Puzzle games must walk a delicate line between stress and relaxation. They are inherently games about organization and control, which is to say they aren’t for everybody. To some, organization can be a deeply soothing, therapeutic practice; to others, organization can be a nerve racking endeavor. Chime Sharp, a sequel to 2009’s sublime Chime, elicits both of these feelings, though not in entirely equal measure.
Chime Sharp requires an incredible amount of planning and restraint. The basic objective is to cover 100% of the board with what the game calls “Quads”, which are simply rectangles of any size with at least three units on one end. What makes this objective challenging are the timer and the manner in which blocks fit together, or not, as it can often be. The clock can be managed through Quad formation and time bonuses, but the understanding of how each piece interacts with one another is a constant learning process, one that will separate mere success from real mastery.
The economy of block placement is an essential facet. Junk blocks are left behind when any non-perfect Quad is eliminated – a perfect Quad is a set Quad that has no extraneous pieces jutting out of the rectangle. These junk pieces may not seem like a big deal initially, since they can be subsequently eliminated, but it’s Chime’s signature element, and the primary source of stress in both Original and the brand new Sharp game modes.
“Sharp mode is where the title truly excels”As in the original Chime, junk blocks must be removed from the board in a timely manner to maintain your score multiplier. This is obviously important to score chasers, however the stakes are much higher in Sharp mode, which is where the title truly excels and differentiates itself from its predecessor. In Sharp mode there is no timer, period. Players are given 10 health points and one health point is removed for each and every junk block that isn’t removed from the board within the required number of phases. The wrinkle to this setup is the player’s ability to restore health via Perfect Quads.
“Sharp mode is simple, elegant, and instructional”Sharp mode is simple, elegant, and instructional. Without a timer players are given as much time as they need to consider block placement, at least initially, before junk pieces begin to infest the board. Stress begins to manifest itself as players spread further and further across the board, leaving isolated patches of junk blocks here and there. The junk pieces degrade over time, changing color to indicate the number of phases they can remain safely on the board. The balancing act of smart, economical brick placement, cleaning up junk blocks and expanding coverage is very stressful. Players must consider every move, and quickly, as their health continues to deplete and the board becomes increasingly cluttered, or, risk making moves that will eventually kill them.
Some of the stress of playing Chime Sharp is offset by the relaxing, subdued electronic music that backs each of the game’s 15 stages. The music provides context and ambiance, setting a mood rather than being a component of gameplay, unlike many other modern puzzle games. Each track may receive momentary punctuation when Quads are eliminated, but for the most part the soundtrack bleeds into the title’s audiovisual language.
Speaking of that language, Chime Sharp can be hard to process at first. Some of the mechanics aren’t explained all that well, such as Perfect Quads, which I mistakenly thought had to be squares, rather than junk-free rectangles. The other aspect is the graphics and how information is conveyed to the player, largely via colors, which are not consistent from one stage to the next. Each stage has its own color scheme, meaning the blocks, the grid and the covered board all look slightly different. On top of that, degrading blocks are all colored a different shade of the same color, meaning players must identify what each new level’s color scheme is telling them.
Chime Sharp is a challenging, thoughtful sequel to an immensely enjoyable, if overlooked puzzler. Many puzzle game sequels seem bloated with poorly thought out modes and features that don’t support the initial thesis of their experiences, but Sharp mode is the rare reimagined rule set that reinforces what the game did well in the first place; it’s just plenty stressful.