To avoid repeating myself from my DotP2012 review with “I’m a sucker for…” I’ll go with “I appreciate good puzzle games.” Although I would hardly qualify as an expert player, I’ve played a good deal of Bust-A-Move, Puyo Puyo, Magical Drop, Columns and (of course) Tetris. The first thing I thought of when I saw screenshots of Critical Mass was the terrible Blockout from EA. And how glad I was that it’s nothing like that.
The point of Critical Mass is to connect four blocks of the same colour in a fully 3D environment. You use one mouse key to rotate the block cluster and the other mouse key to set the blocks. Which key is for what is the player’s choice and preference. Your ultimate goal depends on the mode you choose. Classic has a set of pre-constructed levels you need to clear out, as well as three possible power ups to help you in the process. Survival is, as the name says, the game’s survival mode where you attempt to beat your previous time and score. Meditation mode gives you a limited number of blocks and lets you build combos without pressure, while Rush gives you the assignment to clear out the level as fast as possible. All save for Meditation are timed. The longer you take between clearing out blocks, the larger the “mass” becomes. When it reaches maximum size, you lose.
The core mechanic of the game is solid and it requires its own way of thinking. This becomes most apparent when you’re aiming through gaps, trying to hit the correct colour. It also rewards planning and memory, something I have always lacked in frantic puzzle games. More often than not, you’ll be able to see two or three blocks of the same color, but due to the game’s nature, you can’t be sure if all three are connected or whether there’s something on the other side. Unless, of course, you want to waste valuable time checking. This is far from a gripe though. As something like this does handicap my poor casual skills, someone who can think ahead fast enough would utterly dominate the game.
The game has a few issues, though, which I think are poor design choices, regardless of whether they were intentional or not. Aside from Tetris, all the other games I’ve mentioned used colours as extra variables. While Critical Mass has six colours only, without the number increasing in any mode, it made a very poor choice in one: orange. The inclusion of orange in a puzzle game that has both yellow and red is very, very, very problematic. It adds a completely different layer of difficulty which stands out from any other challenges the game offers. More often than not, you will find yourself thinking your orange was a yellow or red block, depending on where your cursor was. This means that your mistake will leave you with an odd block that requires further time to clear. Time you are very short on.
A further gripe that contributes to the choice of orange is how you know which colour is “next”. By hovering your cursor over a block, you’ll see a semi-transparent version of your next colour. Because it is semi-transparent, new issues arise. First off, you’ll need to move your cursor left and right to see what’s actually your block and what’s part of the field. Secondly, the evil orange will look lighter or darker depending on the neighbouring colours. Honestly, a small window with a display of your current colour would have solved these problems. Even if both of these were conscious design decisions, they are adding a layer of fake difficulty, akin to camera issues in third person games.
Aside from these problems, I would surely recommend Critical Mass to any fan of frantic puzzle games. As a person who mostly enjoyed the 2D variant of colour sorting puzzles, I found this game to be a nice change of pace and I could see myself playing it in short 5 minute bursts every now and again.
Developer: Manic Game Studios
Time: 2 hours
Gripes: the colour orange and transparency issue.
Get it for the: good core mechanics, short burst gameplay.
Full disclosure: PXOD was given a PC review copy of the game from the developer. The total time spent on the game was 2 hours, playing and replaying all modes.