Publisher: Arcen Games
Developer: Lars Bull
What's Hot: Smart, refreshingly unique, colorful, musically delightful, generous, flexible
What's Not: Is it possible for a puzzle game to be too flexible?
Review by: Tom Chick
It's easy to make a puzzle game. Just arrange a bunch of colorful things that disappear when you match three of them. Voila! You've got a puzzle game. Now comes the hard part. Now you have to think up a name. Most of them are taken already. Do you go cute? Merely descriptive? Inscrutable? Okay, now comes the really hard part. Now you have to get noticed. The average puzzle game designer would be better off just playing the lottery. The puzzle game genre is an unholy cacophony full of Flash apps and iPhone releases that most people tune out in favor of whatever simple contrivance Popcap has polished up and introduced into World of Warcraft or Facebook.
So this is where I come in. Because when I burble enthusiastically about a puzzle game like Tidalis – like I said, most of the names are taken already – you should know that I'm not easily impressed. I've played every game Popcap has made and plenty they haven't. I've whiled away long hours on the Nintendo DS and in web browsers doing various not muches of anything at all. I know the usual tricks of remaking Bubble Bobble or bolting an RPG onto the side of your puzzle or putting it out there as the Sad Free App of the Day. I am a puzzle game dilettante.
So I can say with some authority that Tidalis stands apart. Or at least out. Hard to believe, I know. You can't really tell anything from the screenshots, which just look like Bejeweled anyway. But what's going on here is miles and away different from a match-3. It's way more than 3, and it's not even about matching as we know it. The trick is that you're turning arrows on squares and then using one of them to fire a colored stream across the grid. When the stream hits an arrow of the same color, it fires off a stream in that direction. And when that stream hits an arrow of the same color, it fires off a stream in that direction. And so forth. Assuming your successive streams hit at least three blocks, all the be-streamed blocks disappear and the grid shifts.
Okay, so I guess it does have a little match-3. But the important distinction with Tidalis is how you set up the matching and how it reaches across other blocks. You have the freedom to fiddle with the board as much as you want, wherever you want, for as long as you want. You're not just looking for isolated islands of similar shapes or colors. You're studying the entire grid for patterns, for paths, for potential. You're planning, scheming, thinking of a bigger picture. As you get better, your bigger picture goes new layers deep. Tidalis is one of those easy-to-learn, difficult-to-master designs. It's a gratifying transition as you start to see how the arrows and streams interact, and how you can anticipate the grid's new shape, and how you can even manipulate it as it plays out. This might sound daunting. It can be. But don't sweat it. Tidalis won't rush you. It's not time based and it's not going to smack you with any hardcore fail states. It's easy and laidback.
So you know everything I just wrote in that last paragraph about how Tidalis plays? You can actually disregard that if you want. One of the strengths of Tidalis is that it's full of ways to tweak it. Add new pieces to the board. Speed up or slow down the pacing. Heck, change the fundamental rules if you want.
In fact, this could almost be a liability. Part of the reason Popcap's games are so successful is that they're so streamlined, carefully honed to demand nothing of you but however much time you want to kill. You don't have to make any decisions about how Bejeweled Twist would be most challenging, or interesting, or relaxing. You aren't invited to come up with your own special combinations of rules to make new modes. Bejeweled is what it is. It's never going to remind you of the generosity of the forge in Bungie's Halo games or the flexibility of the settings before a game of Civilization IV. But you can't say that about Tidalis. It is whatever you want it to be. Frantic or laid back? Drawn-out or time based? Epic or 30 seconds? Meticulous or forgiving? When you click Custom Game, be prepared for a screen full of options, all up in your face.