Tidalis: Bejeweled with Brains

So I promised a post on Tidalis a few weeks ago. Here it is, a bit late.

But first, the Tidalis trailer:

So Tidalis is a puzzle game from Arcen Games.

No, wait, let’s start again. Tidalis isn’t a puzzle game from Arcen Games. It’s a strategy game, gussied up and divided into nifty puzzle-y chunks like a puzzle game. Sure it’s all about matching three do-hickeys of the same color to get them to disappear. Sure most games take place in a Tetris-like box with the ever-present threat of falling blocks to add tension to the proceedings. Don’t let that fool you.

In Tidalis, each of the main colored blocks has a direction associated with it, indicated by a little arrow. Lining up like-colored blocks so that they disappear is not simply a matter of ensuring that they rest side by side, but of directing Tidalis’s “streams.” Watch the video. Those little glowing lights shooting out from the blocks? Those are the streams. For those whose set-ups are video-impaired, I will try to explain.

You click on a block and it shoots out a beam of light in the direction the block’s arrow is pointing. That beam of light (in standard modes of play) goes as far as the third block over. If it hits a like-colored block on the way, it then adopts the direction of that block, and continues (again) as far as the third block in that direction. If the stream hits at least three blocks, they disappear, but the stream will continue in this fashion for as many like-colored blocks as it’s able to hit.

Once the first set of blocks has disappeared, the blocks immediately above fall down to take their place, just as in Tetris or Bejeweled, or any other puzzle game of this sort. Those blocks in turn release streams, which go as far as the third block in whatever direction the block that released them was facing. If they hit at least three like-colored blocks, those blocks disappear, and so on. So far, so puzzle game. Lots of luck, a little bit of quick observation and you’re good.

Except in Tidalis, you can change the direction of the arrows on the blocks, even while they’re falling. Like in the best strategy games, you can find yourself thinking whole moves ahead, carefully arranging your blocks so that as one set disappears, the next fall into place and release their streams in the right directions. Like in the best strategy games, you plan, moves and moves ahead, until you can’t keep track of them anymore. Then you click, and watch your plan fall into place.

Or at least, that’s how it goes in the game’s timer-free zen mode, a mode designed around careful contemplation of the board. In its many, many other modes, you’re up against the clock, or at least, the steady falling of new blocks (which don’t release streams, and won’t disappear unless you incorporate them into a stream), and you must balance strategic thinking ahead with on-your-feet puzzle-gamer thinking. It’s teeth-clenching, knuckle-whitening, heart-pounding action. Play Tidalis like a regular puzzle game, going for the quickest points and just trying to stay ahead, and you’ll lose. Play it slowly like a turn-based strategy game and the board will quickly spiral out of control, and you’ll lose. It’s elegantly designed. It’s a thrill.

And it’s endlessly surprising and creative. While the story and characters of the game’s primary Adventure Mode are, frankly, a little silly, you simply must play Adventure Mode. The sheer variety of twists on the core mechanics ensure that the game never, ever gets dull. From wooden blocks that disappear only when lit on fire by adjacent disappearing red blocks, to modes that challenge you to get rid of fifty blocks without eliminating more than fifteen blue blocks. Or modes that challenge you to eliminate ten of each of three different colors of blocks without getting rid of more than sixty blocks total. Or Gravitron modes where gravity is altered so that streams don’t fly as far up or to the side, but fall much further down than they ordinarily would. Or zen modes that challenge you to eliminate twenty blocks with one stream. Tidalis is not only an incredibly deep game, but it has lateral strength too, reinventing itself in newer, more devious ways. And at the heart is always that perfectly balanced tension between fast puzzling play and methodical strategy play. Score over 7,500 points in under two minutes? Better keep moving, but make sure to set up as many chains as possible for the point bonuses associated with them.

Think it sounds too tense? Try Zen Mode. Want a challenge? Try any of the many other modes, or adventure mode. It starts off slow, but picks up quickly. And you really, really learn to play well playing through each of the Adventure mode variations.

I cannot praise this game enough. It is everything one expects from an indie game: ingenious and made with huge amounts of passion and care. But it is a deceptively small package, packing more hours worth of content into a “simple” puzzler than many fully-fledged AAA titles.  There’s a demo at www.arcengames.com, and the full game is only ten dollars.


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