When it comes to video games, it’s easy to be reductive, especially if you’re describing a game to someone. It usually comes down to asking questions: have you played Donkey Kong? Did you ever try Yoshi’s Cookie? How about Advance Wars?
Sometimes this can be helpful; reducing games to genre tropes can inform you of mechanics before you even start playing. In shooters, it’s useful to assume that headshots are choice, and that in fighters, blocking is preferred to just soaking up damage like a sponge that doesn’t know how to block.
In the case of Puzzlejuice, a new iOS puzzle game, it can be reduced to these questions: have you played Tetris? Did you ever try Bejeweled? How about Boggle?
It looks pretty much like Tetris at first glance as various Tetrimino-ish blocks slowly/manically fall down the screen and stack along the bottom. However, instead of clearing out once you form a row, the individual segments of each block becomes a letter, a transformation you can also achieve by tapping groups of three or more similarly colored squares. To actually clear out portions of your screen (and your mounting insanity), you drag your finger across the letters to form words with longer ones being worth more points and more clearance space.
So it’s part Tetris, part Bejeweled, and part Boggle. Sounds pretty bland, huh? That’s just how it is, though, when you reduce a game to its base elements. After all, what is Zelda besides whacking dudes and opening chests?
In the case of Puzzlejuice, you’re doing the game and yourself a great disservice. There are some nice additions to what you already know like powerups, slick music, and leveling objectives that remind me a great deal of Jetpack Joyride (there I go being reductive again).
The best thing, though, that you can say about the holistic result that is Puzzlejuice is that it’s stressful. It’s frenetic, it’s taxing, and it’s fun. You’re never fully in control. In my mind, it’s like riding in a Radio Flyer wagon that’s being hauled by a belligerently drunk flock of ostriches down the steep and windy streets of San Francisco, which is to say you’ve got just enough agency over the situation to avoid hitting lamp posts and trash cans, but there’s no way this will end well.
You’re constantly trying to find the most opportune place for falling, rotating blocks that offer you one to four seconds to analyze your available letters and colors for new words (and thus further life) and color matches. Every new block is just resetting the doomsday clock, and the only way to stave off destruction is to create the longest word possible from a jumbled mishmash of letters. My first game took place over the course of two days just because I had to keep pausing to keep myself from crying and get a chance to reconstitute my brain back into a solid from the melted, lumpy puddle it had become.
There are, of course, problems. They’re not necessarily faults of the game, but, intrinsic to the platform or not, they’re still problems. For instance, dragging diagonally between letters is less than ideal, as is the occasional confusion in communicating intent from your mind to your hand to the touchscreen to the game when you want to make a word but you instead drag a block all the way to the side and create an irreparable and monolithic tower of stupidity and anxiety.
However, I simply can’t say enough about how engrossing I found Puzzlejuice. At this very moment, I both desire to keep playing and fear how much time, health, and mental stability it will cost me, but that might just be me reducing a fantastic puzzle game to a set of consequences.
See you on the other side.