It shouldn’t be this hard. It’s just tapping cubes on a screen. That’s all. Nothing more. The numbers are there to help you. They show you where to tap next. Everything’s right there in front of you, waiting to be figured out. Calm down. Think. Never mind the time limit. Or the pounding headache you’re getting from staring slack-jawed at the screen. Or the way your fingers are slowly growing numb from gripping the stylus so hard. It’s your hand you’ve got to worry about. If it keeps trembling like that, you’ll miss your target and ruin any chance of winning this challenge. So just sit back for a minute, wipe the drool off your chin, and breathe. There’s a pause option for a reason. Don’t let the paranoia and fear consume you; there is an answer somewhere hidden in that godforsaken pile of bricks, and you’re going to find it…
Assuming you haven’t already made a mistake.
Sound familiar? It ought to, if you’ve played Picross. It’s one of the great unsung puzzle games of the DS, and it’s finally gotten a sequel. The rules haven’t changed much; you’re given a screen filled with a blank mass of blocks. There’s some kind of object hidden beneath all those floating squares, and the only way to find it is by tapping with your stylus. By pressing unnecessary blocks, you’ll chip away at the structure and gradually uncover whatever’s lurking under it. Tapping randomly won’t get you far, though; if you smash the wrong block, the game will make note of your error. Screw up five times (and in some puzzles only once) and you’ll get a Game Over screen and be forced to begin the entire painstaking process anew. The only way to prevent such agony is to pay attention to the numbers printed on the surfaces on some of the boxes. If you’ve got a cube with a 4 on its side, that means the next four blocks in that row need to stay intact. If there’s a 5 on top, then the next five cubes in that column are safe. By slowly going through and figuring out what goes where, you can solve the puzzle through a simple, logical process of elimination.
Oh wait, almost forgot: It’s in 3D.
You’ll do fine early on. The first few puzzles are nothing more than three-dimensional versions of classic Picross grids. If you play through the Tutorial (which is surprisingly extensive and informative), you’ll learn everything you need to know. It’s a cakewalk. But after you start playing the regular challenges for about half an hour, the game starts pushing back. Then shoving. Instead of the usual grids, you’ll get massive chunks of destructible cubes with multiple layers and convoluted number patterns. You’ll peer at the screen, tentatively crushing the 0-numbered blocks and wondering how you’re going to get anywhere. Maybe you’ll get lucky and find an entire line of cubes to fill in. But when start coming across circled numbers, things start getting tricky. The circles indicate that the selectable blocks for that given row are separated. Say you’ve got a line of four blocks with a circled 3 at its end. One of the blocks obviously doesn’t belong there, but which one? Where is the extra space? How are the cubes grouped? You’ve got to rotate the entire puzzle around, searching for some clue that’ll help you figure out what doesn’t belong. Thanks to the three dimensional layout, you’ll have to juggle multiple logical deductions at the same time.
This overload of analytical puzzle-solving is made simpler with the slicing mechanics. By pressing the on-screen arrow keys, you can delve into specific rows and columns. That lets you tackle the challenges piece by piece, which is far easier than trying to do everything with just the surface layers. Given how complex most of the later puzzles are, you’re going to have to rely on this system to get anywhere. Which is unfortunate, considering unwieldy it is. You can only control it via the Touch Screen, which can be pretty awkward when you’re trying to choose your blocks. The commands could have been easily mapped to the directional pad, or even the shoulder buttons. The camera is even worse; you have to press and drag the stylus to change perspectives. While that’s fine on the simpler puzzles, it becomes tedious when you’re facing some gargantuan pile of rubble. You’ll end up having to slightly tweak the camera every now and then, because the angles won’t allow you to select whatever block you’ve targeted. It can also make the game misread your commands, which can be a nightmare on the longer challenges.
That’s frustrating, especially when you’re stuck on a particular puzzle. In order to advance to the next set of challenges, you have to beat everything from the previous one. It feels too limiting and constrained; things would have been better had the progression allowed you access to more puzzles. Instead, you’re rewarded directly by your performance. Completing a challenge earns you a star. Do it under the time limit, and you get another one. If you don’t make any mistakes, you’ll get a third one. Earning enough of these stars unlocks a couple of bonus puzzles at the end of each set. Over 300 challenges later, and you’ll finally be finished. But if that’s not enough, you can always get online and download even for. Or if you think you’re more creative, you can build your own in the puzzle editor. All you’ve got to do is draw whatever shape you want with the cubes, and the game fills in the rest of the blanks. By trading with friends or uploading your creations, you can probably come up with even more deviously complex challenges.
Too bad they won’t look pretty. Despite its intricate puzzles, Picross 3D uses bland pastel graphics. It makes sense; the last thing you need when solving puzzles is a screen full of flashing lights. However, these soft colors are still far below the graphical standards you’d expect from a DS game. The liveliest thing you’ll see is the sequence that follows the completion of a challenge. Say you uncover a sea horse. It’ll automatically get re-colored to give it more detail, then float across the screen. The same goes for a whistle, berries, dancers, office supplies, luggage, animals, household items, and anything else that gets thrown at you. Since everything can be viewed via an unlockable gallery, you won’t have to redo puzzles to see the presentation over again. Besides, you’ll be too sick of the music attempt it; the majority of the soundtrack is nothing more than boring, generic elevator music. You’d better off switching it to the optional rainfall, crashing waves, or forest sound effects. They’ll help soothe your nerves as you contemplate throwing your DS into the nearest wall.
It’s about time. Picross didn’t get the following it deserved. It’s great to see someone give it another chance and reinvent it into something even more compelling. It’s got all the addictive puzzle solving that made the first game so awesome. The switch to 3D made things far more interesting; rather than relying on a grid, you’ve got to rotate the entire puzzle and search it piece by piece to figure everything out. The puzzles are well-designed in terms of complexity. Unfortunately, a few of the fundamental mechanics didn’t get the same kind of treatment. The camera is occasionally horrendous, and the additional controls could have been made far easier to handle. Despite such flaws, however, Picross 3D is an excellent puzzle game and easily one of the best on the DS. Picross is back. And this time, it’s personal.