There’s a great “I’ve got it!” moment in Wakugumi where you graduate from simply sliding blocks about in the hope of making a capture to preparing combo captures with expert precision. Something about the game simply clicks and you find yourself having that classic puzzle inner monologue – “well, if this bit goes here and this pieces goes there..." It’s just a shame that the preceding twenty minutes or more are spent muddling through an initially confounding puzzler.
Wakugumi has quite a steep learning curve – those expecting a puzzler that’s easy to master may be put off long before the rewards start to come. At first glance it appears similar to classic DS puzzlers Picross and Polarium, except it asks you to capture white or black squares by surrounding them with blocks of the opposite colour. To do this you simply touch the square and drag it to where you wish to place it; if a capture is possible the area will highlight in green, letting you scan the area for the best possible capture before committing. It sounds and is very simple, but it’s telling that you can’t access the Score or Time Attack modes without clearing at least one level of the tutorial.
The tutorial actually does a good job of showcasing the many possibilities in Wakugumi. There’s challenges on connected captures, combo captures, clearing all blocks and more, with a useful hints screen showing you how to pull off each move. You’ll need to grapple with the training for a good half hour or more to feel you’ve got a good enough grip on the mechanics to have a stab at the Time Attack and Score Attack modes – until you watch the Expert Play videos that is, which make the game look so easy you'll be sobbing into your hands within seconds.
Anyway, let’s say you pick up the basics quickly and decide to take on the Time Attack mode, which plays a little like Mr Driller – you begin at the top of a long shaft and have to destroy blocks to reach the goal at the bottom. The way to victory is by pulling off quick combos and taking on as many blocks as possible, but with an ever-lowering bonus bar hovering above you and the challenge of beating the best times (displayed as lines racing ahead of you) it becomes ever more frantic. There are no items or bonuses for creating certain combos – you simply get to the bottom as quickly as possible. The added objective of reaching the goal gives the game a much-needed focus, spurring you on to quicker and more ambitious captures, and as you set new high scores you unlock more challenging level layouts. With a limited number of blocks and a clearly defined goal, Time Attack is probably the better of the two main modes on offer, although Score Attack has its moments too.
To its credit, Score Attack uses the same block-capturing mechanics yet has a very different feel to it than Time Attack. Played on a horizontal screen, you score points by capturing blocks in regular layouts, but there are bonuses to be earned too: you earn a Split for capturing two blocks that aren’t connected, a Quad for four simultaneous captures and so on. There are even bonuses that can’t be earned in the regular difficulty mode, further marking this out as a puzzle game where only the most brilliant minds need apply. There’s a time limit constantly running down, but capturing blocks pauses time, with combo chains keeping it frozen for longer, although after you’ve destroyed a certain number of blocks time starts decreasing more quickly. You can earn time back by earning the aforementioned bonuses though, meaning speedy and accurate play is the way to amass the big points. The way to succeed in Score Attack is by playing aggressively, setting up large chains and captures before activating them all at once, and it’s undeniably pleasing to see all your blocks explode in a shower of sparks or, if you’re really good, cherries and happy faces. Yes, really.
Graphically and sonically, there’s nothing to write home about in Wakugumi. The graphics are as non-descript as they come – although the options let you choose from circles, diamonds or crosses – and the sounds are inoffensive, although Score Attack’s digitised speech from the Japanese version is missing. That said, the tunes that play throughout Score and Time Attack will have you yearning for a couple of cacti to use as earplugs within minutes. It’s fair to say you won’t be wanting to invest in a new set of headphones for this one.
On the whole, Wakugumi: Monochrome Puzzler is a decent puzzle game with the depth and variety to make it worth a buy for fans of Polarium and Picross, but it’s hard to recommend it wholeheartedly over the other fantastic puzzlers on the DSiWare service, particularly with the Art Style series still clearly on top of its game. If your appetite for puzzlers is bordering on the insatiable, then the satisfying “I’ve got it!” moments here are worth the 500 points, but most gamers should direct their points towards one of the service’s other puzzle titles.