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Tetris Effect Review — More Than a Simple Building Block



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The first version of Tetris was created by Russian developer Alexey Pajitnov in 1984. Since then, a bewildering number of variants on the concept have arisen, but in essence, it remains a puzzle game where the object is to make lines disappear by slotting together blocks. How, then, does such a simplistic concept translate into virtual reality (VR)?

Tetris Effect was created by Tetsuya Mizuguchi and Enhance Inc, who previously worked on similarly psychedelic puzzle titles Rez, Rez Infinite, and Lumines. The title continues the aesthetic and design sensibilities of Rez Infinite, which likewise had a VR mode, but turns everything up to 11 in order to turn Tetris Effect into something of a transcendent experience.

Tetris Effect takes its name from a recognised phenomenon where players who engaged in lengthy sessions of Tetris would find they were still seeing the moving block shapes even after shutting off the console, as if the game had printed itself on their eyeballs.

The main game mode is the ‘Journey’ mode, which challenges the player to clear a certain number of lines. Doing so will transport the player to the next stage, complete with the transformation of the visual landscape, showcasing such fantastic sights such as a whale made of light, or a surreal flying windmill. The Journey mode takes roughly 2-3 hours to complete, though doing so unlocks other game modes to play around with.

The other game modes can be found by exploring the Effects area, where players can pick a mode that matches the mood they are going for. These modes includes Classic, Focus, Adventurous, or Relax. The game features sub-modes inside these categories as well, such as the Marathon mode inside Classic, which challenges players to clear 150 lines.

Relax is one of the most pleasing modes, offering a gentle ambient playlist and a ‘no fail’ rule that ensures players are not dumped out early. Relax acts as a kind of practice mode, as well as providing a chill experience that is perfect for winding down after a tough day.

Fans of VR often talk about the immersion of the experience, which is one of the defining, and most appealing, characteristics of VR. On the surface, a timeless puzzle game like Tetris does not seem like an obvious candidate for the VR treatment, but in fact it works incredibly well. Players will quickly find themselves totally absorbed in a world of colour, sound, and falling blocks. The outside world entirely falls away as the Tetris Effect takes hold.

The core Tetris gameplay is present and correct, but the game has a couple of additions, such as the ‘Hold’ function, which lets players store a piece for later use – like saving those vital straight pieces, or tucking away an inconvenient block that does not currently fit. This function adds a new dimension, but the concept has been in quite a few modern Tetris titles. The other innovation is the Zone state, which involves filling up a meter by clearing lines, until the player is able to freeze time and rack up some unbelievable line clears, like the ‘Ultimatris’ twenty-line clear.

Graphically, the game is spectacular; the lighting and particle effects all look amazing, and the animated backgrounds are sufficiently beautiful as to be a distraction from the gameplay (in a good way). The transitions between levels are mesmerising, and when the player start to explore the other gameplay modes, things start to get even more impressive.

Of course, one of the main draws for Tetris Effect is the soundtrack. The music synchronises with the gameplay in a way that players of Lumines will find familiar, though the addition of VR and 3D sound incorporates an extra dimension to it all that really adds to the feeling of being immersed in a different universe. The sounds change in time to each spin and drop, giving the player the feeling that they have a hand in controlling the music.

The soundtrack ranges from pulse-pounding to ambient chill, with genres spanning electronica to trance and even jazz. The sound has some fun little touches here and there as well, such as a level where the shapes become stuck together snowballs, and the sound effects change to sound like crunching snow.

The controls use the DualShock 4 in both VR and non-VR modes, which works excellently. While Tetris Effect still looks and plays wonderfully in non-VR, it is in VR where it really shines, and a world of light and sound comes to life around the player. That said, if playing in VR, a good set of headphones or a solid 5.1 surround sound set-up is an absolute must, as so much about the game involves 3D spatial sound, so much so that losing it seems almost criminal.

Though many people have questioned how exactly one can innovate on Tetris, Mizuguchi and his team at Enhance have drawn upon the experience of creating titles such as Rez Infinite to create a hypnotic experience that draws the player into another world that does its very best to not let them go.

The quality of the visuals, the sound, and the gameplay means this is a title that impresses on almost every level. The only real problems are that the Journey mode could perhaps use with being longer, and some of the Extra modes feel a little bit tacked-on.

Unlike many ‘Optional VR’ games, Tetris Effect thrives in VR, and a PlayStation VR headset is by far the best way of experiencing this game. Tetris Effect is a very polished, absorbing, and beautiful experience, and well worth checking out for anybody who has a PlayStation 4, especially if they also have a PSVR headset.

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 with PlayStation VR.

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SteamWorld Quest Review — Full Steam Ahead



The SteamWorld series has a habit of refusing to be confined to a single genre. The first entry in the series, way back on the Nintendo DSi, was a simple tower-defense game. That title was followed by procedurally generated platformer SteamWorld Dig, and then came strategy action title SteamWorld Heist. Now, developer Image & Form has dived into the turn-based RPG with SteamWorld Quest: The Hand of Gilgamech.

SteamWorld Quest is set in the same universe as the previous SteamWorld games, featuring a cast of steam bots who speak in a rapid, chattering language, helpfully translated for the players by subtitles.

As usual for a SteamWorld title, the first thing to draw the eye is the lovely hand-drawn sprites and backgrounds. The game has a surprising amount of detail in these 2D sprites, and players may find themselves suddenly noticing a detail that previously escaped attention.

The first characters to be introduced are Armilly and Copernica, a wannabe knight and alchemist, respectively. The animation provides great hints towards the character personalities before they even speak, showing Copernica as being quiet and introspective, but with a strong will, while Armilly puts up a brave front to cover deeper insecurities. This depth continues through the game, with subtle character tics betraying plot hints and nods to backstories.

Players pick up new party members as the game progresses, first running into Galleo, a big green bot who acts as party healer. Other characters can also be recruited, adding their own skills in combat to the roster. Only three party members can be active at once, so getting the balance right is important.

Combat itself is handled by a card system. Each character has a deck of no more than eight cards, three of which can be played each turn. By using their entire deck, players utilise effects such as attacks, defensive spells, healing, buffs, debuffs, and so on. Pleasingly, the combat system is complemented by a captivating sense of style, with each card channelling old-fashioned computer punch aesthetics.

The developers are clearly fans of collectable card games, as cards can also be chained together into combos, which provide an extra effect on the completion. This effect is not as easy to achieve as it might sound, however, as some cards require ‘Steam pressure’ to be played. This mechanic brings in an element of deck building and strategy, as players balance building steam pressure with spending it. Therefore, players can spend a significant amount of time agonising over new strategies, trying to decide on an effective build for the limited deck size.

Getting card game elements in a video game wrong is easy, by having the mechanics too complex or unwieldy. SteamWorld Quest avoids the pitfalls experienced by games such as Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories by making the card-based combat relatively simple. New twists and complexities are added gradually, thus giving the player several ways to build a deck to suit individual play style.

Cards can be crafted at the travelling merchant, providing a use for the various materials players pick up on their travels. Cards can also be upgraded to increase their effectiveness, preventing useful early cards from becoming obsolete later. Players can add to their decks by finding cards scattered about the world, along with weapons and accessories to make characters more effective, emphasising the importance of exploration.

SteamWorld Quest is more story-driven than its predecessors, and a lot of time between battles is taken up with talking. The conversations never outstay their welcome, as the plot moves along at a pleasing pace, and the characters are engaging enough to keep the player interested. As players progress, more backstory is uncovered, and some scenes can be surprisingly emotional, with the fluid character animations underscoring the dialogue in a believable way.

The writing uses consistent characterisation that is happy to show the player about the world and the characters instead of spilling everything in a massive information dump. This writing style serves the pacing well. The only real issue is that while the game allows skipping of dialogue, entirely skipping a scene is impossible, so when players are re-exploring an area for hidden secrets, the same scenes keep playing out, even if they have been seen before.

The game has frequent nods towards world-building and backstory, which serves to draw the player in. Progression reveals that the problems in the world of SteamWorld Quest go deeper than invading Dark Lords and evil magic. The first time the player notices that the language the steam bots speak is like a more pleasant version of modem noise, implying that the characters are speaking in binary, is a nice touch. Other geeky references are scattered around, including an equippable book called an Octavo, a sneaky reference to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

Despite the cartoonish artwork and often light-hearted dialogue, hints at darkness are ever-present in the universe of SteamWorld Quest—something that is underscored by the music, which starts off pleasant and whimsical. However, as players progress into more dangerous areas, the mood of the soundscape also shifts, providing a counterpoint to the action and dialogue while never being obtrusive.

The gameplay flow is easy to get into once the basic controls have been established, though toggling the ‘speed up’ option in the menu is a good idea, as otherwise players need to hold down the right trigger to speed through enemy turns during combat. SteamWorld Quest shines when showing off the amount of depth that it offers in crafting cards, building suitable decks, and deciding on party composition for each area, with each enemy encounter tip-toeing delightfully between the exploitation of strengths and weaknesses. Boss battles, in particular, can be challenging unless chain combos have been mastered, which can itself be tricky if the character decks do not have the right balance.

SteamWorld Quest: The Hand of Gilgamech is a wonderful, fun RPG adventure that has a lot of depth to delve into, secrets to explore, and story to uncover. The game looks beautiful, sounds brilliant, and has a smooth and absorbing gameplay flow. SteamWorld Quest, is surprisingly easy to get completely sucked in to, with the card game elements providing an impressive amount of complexity to the combat. Any RPG fan should give serious consideration to adding the title to their Nintendo Switch library and fans of previous SteamWorld games will find a lot to enjoy in the art and lore, too.

OnlySP Review Score 5 High Distinction

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.

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