I love puzzle games. No, that's not quite accurate; I used to love puzzle games before they all turned into Bejeweled, SameGame or Puzzle Bobble clones.
Back in the '80s and '90s, I'd happily while away several hours in front of a puzzle game, whether it was the arm-crippling vertically-oriented Atari Lynx version of Klax, Infogrames' peculiar 3D Tetris-like Welltris, Sega's gloriously insane Baku Baku Animal or, indeed, the original Puzzle Bobble back before there were eleventy bajillion versions of it available.
Puzzle games in 2014 are something of a more disposable affair, designed to be played in 30-60 second bursts -- single, short levels friendly to play on mobile devices while you wait for a bus or sit on the toilet. This isn't an inherently bad thing -- these bite-sized game experiences have brought more people to gaming than any other kind of "casual-friendly" initiative developers and hardware manufacturers have come up with in the past -- but it leaves people like me hungry for something a bit more meaty to get my teeth into. The kind of puzzle game you can play for an hour or two at a time in an attempt to beat your high score; the kind of puzzle game you play so much you start seeing it in your sleep; the kind of puzzle game that doesn't lend itself to being heavily monetized.
Enter FuturLab's Surge Deluxe, which is apparently the game I've been waiting for since the last time I bought a puzzle game on a disc for a console -- a good few years ago now. (I think it may have been Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo on PS1.) Surge Deluxe thoroughly scratches my puzzle game itch with its simple mechanics, addictive nature and well-paced play sessions -- long enough to be satisfying, not so long as to become tiresome -- and... well, long story short, you should probably grab a copy if you have a Vita.
Surge Deluxe, as the name suggests, is actually an enhanced version of an existing game, much like FuturLab's excellent Velocity Ultra was an enhanced port of its PlayStation Minis title Velocity. Surge was a PlayStation Mobile title rather than a Minis offering, however, but it was one that managed to attain something of a cult following, particularly on popular gaming forum NeoGAF. In fact, such was the passion of NeoGAF's Surge player community that it was them that FuturLab turned to in an attempt to fine-tune this rerelease.
But what on Earth is Surge? If you've never delved into the PlayStation Mobile catalog -- and I wouldn't blame you, since Sony doesn't exactly promote it particularly well, leaving quality titles like Tokyo Jungle Mobile to fester in obscurity -- then it's entirely possible that you've never come across it before. Here's the gist: pressure is building up in vents at the side of the screen, but the vents are blocked by colored pieces which need to be removed. In order to remove the colored pieces, you use your finger to draw a line from a starting point and through as many like-colored blocks as possible. When you release your finger, all the blocks you lit up by joining them together disappear, usually allowing access to new pieces -- you can only connect blocks that have at least one of their edges free. Clear the level of blocks to advance to the next one. Let the pressure on both sides fill up to the maximum or the timer at the bottom to expire and you lose.
Those are the basic mechanics, but additional depth is added in a number of ways. Special blocks allow you to do everything from boosting your score multiplier to connecting differently colored blocks together, and if you do manage to free up the vents at either side of the screen, opening them with a tap not only vents the pressure, but also causes blocks of the same color to become "excited," making them worth more points. Savvy Surge players will use these things to their advantage, their eyes darting around the screen to spot some optimum combinations -- hmm, if I open the purple vents, then grab all those green blocks, connect them to the purple ones and finally hit all those multipliers it'll be a score-a-palooza in here -- and clear huge portions of the screen in one go.
Surge's brilliance stems from the fact that it's really easy to pick up and play, but topping the already highly competitive PSN leaderboards requires you to invest a little time into understanding the game's deeper, more complex mechanics. It's deceptive; it might initially look like little more than a glorified join-the-dots game with an an absolutely banging electronica soundtrack (by Killzone composer Joris de Man, no less) -- Velocity fans will know that a thumping soundtrack is something of a FuturLab trademark -- but after just one or two plays, it becomes clear that there is something deeper at play that rewards experimentation, exploration and the ability to exploit the game's mechanics to your own benefit. And if you really want to test your knowledge of how the game works, the 15-stage Puzzle Mode challenges you to beat some seemingly impossible target scores through careful use of the game mechanics.
Surge Deluxe is a fantastic experience, then, and there are but two vaguely critical things I can say about it: firstly, when a game ends, it does so with little fanfare -- no fancy animations, game over screens or anything, just a score summary screen -- and secondly, the frantic, fast-paced nature of it may not appeal to those who prefer puzzle games that allow you to take your time and think about your moves. The latter point is a matter of taste, however -- I find the fact that Surge sees you swiping your finger across your Vita's screen in a frantic blur tremendously exciting and satisfying in the same way that high-level Tetris has you on the edge of your seat; it's certainly a far cry from the heavily sanitized experiences that make up mobile and social puzzle games today.
Support Surge Deluxe. Puzzle games -- real puzzle games -- need to make a comeback, and I can't think of any better game to lead the charge.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals: Neon colors and a beautifully clear interface give the game a distinctive, attractive look -- and unique piece shapes make it color-blind friendly too.
- Music and Sound: The fantastic music repeats over and over, but it's good enough that this doesn't matter. It fits the action perfectly.
- Interface: Simple controls; great gameplay depth. The perfect combination for a puzzle game.
- Lasting Appeal: It'll take time to learn, but it's time well spent. Climbing the leaderboards is an enormously addictive experience, particularly if you have friends playing.
FuturLab demonstrates a fine understanding of what once made puzzle games so great. If you own a Vita, you should buy this -- particularly at such a generous price point.