scoring combos that occur when removing a row of blocks results in the removal of another row. Staying mistake free and scoring combos will net you score multipliers that increase the longer you avoid hazards.
Story mode is where players should start, as it introduces us to the game’s backstory and functions as the game’s tutorial mode of sorts, introducing players to the basics of higher scoring by requiring players to fulfill certain requirements before moving onto the next level (i.e., use a bomb block to destroy a row of green blocks, or remove a row of four yellow blocks). It’s here that we learn players have indeed been inducted by aliens and are being forced to play this game for the aliens analytical purposes (having exhausted all available probe options). Since this is a puzzle game, the narrative is brief and never really present beyond the initial introduction. However, immediately apparent is the developer’s sense of humor. The narrator is clearly more annoyed than frightened at having been abducted by aliens, and the alien test-administrator is…well…a jerk. It’s as much a jab at the asininity of alien abduction stories as it is a parody of the awful attempts by other puzzle game developers to include fauz-drama in their narratives. In a genre dominated by fluorescent candy and bug-eyed puppies, it’s nice to see a developer cater to an audience that might not be four year old girls or bored soccer moms. Story mode is also the games most exhaustive mode; it’s 90 levels long!
Puzzle mode challenges players to clear a given set of blocks using only one move (though it gives you more moves in the later levels). This mode is great for teaching players how to properly look at block and understand the benefits of switching blocks intelligently instead of brainlessly. There’s a great sense of accomplishment in finally discovering the right block switch that clears the screen.
In Challenge mode, players are tasked with obtaining a high score within a certain time limit while the difficulty slowly increases. The difficulty is adjustable, as is the time limit. This is what might be called ‘Classic Mode’ in other titles, as it highlights the core mechanics of obtaining points without requiring specific actions. During my time with GravBlocks+, this is where I spent most of my time. It’s good for relegating play time to enjoyable, bite-sized chunks. The unlockable Zen mode plays the same as Challenge mode, but the difficulty never increases. It’s a more casual mode for players that want an extended experience.
The sci-fi, alien abduction vibe calls to mind old-school abduction fads and shows like (of course) The X-Files. It’s a very novel addition to the gameplay and endearing for someone used to seeing pink palettes and cute puppies in most puzzle games. The audio and soundtrack are also very sci-fi chic, incorporating some very spacey orchestration and techno-organic blips and bleeps. The atmosphere is absolutely unique, and a testament to the developer’s love for the subject matter.
The best indication of a puzzle game’s quality is how often you find yourself coming back for more. I myself spent extended hours with Challenge mode and almost as many trying to get beyond level 30 in Puzzle mode. The simplicity in lining up three blocks to clear space and inevitably mastering bigger, more elaborate combos is undeniably addicting. There’s also a wealth of content to unlock as you progress through the game’s modes. Achievements, additional backgrounds, and even a super secret trailer for an upcoming From Nothing title will require a well-developed skill-set (unlocking the hidden trailer doesn’t require any skill, but I’m not spoiling it). Speaking of additional backgrounds, GravBlocks+ is an incredibly customizable game, both in terms of controls and visual aesthetic. You can change the color of the cursor, choose from several different in-game backgrounds, and switch up the control scheme. GravBlocks+ features tons of options to make the game uniquely tailored to your personal tastes. Even if you strip away the extra content, of course, what you have left is an excellently crafted puzzle game with some uniquely clever mechanics.
What GravBlocks+ fails to do, however, is offer an overly exciting experience in the end. Yes, it’s exciting to unlock extra content and finally nail a quadruple combo, but the “wow factor” is unfortunately muted throughout. When achievements and extra content have been unlocked, they’re accompanied by a simple text box letting you know what’s been unlocked. When you use a bomb block, the audio cue is no more exciting than the standard “poof” you get when you eliminate blocks the standard way. When you use a wild block to remove stage hazards, the playing field border sorta lights up with rainbow lights for a few seconds. Even when you’re in danger of failing a round, the border simply turns red. GravBlocks+ is definitely fun and addicting at it’s core, but a few more bells and whistles added to the audio and visual presentation would have gone a long way in making the experience more rousing.
Despite this, GravBlocks+ remains an fantastic entry into the puzzle genre, and the most compelling one on Nintendo’s eshop. Additionally, at $4.99, it’s far and away the most bang for your buck in Nintendo’s virtual shopping center (unless, you know, you were one of the unfortunate souls to purchase the atrocious Meme Run before it was removed because of copyright infringement…). An incredibly solid first offering from a promising new developer. If From Nothing is ready to offer the gaming world similarly well-crafted games, the future is bright for both them and those of us eager to try more.
Disclaimer: The author of this review is friends with From Nothing’s Nick Behrens.