In Depth Review: Polarium [NDS]
So when George Harrison, the Senior VP of marketing for Nintendo, told a gaming website that Polarium for the Nintendo DS was "a triple-A puzzle title soon to be used in the same sentence as Tetris around the world", there was predictably lots of doubt and scoffing. Claiming that Polarium would be a title as significant as Tetris was an obvious marketing counter-attack to the entrancing Lumines for Sony's PSP, and an attempt to make the wait for the DS-bound Meteos a little easier to stomach. In the end, while it's got charms of its own, Polarium unfortunately confirms the invalidity of that claim.
Envisioning Polarium's concept is a little bit like mashing traditional videogame puzzlers, Ikaruga and Othello into tiny little boxes. The core of the game is based around flipping two-colored tiles - black on one side and white on the other - so that colors match horizontally across the playing field. Once completed, the matching lines of blocks disappear. The playing field provides you with a one-tile "dead zone" perimeter that allows you to complete intricate selections without selecting an undesired tile, or to aid you when your path is blocked by a tile you've already selected. This core is present in both of the game's main modes, Challenge and Puzzle. Interaction with the puzzle blocks is entirely stylus-based, and similar to a game like Meteos or Zoo Keeper, once you play the game you'll find that touching really is good. That is to say, to attempt to play such a game on any other platform - with the d-pad - would seem mundane and awkward.
The interaction is unfortunately in need of a little work, however. The idea is solid enough - you set your stylus down where you want your selection to start, you sweep it across tiles and around corners, and then you lift and tap the last block you highlighted to complete your selection. This flips every tile to its opposite color. The problem is, your selection cursor lags behind your actual stylus input. If you draw your selection box too fast, you might see some uncanny and undesirable results. In addition, because lifting the stylus effectively means you're ready to end your selection, unintentional selections are often made. You can imagine the frustrations of a caffeine-infused, jittery coffee drinker trying to play this game.
When you're done getting used to the controls, you still might not find the Challenge mode much fun. Challenge mode infuses the traditional "get rid of falling blocks" concept with Polarium's core gameplay, meaning you'll have to make quick work of your selections. Eventually you get adept at snaking your selection around corners and making elaborate, last-second tile clearings as more tiles start to stack higher and higher. These moments are fun at first, but then you start to notice that the same tile patterns keep falling down here and there. You've seen that M formation before, and you know how to take care of it. You've already cleared that stupid squiggle pattern four times already. It just keeps going repetitively like that and it kind of kills any sense of urgency that you'd expect from a puzzler.
Part of the allure of a traditional falling block puzzle game is that you carve your own landscape because the individual blocks fall with such random tendencies. Here, not even the near-death rush to stay in the game is exciting after your first few go rounds. In fact, you're almost glad that the game's putting you out of your misery, with hopes that maybe next time the patterns will fall with more randomness. And of course, they don't.
The Puzzle mode is really where it's at, where you're presented with 100 puzzles that challenge you to create horizontal lines that are completely of one color throughout the entire playing field... in one fell stroke. The puzzles start off easy enough, but they get progressively more difficult at a nice pace. There are some hiccups in the progression - one of the puzzles in the high 30's ended up being almost easy as puzzle 4, and so on. This only happened a few times, and is a minor quirk at worst.
The Puzzle mode is what will make or break whether or not Polarium is for you. Because you have to do things in a single stroke, you might catch yourself staring at the screen without doing a single thing for a handful of minutes at a time. It really has more in common with brain teasers and crossword puzzles in that sense. The ratio of time spent thinking versus time spent acting is through the roof with this one. If you're the brainy type, it's a great time waster when you're riding on the subway or bus somewhere, or on a lazy evening when you've finished that day's crossword puzzle in the paper. But when the mood for consequential and more intense gaming starts to settle in, Polarium's puzzle mode won't fare as well as, say, Fire Emblem would. It's like certain cuisines - you have to be in a certain mood and mind frame to really appreciate staring at Polarium's checkered puzzles, but given those criteria, it's engrossing.
Polarium does add value by allowing you to craft and ultimately share your own puzzles. It doesn't do much for you since you know what the answer is. But being able to swap puzzle passwords on AIM with your friends is a neat idea. It's something that would work great with Nintendo's Wi-Fi Connection if a sequel or update were to surface. Of course, this only matters if you're interested in the core gameplay in the first place.
Polarium really doesn't do much else significantly after you get past the Puzzle mode. This extends into its aesthetic presentation, which is clean and certainly nothing bad, but ultimately boring. The screen is dominated by generic looking black-and-white tiles, on a plain white grid, on a plain white screen with no backgrounds. The only other colors are seen in screen-side icons and your selection graphics. Personally, "boring" graphics have never been a big deal as long as they don't actually hinder a game's playability. Still, when a game looks as drab as Polarium does, it can get a bit frustrating knowing that more effort could have been spent in this area without sacrificing any of the game's playability or core ideas.
The sound is really on par with the visuals, and is a far cry from a significant portion of your experience with this game. There's this gentle tune that floats through the air as you play, and sure, it presents a soothing aura for those moments you'll find yourself enraptured in the Puzzle mode. But again, there could have been more effort here to at least include different soothing tunes that you could choose at your whim. Is it needed? Certainly not. Does it hinder the gameplay? Of course not. Would it have been appreciated? Given the game's lack of pretty much everything else outside of Puzzle mode, yes.
It would be best to look at Polarium not as a videogame puzzler, or even a videogame at all, but an "activity" - akin to a riddle book, crossword puzzle or Rubik's Cube. If you're the type who enjoys staring at brain teasers and then - a ha! - finding the solution, its 100 puzzles are certainly worth the price of admission. Overall I find myself satisfied with my experience in Puzzle Mode land, but Challenge Mode was a complete disappointment. If you've no patience for the constant staring and deduction required for an activity of this type, make your way down the aisle to a Puyo game, Meteos, Lumines, or what have you.