June 18, 2015 11:00 AM | John Bridgman
To say that games are an iterative medium is quite the understatement. A vast amount of the evolution and innovation within games stems directly from exploring familiar territory and looking for new ways to deliver familiar experiences, while keeping true to the mechanics and concepts that drew players in originally. Making games that are reminiscent of others is not inherently a bad thing, and sticking to what's been proven is often a very solid foundation for a new game. Mobile puzzle game Escape Block from Brazilian developer Alberto de Oliveira uses the mechanics of many block-sliding puzzles before it to form the heart of its gameplay experience.
To start with, Escape Block has you pushing a single blue block in as few moves as possible to exit point. You move around obstacles like walls, turnstiles and other pushable blocks that obstruct your path. Gradually these puzzles get more complicated - or at least look more complicated. A fair few of them have solutions that are far simpler than they appear at first glance, and while a red herring or two isn't bad, after a while it feels like having unused objects in the puzzle is more like a crutch to maintain appearance of an increasing difficulty. The truly complex puzzles that you encounter are challenging however, and they are rewarding to figure out in as few moves as possible.
The game has a star rating system, with three different target move numbers to aim for giving your grade. Failure to meet any of the targets leads to a rather unsatisfying zero star rating and will probably lead to you pressing the restart level button. This is, unfortunately, not the only time you'll be reaching for the restart button and most of them aren't because of wanting to do better.
Input is strangely laggy for a mobile title, and you can easily waste moves by not having the block behave the way you intend. Without an undo button, your only recourse is to restart the level entirely or just make do with a poorer performance. The movement of the block needs some better feedback so you know how the slide you make on your device will affect the block instead of hoping for the best. A puzzle game with frustrating input is often a disappointing one.
Escape Block is ad-supported with an option to pay to upgrade to an ad-free version with all levels unlocked. The ad-supported version is very hindered by the advertisements, as they're full-screen video ads with sound on by default. And they seem to run based on level starts and not time in-game. Given that levels, especially early on, will be started every thirty seconds or so, and the game encourages you to restart for better ratings, you can often find yourself watching multiple ads on a single level. It's an unintended consequence for sure but I do find it extremely irritating and I'm sure other players would too.
Visually it has a very minimalist aesthetic which works well enough, though given that the colour of blocks is significant as to their function, the game definitely needs alternative colour settings to let more people be able to play. This won't be an issue on every level, but as the game gets more colours of blocks in play with different functions, the experience will probably be hindered for some. This minimalist aesthetic is enhanced by a very relaxed, ambient soundtrack, and as a whole works given the sort of game this is.
There are two different play modes, Classic and Survival. Classic is a progression of different levels which gradually introduce new mechanics as you go through the puzzles and collect stars. This exacerbates the problems the input lag create as you will likely miss out on targets because of an accidental move. Survival gives you three restarts to complete as many levels you've unlocked as possible and amass a high score on a leaderboard against your friends. This would be a welcome addition but because of the control problems, you can find yourself forced to restart levels and waste a continue without you actually making a mistake on the level. Until the control issues are sorted properly, Survival mode is an exercise in frustration.
I am an admitted lover of puzzle games of all sorts. I'll sink into almost any and have a good time. So I find it unfortunate that one that is so engaging when things are working properly has so many frustrating elements like Escape Block. The little issues pile up fast, especially in the ad-supported version. Control issues can be fixed or adapted to, but the obtrusive ads are much harder to get accustomed to. Still, people who like sliding block puzzles could certainly have a good time with Classic mode, and for something to spend a little bit of time on during breaks, it is a rewarding experience when it works. It's just a disappointment that it doesn't work more often than it does.