Sunday, February 9, 2014

Review: Threes! for iPhone and iPad

People who follow me on Twitter had already seen the heads-up about Threes!, the latest puzzle game by Sirvo LLC.
I wasn't the only one to notice this game, since it quickly climbed to #1 in the App Store charts, proving to be a perfect casual game. But is it also a good game for readers of this blog?

The mechanics are beautifully explained by the official trailer, which is just too good not to repost it here:
You have a 4x4 grid, containing some tiles. All tiles have a number of them.
Your moves consist of just swiping the screen, which makes all tiles move by one step in the same direction. When a tiles reaches the edge of the board, it stops. When pushed against each other, tiles will merge if they are identical (forming a new tile of double value) or if they are 1 and 2, which will produce a 3.
The other thing that happens when you make a move is that a new tile enters the board, at the end of one of the lines that moved. So you must keep merging tiles to make space for the new tiles. When the board is full and you can't make any more merging, it's game over.

The color of the tile you'll get next is shown at top of the screen, so you know for sure if it's a 1 or 2, but if it's white it could be anything, though it will usually be a 3.
In general, you also don't know for sure the exact line where the tile will be inserted, unless all lines but one are blocked.

Note that since all the tiles you merge remain on the board, the value of the tiles keeps increasing during the game, so after a typical game you'd be in a situation like this:

If you play well, 384 is the number you should be aiming to reach frequently. So far, a few people have managed to make a 768, but nobody has yet reached 1536 (apart from one person that hacked the game). The maximum tile available in the game is 6144. I don't think anybody will see it anytime soon. It would take 2048 3's to make one 6144.
The value of the highest tile is important because the score you get at the end of the game grows exponentially with the tile value, so one 384 is worth more than two 192 and so on.

Even if the mechanics are significantly different, I can't avoid comparing Threes! to Stickets, another excellent game released last year. Both games are played on a small board, and alternate moments of increasing tension, as the board fills up, with moments of relief, when you make a streak of matches and free up a lot of space.

More than the pure mechanics, I think there are two important differences between the two games:
  • Stickets is an infinite game. If you don't make mistakes, a game can last forever. Threes!, instead, is inherently finite, because the numbers keep increasing and you reach point where there just isn't enough space to fit all the tiles needed to make a new merge.
  • Both games have an element of randomness, but in Stickets the player is in total control, because the game gives 4 pieces to choose from and you decide which piece to use and where to put it. In Threes!, you only have limited control on where the new piece will be inserted.
In my opinion, Stickets' lack of a definite end was its limit, because a game could take such a long time that after taking days to finish a game I couldn't find the motivation to start a new one. In Threes!, I have the opposite problem: after losing, it's difficult to resist the urge to start a new game :-)

I don't like, however, the excessive use of randomness, which appears unfair at times. It is particularly infuriating when you have planned your moves to accomodate a white tile, and then you get a 48 instead of the 3 you expected. I think this part of the randomness is uncalled for and I'd hope it to be changed in a future update.

I usually focus on the mechanics and don't talk much about the presentation, but in this case I need to spend a few words to say how good it is. All the tiles have subtle animations and have different personalities, making the game cheerful to play. The graphics might seem simple, but a very interesting article on Polygon shows how much work went into them and how many failed attempts were made before reaching the final result.

For me, the most notable achievement in the presentatin is the sound design. More often than not, I play puzzle games with sound turned off, but not this one. The background music is superb—I've been humming it all day—and the way how the tiles talk to you while you play, each one with its own personality, keeps the game lively.

A word of warning: the game currently doesn't work on 4th Generation iPod, it crashes before even reaching the title screen. Hopefully this will be addressed in a future update.

Apart from that, there is no reason not to buy this game immediately. It will definitely be one of the best games of the year.


Summary

Nontrivialness★★★★★
Logical Reasoning★★★★☆
User Interface★★★★★
Presentation★★★★★
Loading Time★★☆☆☆
Saves Partial Progress
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©2014 Nicola Salmoria. Unauthorized use and/or duplication without express and written permission is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicola Salmoria and nontrivialgames.blogspot.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

3 comments:

Roberto Canogar said...

Well, my first post... I have been following this blog for more than 6 months so it was about time...

Great review of the game NIcola! I agree with all you said about this game. Good comparison with Stickets. Also the tension and relief alternating is very clear and fun.

I would like to add a couple of comments. I think the game has many great things and a couple of annoyances:

My main complaint is that it is not easy to see what will happen if you swipe in each direction, how the board will transform. Of course you can swipe a little bit and get a clue of what will happen if you continue. But you can not do that for two moves in advance, for example. If you can not visualize your moves in advance (which is very difficult for me in general) you can not clearly plan ahead and that is a big problem. What you end up doing is more or less put the big numbers close to the big numbers and the small ones with the small ones. But "more or less" is not good enough... sometimes you have 3's and 6's forming a checkerboard pattern and you are screwed for a while because you can not match anything.

Second complaint, as Nicola said randomness is a big part of the game. He pointed out getting a 48 instead of 3, I even got a few 96's, which are really difficult to match. But also, sometimes you get many 1's one after the other (four in a row is not uncommon) and that is really annoying. And then... where these pieces enter the board is critical. When you have a few spots left, usually the difference between a piece entering here or there is the difference between game-over and an epic win. Sorry but I don't like that. Of course, the game is about keeping your board as tidy as possible on the good times, so that when you get a 48 or four 1's in a row you can handle it. But in my opinion sometimes it is impossible to handle a rush of bad luck. I don't mind randomness but when it is too skewed and unfair I DO mind.

Anyway, there are loads of exceptionally good things on this game. I like the twist of having to match 1's and 2's and after that having to match equal numbers. It makes huge difference between 1's and 2' and the rest. Of course the design, the sound effect, the music, etc... is superb. And most importantly it is difficult to put down.

Tom Cutrofello said...

Nicola,

excellent comparison with Stickets. I'm currently playing a new game of Stickets (I'm #3 in the world and am aiming for the #2 spot) and I take breaks from that with Threes! I've reached 768 three or four times.

Nicola Salmoria said...

I think there's something more to say that I didn't say explicitly in the review. Not only Stickets is theoretically infinite, but its difficulty curve is flat. During a game, the board frequently becomes almost empty, and from that point on you can continue playing as if you had just started: it doesn't get any harder than at the beginning of the game.

Threes!, on the other hand, gets increasingly harder as you build higher numbers. In that sense, Threes! is a superior game, because it takes increasingly greater skill to get farther.