On Wednesday, July 24, I will be putting my puzzling skills to the test as I embark on a massive crossword marathon.
I will be spending 12 hours going through as many Tuesday crosswords as possible from the New York Times archives. The crossword marathon will run from 10am-10pm Eastern (7am-7pm Pacific).
Whom Does This Benefit?
The stream will benefit “The Ocean Cleanup.”
This organization is developing and implementing technologies to clean up plastic in The Great Pacific Ocean Patch. Through the work of their 80 researchers and engineers, they expect to clean up 50 percent of the plastic in five years’ time.
Duration: about 5 hours, 7 hours for secrets and commentary
Price: $24.99 on PSVR and Steam
Publisher: Schell Games
I Expect You to Die was a series of five lovingly designed VR escape rooms in a 007-esque world. It embraced the storytelling advantages of having me in a VR environment while mitigating the challenges of having me escape these rooms while swiveling in a chair.
The attention to detail and love for both the spy genre and escape rooms continued through to the last mission. This was the way to do VR escape rooms at home.
Who is this for?
Escape room players of every stripe
Quick thinkers who are cool under pressure
James Bond fans with a sense of humor
Solid, well-clued puzzles
Excellent graphics, VR physics, and immersion
I began I Expect You to Die in my spy office. My unnamed boss, speaking through the intercom, walked me through the basics of being a modern spy.
My mission changed from level to level, but they all involved foiling the nefarious plans of the evil Dr. Zor of the Zoraxis Corporation. In my first mission I started off captured by Dr. Zor. To escape, I simply had to drive a malfunctioning car out of an airplane that was filled with poison gas at altitude.
My boss was with me the whole way, providing a bit of guidance in my ear when I tried to do something I wasn’t supposed to do and scolding me when I “wasted time” doing something silly like shoot a doughnut with a gun.
I Expect You to Die followed the escape room industry trend of giving me a mission rather than asking me to actually escape a room. One level had me neutralizing a bio-weapon while posing as a window washer. Another had me in a one-man submarine at the bottom of the ocean. Each was creative and became thrilling as the events unfolded.
The environments were realistically constructed with a dash of cartoonishness. It was real enough for me that at one point I attempted to put my real-life controller down on a solidly virtual desk.
The five levels were also unique to one another. Perhaps most importantly, the various situations would be at home in any James Bond movie but didn’t feel ripped off from any existing installment of that franchise.
The game was built to be played while seated in one spot (although some swiveling was necessary). I wasn’t limited to items within my reach, however, because the spy agency had fit me with telekinetic implants. I could point at something I wanted in the distance and bring it right to my hands. I could also freeze items in midair for easy access in the heat of the action.
Puzzles were a mix of linear and non-linear. Most solutions relied on my ability to observe, make connections, and improvise when a bad situation got worse. There were few traditional puzzles. At times, the solution was straightforward: use this item with that item. Other times it was necessary to understand the presented concepts on a deeper level for me to be successful. It was an extra challenge when I had to do something urgently or with good accuracy in an attempt to quickly save my skin from Dr. Zor’s devious traps.
However, like the best Sierra & Lucasarts adventure games, part of the fun was dying in hilarious ways. Because this was a video game, each mistake taught me what not to do and I got faster as I tried it again. In fact, each level had a “speed run” time. I often dove back in to see if I could do a level in 45 seconds, one which had originally taken 45 minutes to beat the first time through.
➕ One worry I often have with VR simulations is whether the items will behave as I expect them to. In I Expect You to Die, physics were not a problem. Flammable things burned when lit, plastic cups bounced while ceramic ones did not, and lasers shined in a straight line.
➕ Attention to detail was fantastic and took full advantage of the VR environment. When I was posing as a window washer, I was able to look over my shoulder at the city below me, even though there were no puzzle elements there. In the train level, I looked out off the bridge and saw flocks of birds flying by.
➕ I knew I was in good hands from the opening credits. I was drifting through a two-tone 3D animation that riffed on every famous Bond opening title sequence. Bullets flew by my head and missiles launched from below as an excellent Shirley Bassey-style ballad soared through the theme song to “I Expect You to Die”.
➕ I was rewarded for messing around. Eat a moldy sandwich! Put a hat on a bear! Light your cigar with a burning log! When I finished a level, the game presented me with extra goals called “souvenirs” that hinted at other fun things I could have done. This added greatly to the replayability.
➕ The telekinetic ability to summon objects from afar was a clever narrative and mechanic workaround. Most VR goes the route of allowing the player to teleport around the environment; telekinesis felt considerably more grounded in this scenario (even if it was fantastical).
➖ My telekinetic implants allowed me to freeze items in mid-air. While this was useful for hovering code-breaking sheets where I could see them, it was just plain weird and oddly reality-breaking. It bothered me more than opening a cabinet from 20 feet away. I expect this mechanic was invented for players using traditional controllers, but it would be nice to disable it for VR controller users.
➕ What I Expect You to Die did best was surprises. Moments of victory were followed by unexpected moments of peril. Then having survived it, an even greater feeling of accomplishment.
➖ Some levels contained items like bundles of money that had no purpose. While not strictly red herrings, they occasionally got in the way of items I actually did need.
❓ In some worlds, it was possible to lose items I actually needed. While throwing stuff over my shoulder was immensely satisfying, I learned to think twice about whether I may need the thing in the future.
➕ After I had completed the main story, I had the option of turning on commentary! This was something I had never expected. There was lots of it and it was full of interesting insight into the design decisions of making the game.
Tips For PLAYING
While this game can be played with a traditional controller, it’s more immersive to play with two VR controllers.
Try everything. Sometimes there are multiple ways to solve a level, and lots of fun things to discover!
Duration: 10-15 hours, 20 hours for completionists
Price: $24.99 on Nintendo eShop
Pode was a gorgeous platform puzzler that never fully matched its beauty with puzzle brilliance.
Playing Pode felt like walking through a Scandinavian fairy tale. I discovered ancient art embedded in the rock walls and made it glow. I turned drab landscapes into verdant gardens. In the end, I helped two elemental beings puzzle their way up a mountain to find their eternal happiness.
Some levels garnered a satisfying “aha moment;” others left me with the experience of deja vu. The diversity of the environments was so impressive that I wished such consistent attention had been put into the puzzles.
Pode is best for those who want to see beautiful video game art shine while tackling some mostly-good platform levels in an adorable couch co-op.
Who is this for?
Co-op loving couples
Patient parents who want to teach their preteens problem-solving
Fans of Wall-E
Adorable character interactions in an aesthetically lush environment
The joy of collaborating with your partner to overcome a challenge
Pode began with a star named Glo falling from the sky. She despaired at her fate on Earth until she met a rock named Bulder. He offered to help her get to the top of the highest peak in the land and back into the heavens.
Glo and Bulder each had special qualities. She was lighter than air. He was magnetic. Their auras inspired Mother Nature. Wherever Glo stepped, plants sprung from the earth. Bulder loved crystals and they erupted from rock faces as he passed by.
After some early success, their hands touched, revealing the slightest spark. Could this be the beginning of a beautiful relationship?
Pode took place in caves leading to the top of a mountain… but it was far from a dank and dismal place. Through our special abilities we felt like demi-gods, commanding nature to bloom, blossom, shine, and sparkle.
Backgrounds felt hand painted and the lighting details added to the artistry of the world’s creation. When Glo walked past a stalagmite, her light cast shadows and lit the facets of the rock in all the ways they would in nature.
In each area of Pode, we aimed to get from the starting point of an area to a seemingly unreachable exit by coordinating the talents of Glo & Bulder. The power of nature was our constant companion, but just as often, it was the source of an obstacle before us. We encountered waterfalls, darkness, and a seemingly endless number of cliffs that were slightly too high to jump up to.
I played the first half of Pode with a partner who didn’t have a lot of experience with platform puzzlers. She was drawn in by the visuals and the characters, but loved the fun of getting here-to-there. Pode had a good tutorial area at the beginning and she and was offering solutions right away.
Unlike most platformers, there were no enemies to avoid. This makes it more approachable to inexperienced gamers. If both co-op partners are new to platformers, they will find some frustrating moments. My ability to jump accurately, for example, helped a great deal. When we did miss jumps, we were forced to repeat multi-step processes to get back into position.
➕ Pac-Man style interludes between levels moved the love story along in a subtle but touching way. It was cute without being cutesy.
➕ Fun moments delighted me and my co-op partner. The first time I (as Bulder, the rock) stood on her head (as Glo, the star) to get across a pond, we literally LOL’ed.
➖ The game uses a hub-world system where we could access two areas at a time. This led to a mostly linear experience. When we were stuck in an area, we were stuck good.
➖ At around the midpoint, cluing largely dropped away and I was convinced I was missing something obvious, which led to frustration.
➖ After our heroes grew all the plants and crystals in a level, the Switch sometimes experienced “chug” or slowdown. There were too many objects to render everything in real time. In a game where jumping accuracy was important, this was an unwelcome complication.
➕ A fast-travel system allowed me to go back to areas where I didn’t finish a puzzle or find a collectible.
➕ The attention to sound was well done. The folk-inspired music was appropriately mystical and added a lot to the overall experience. Glo & Bulder’s expressive chirps and grumbles inspired fond memories of Wall-E.
❓ There was no dying in Pode. When we fell off platforms, we popped back up unharmed. That was nice, and most of the time we returned to a place that made sense. Occasionally though, it sent us back too far and we’d have to repeat several steps.
➖ Pode left me wishing there was more to it. Each character only got one additional ability as the game progressed. The levels’ solutions were similar throughout, rather than gradually upping the difficulty. The puzzles in final area were particularly easy to solve.
❓ I had seen many of the core platforming elements (wind, pressure pads) executed more inventively in other platformers, but the puzzles worked and inspired us to do the occasional victory fist-bump as we progressed.
Tips For Playing
Glo could use her shine to find hidden art in the walls of the caves and Bulder could open metal flowers. While lovely, these collectible elements were completely optional and had no effect on forward progress in the game. The only exception was the cave art at the end of each level. It often helped us solve the final puzzle.
Pressing “Y” allowed us to swap our controls between the two characters. This was useful when one player had an idea for solving the level but they needed the abilities of the other character. Without this, there would have been a lot of controller-swapping.
Developer & Publisher: Ubisoft Paris & Ubisoft Milan
Director: Davide Soliani
Dates Played: February-May, 2018
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Duration: about 20 hours, 40 hours for completionists
Price: $44.99 on Amazon
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle was turn-based tactical combat brilliantly distilled to its primary elements.
Puzzles show up in interesting places.Despite the kid-friendly Mario palette and quirky cast of characters, the game took itself seriously. It delivered a strategic challenge throughout.
As a puzzle fan new to this genre, I was impressed with the high level of forethought needed to succeed in each world. As a kid-at-heart, I fell for the Pixar-quality writing and animation of its cutscenes.
Who is this for?
Tactical combat newbies
Fans of silly humor
Puzzle play merged with action and combat
Creative and engaging strategy
Beautiful graphics and excellent music
Princess Peach with a shotgun
Story & Setup
Nintendo teamed up with Ubisoft to bring their popular Rabbid characters out of the party-game realm and into a tactical combat genre alongside Mario mainstays. Rabbids are insane rabbit caricatures with zero impulse control. They’ve been screaming their way from hijink to hijink way before the Minions ever met Gru.
The story began with the Rabbids having travelled through time and space to the bedroom of a Nintendo superfan. There, one of the Rabbids picked up a VR helmet – which got stuck to his face – and they all got sucked through a time-traveling washing machine into the Mushroom Kingdom and… it was pretty ridiculous. Like most mashups, it wasn’t worth overthinking the story’s logic.
After the story intro, a hub world led to four themed sub-worlds where my group of three Mario heroes and their Rabbid counterparts explored the land fully armed and looking for trouble.
There were two types of puzzles in Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle: battles with baddies and environmental challenges.
In battles, the task was usually to defeat all the enemies with various blasters, grenades, and exploding drone vehicles. Other times, I escorted an unarmed ally (usually Toad) through the gauntlet or got my characters to a particular zone of safety.
Each battle asked me to consider my team’s strengths & weaknesses, enemy positions, and terrain conditions. I had to plan my moves in such a way that I could set myself up for success. For example, did I have enough movement points to duck behind cover and flank my enemy, while keeping in mind that another enemy may be able to jump up and reach me from higher ground? I also had to react to unexpected behavior and the slight amount of randomness that occurred when damage was calculated.
At the end of each battle I received a grade based on how many turns it had taken me to complete the battle and how many of my teammates had survived. Higher scores rewarded me with more coins, which I used to buy better weapons, so optimization mattered.
Environmental puzzles occurred in between battles as I traversed the world. Adventure game players will be familiar with these: move these crates to push the floor switches, bounce lasers around these mirrors to hit the target, or rotate the pieces of this column to create a staircase upward.
Often times, completion of the puzzle led to a hidden chest containing in-game collectibles: a music track, a 3D model of a character, or a piece of concept art. Other times it unlocked a good weapon for use in the next battle.
+ Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle was an adventure of cartoony beauty. The design was spot-on — true to the Mario universe while taking it in a completely different direction.
+ Cutscenes were cleverly written, full of personality, and professionally shot.
+ The music was fantastic. I found myself with the songs in my head long after I’d put the Switch away.
+ While the setting was whimsical, the tactical aspect of the battles would make any SEAL team proud… I was able to access the “Tacticam” which allowed me to sweep over the battlefield and analyze the movement, weapon, and special ability range of every character on the map. Enemy AI was generally intelligent despite being a bunch of wacky Rabbids.
+/- When I executed a command to attack, the camera swept into one of several action movie slo-mo modes. This added to the thrill of the moment, but occasionally the terrain blocked the camera. This was jarring in what should have been an awesome moment.
– Some worlds had too much backtracking during the main missions (especially the spooky world). Others had too much ground to cover in between the action. While I explored many nooks and crannies for those hidden chests, since I’m not a big completionist or collector, the searching lost its appeal in later levels.
? It was strange to see Luigi whip out a sniper rifle (dubbed “precision” in the game) or Princess Peach wield a shotgun (boomshot). The cognitive dissonance for a Mario fan like myself was a bit shocking at first, but I got used to it.
– Bonus challenges offered some replay value. I could also attempt the game’s battles again to get a better grade. However, as I progressed through the game, my team got stronger and acquired better weapons. This made repeating a challenge trivially easy compared to when I had first tried it.
+ Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle never forgot that it was a silly premise in a Rabbid-rules world. Throughout the levels, there were regular “points of interest” where I was encouraged to press a button to watch a Rabbid sleeping on a doghouse like Snoopy or stuffing his friend into a pipe with a plunger. These funny moments broke up the travel time a bit, before I went back to the serious stuff like commanding Yoshi to mow down enemies with a machine gun.
Tips for Playing
Once you finish a world, dive right back in and do its extra challenges. Replay any battles you want to improve your score on. If you wait until later, you’ll be too overpowered for them to be fun.
Let the game autofill the skill-tree as you build in experience. This will save you a lot of time. As your roster builds throughout the game, it’s tedious to manage so many characters’ skill-trees simultaneously. You can always reset it and build from scratch if you need a particular skill for your next battle.
Duration: 18-25 hours, 40-50 hours for completionists
Price: $9.99 on iOS, $13.60 on Android, $39.99 on Steam
The Witness asked me to observe and to think. It was puzzle bliss.
Designer Jonathan Blow took a simple puzzle concept and built upon it in brilliant and unexpected ways.
The resplendent environment and clever puzzles left me wanting more, even after 25 hours of play, most of it spent thinking.
Who is this for?
People with any level of video game experience
Innovative puzzle design
Excellent difficulty curve
You will be smarter by the end
Story & setup
The Witness began with no backstory. I walked down a long, dark hallway and found a panel. On the panel was a line with one circular end. Touching the circle and dragging along the line opened a door to a gorgeous island. That first panel I had encountered was the simplest version of a seemingly endless series of line mazes found on puzzle panels everywhere.
It’s easiest to describe this game by what it wasn’t. It didn’t have any items, characters, music, dialogue, or written words. There was some light philosophy in the form of audio recorders I found lying around, but other than that, it was pure puzzle zen.
As I wandered around, I was initially reminded of the island in Myst. The structural similarity was obvious, but graphically, it had come a long way since then. The colors in The Witness popped. There was an orchard of bright pink cherry trees and a desert temple that gleamed in the sun. Even the salt mine was beautiful in its own way. When an early boat ride around the island included a trip through a shipwreck, I started to realize how big this island was.
The exploration was rewarding. Even after investing my first ten hours into the game, I found a new area and wondered how I could have missed it. New perspectives on familiar areas also delighted my aesthetic side. Statues I found throughout the island weren’t puzzles at all but rather subtle nudges to look at everything from a different perspective.
Every puzzle panel in The Witness was an iteration on that original line maze I had encountered at the beginning. And there were a ton of panels – more than 500. Prior to jumping into The Witness, I wondered how it could sustain one concept through an entire game, but after just a few hours of play, I understood its genius.
The puzzles in each area of the island introduced me to a new variation. Sometimes I was required to use the environment to guide my solution: shadows or branches that had fallen upon the panel, for example. Other times I had to decipher the symbols on the puzzle (with a certain amount of trial and error) to learn the new rule required to solve it.
It created its own visual language as I built on my successes. I began to see line patterns both in the game world and in real life.
+ This game was an epiphany generator and I quickly became addicted.
+ The Witness was an open-world game with essentially one type of puzzle. Despite this, I found myself engaged throughout. New concepts were introduced gradually. The puzzles didn’t overstay their welcome.
+ This game was a work of art. Certainly aesthetically, but also in its masterful creation of fun, fair, creative, and challenging puzzles. It taught concepts without coddling, trusting that I was smart, determined, and patient enough to see it through to the breakthrough moment.
– There was one sound in the game that I found grating. As I sat working with my trusty line (sometimes for hours at a stretch), there was always a low hum coming from the panel. The mute button became my sanity-saver.
-/+ The Witness always rewarded me for solving a puzzle with the same thing: more puzzles. As a lover of games, I’ve been conditioned to expect something to happen when I make progress: more XP, an improved weapon, a fun cutscene. I had to leave those expectations aside and accept that this game was a unique animal. My own intelligence was leveling up and that was better than any bit of digital swag I could have received.
+ When The Witness was released, Blow begged people not to watch walkthrough videos. After my first major puzzle roadblock and subsequent breakthrough, I understood why: I didn’t want to deny myself that rush as my brain grew a little larger.
+ After occasional periods of frustration, there were times when I thought I would never fire this game up again. Every time I did, however, I would get through my roadblock and wonder why I’d almost given up.
– There’s no hint system and no manual. When I did find an overly obtuse puzzle, I eventually had to give up on it. Thankfully, The Witness doesn’t require you to solve every panel to reach the end.
+ Beyond the beauty and craftsmanship of the island and its puzzles, the most significant strength was its balance. I rarely found the easy puzzles too tedious or the hard ones too taxing.
– When I completed a puzzle, there was barely any sound effect aside from the gentle clunk as power was supplied to the next series of puzzle panels. If you’re still addicted to Candy Crush, this absence of dopamine rewards will bother you.
+ The best teachers make you feel like a genius when you reach the lesson they’ve been gently guiding you toward all along. In its best moments, The Witness felt like a Buddhist monk showing me the way to enlightenment. The road was long, but it was incredibly satisfying.
Tips for Playing
Don’t watch walkthrough videos. You’ll miss out on the reason to play.
Perfect for a long flight. Los Angeles to Singapore will feel like nothing.
Spend some time away from the puzzle panels and just look at the world.