Tumblestone review impressions

Reviews
July 11, 2016 by Suriel Vazquez

Match three and rewrite history.

Tumblestone’s got me good.

I’m obsessing about it the way I do with some of my favorite puzzle games (Tetris, Chime, Puzzle Fighter). I’m thinking about ways of doing better and playing out matching patterns in my head even when I’m not playing. Any stream or longform video I’m watching becomes chance to multitask with it.

If I see the signs of a bad run, I immediately start mashing buttons until I lose so I can start over. I’m obsessing over pre-release leaderboard scores I know will get demolished as soon as the game comes out. I keep telling myself “okay, last round, then you gotta go mow the lawn.” That lawn then goes unmowed for hours.

Like most new block-based puzzle games these days, Tumblestone is built from an amalgam of ideas. You match three blocks of the same color to clear them, but the pieces are laid out more like they are in Tetris Attack, with new blocks always nipping at your heels from outside the screen. The grid is upside down, though, and rather than moving pieces around to match them, you pluck them one at a time from below. It might be hard to picture all these conflicting ideas, but it’s easy to understand when you see it in motion (which you can do by watching our gameplay walkthrough, by the way).

The end result captures that powerful mix of frantic button-pressing and methodical strategy that makes for a great action-puzzle game. As soon as I start a game of Marathon (the game’s base arcade mode), I’ll instantly see two or three sets of colored blocks I can immediately pluck out. My thumbs on the controller do the work almost instantly, and the feeling of alternating my d-pad and button presses so quickly makes me feel like I’m already a pro Tumblestone player.

Just as quickly, I’m reminded I’m not. After a matching spree, I don’t immediately see the next set of stones to match, so I scan the board a little more intently to scout my next move. Sometimes, there is no right move. I’ll look at the board and realize that I’ve either plucked myself into a corner, or the game’s block-dispensing algorithm made it impossible for me to make a match at this point. You can reach a point where your field is almost full and you can’t really do anything about it except lose.

Other times, the game feels patronizing. It has two hint systems, and you can’t turn off either. If you take too long to make a move, blocks will start wiggling to indicate a potential match. Waiting on that hint makes my ego take a hit, but it’s not as bad as when the game forces you to pluck certain blocks that will match, preventing your from plucking the stone you want unless you mash the A button multiple times. This happens even when there’s no three-match to be made, which makes it doubly frustrating that you can’t turn it off.

But here’s how strong Tumblestone’s grip on me is: instead of cursing at my screen about these issues, I start working around them. I pluck two different-colored blocks, which pushes all the blocks closer to the bottom of the screen, but with the bandage torn off I can match blocks as fervently as I could before. I start anticipating when the hint system will kick in and spam the A button so I can force my “wrong” move more quickly.

I do that because despite the overbearing hints, Tumblestone rewards thoughtful play. Sure, sometimes the blocks are arranged in just the right way, and you have a spree of matches that makes you feel like you didn’t earn your high score. But there’s no big, screen-clearing combos to save me if I’m doing poorly. I’m not waiting on an L-block or exploding gems. It’s always up to me to spot the right patterns and pluck at top speed.

Tumblestone’s block-matching setup also is also extremely flexible. In Story mode, for example, you solve puzzles using a limited number of blocks you have to clear in the right order, with new twists introduced regularly; in world two, I was dealing with metal blocks I couldn’t use for anything that disappeared every other move.

In Heartbeat, you play on a thinner board and new blocks encroach towards the bottom constantly. Then you have Infinipuzzle, which presents you with infinite waves of the fixed puzzles you’d find in the story mode and which you can modify in different ways, like adding those metal blocks or making it so certain pieces move horizontally after every time you pluck a block.  

All of these modes are fun in their own way, making Tumblestone feel like an insidious scheme to keep me from doing other things. If I get bored of banging my head against a puzzle in Story mode, I can play a few rounds of Marathon or Heartbeat, and hop right back in and see if I my refreshed mind could finally solve it.

So after about ten hours with the game, I can’t get enough of Tumblestone. The hint system and block algorithms could use some trimming, but Story mode looks like it’ll keep me occupied for hours, and I’m hoping I can get good enough to take a crack at the leaderboards post-release. I’ll likely stop fiending on it at some point, but it’s an excellent “podcast game,” which means it’ll stick around in my Steam library for a while. I haven’t messed around with with the multiplayer quite yet, but if it’s as fun as what I’ve played so far, it could be a while before I mow my lawn again.

Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who may or may not have cursed at his screen at some point while working on this review. He’s written for ZAM, Glixel, Paste, and many others. You can follow him on Twitter.