Review: EJ Puzzles: Hooked (DSiWare)

Crab your enthusiasm

When last we heard from Electron Jump games...erm...uhhh...well, you know where we're going with this. Suffice it to say we weren't quite thrilled about wading through such questionable waters a second time.

But a strange and unexpected thing happened with their most recent release, EJ Puzzles: Hooked. It turned out to be a very, very good game.

Now, that's not to say that it doesn't have its share of flaws, because it does. And it's not to say that it's easy to overlook those flaws, because that's not always true. But at its core, if you're willing to work to overcome some questionable design and control choices, you'll find one of the most enjoyably clever puzzlers on the service.

At first, the game seems like a simple fish-skinned version of Minesweeper. No, wait. That's not exactly right. At first the game seems like a disorganized mess, and that's the first hurdle when it comes to really enjoying this game. (Or the second, if you count the title. Which you certainly may.)

If you are used to games that are willing to teach you how to play them, you'll end up thoroughly confused by EJ Puzzles: Hooked, which tosses you into the deep end (tee-hee) and assumes you won't want any guidance at all. This wouldn't be a problem if A) the goal was clear, B) the controls were intuitive, or C) the instruction manual was helpful. Unfortunately none of these are the case, and we spent a good long time tapping the screen and pressing every button, wondering why nothing at all was happening.

The learning curve here is steep, for all three reasons mentioned above. If ever a puzzle game needed a tutorial, this is it. Anybody who prefers to learn by trial and error will find this game relentlessly stubborn, as the bizarre decision was made that different directions on the D-Pad must be held down while you are tapping the screen, in order for different things to happen. It doesn't sound so bad on paper, but when the DSi has so many buttons it just seems inefficient...not to mention the fact that it's difficult to keep straight what effect each direction triggers, and that triggering the wrong one can end a game immediately.

The option to change the controls would have been a helpful one, but as far as EJ Puzzles: Hooked is concerned, you play by its rules. It does not play by yours. And if you have the resolve to stick by the game and figure it out (the instruction manual seeming almost unhelpful by design), you'll find a truly excellent little puzzler hidden beneath all the muddle.

And once you find that puzzler...well...you won't look back. You won't have time, because you'll be busy playing it. And getting better at it. And developing strategies that balance care with quickness. And getting comfortable with the game's difficulty level just in time for it to be ratcheted up again...and again...and again...

The comparison to Minesweeper is a valid one, and it's probably an understatement to say that EJ Puzzles: Hooked was inspired by it. It essentially reappropriates the game wholesale, making its own tweaks and additions as necessary. And they're effective. Minesweeper is certainly a solid foundation, and the new features it's adorned with here do manage to provide it with a unique identity.

Tapping the screen does nothing on its own (until later, larger levels, where you can slide the map around with the stylus), but holding Up and tapping will uncover a square. You may reveal a fish, you may reveal a number, or you may reveal nothing. If you reveal a number, this will help you to figure out how many fish are in adjacent spaces, but be warned: this is not the number of adjacent fish, but rather the combined weight of all adjacent fish. For example, if you uncover a 4, this may well mean that the space is surrounded by four fish with a weight rating of 1 each, but it may also mean that it's surrounded by two fish with a weight rating of 2 each...or surrounded by two fish with a weight rating of 1 each and a third with with a weight rating of 2, and so on.

Why does weight matter? Because you are attempting to catch these fish, and when a level begins, your rod can only handle the smallest fish with a weight of 1. Catch a fish larger than that, and you can break the rod and fail the level. The more of them you catch, however, the more your rod will upgrade, and before long you can start reeling in the fish with weights of 2, 3, 4, and so on. This means that your goal isn't to avoid the fish...but rather to catch them all, starting small and then fishing for incrementally larger ones.

If you wish to mark a spot that you know contains a fish too large for you to catch at the moment, pressing Right and tapping the screen will open a submenu, allowing you to flag the space as containing whatever weight fish you think it is. And if you really want a leg up on the blind guessing that's bound to be your only recourse at times, pressing Left and tapping with open a small sonar screen...the accuracy and longevity of which you can increase by collecting enough gold.

Yes, by completing levels and meeting certain time-based goals, you will earn gold, which you can then trade in at the shop for stronger rods, better sonar equipment, more levels, different themes, and more. It's an unexpected addition to the formula that serves it quite well; if you're bad at the game, you can invest in tools to make it more forgiving. If you're good, you can invest in opening up more challenging areas for play.

Once you become comfortable with the game, you'll find a pretty involving on-the-go experience that's worth coming back to. The levels are randomly generated (within the boundaries of certain pre-determined difficulty levels) and the time goals encourage replay more than we might have expected. The only real problem with the game comes with learning to play it. An optional tutorial would have gone a long way, or at least some clearer instructions. Likewise, alternate control schemes would have been welcome, as there's nothing worse than spending several minutes on a particularly difficult level only to find yourself failing because you uncovered a square rather than flagged it.

The "Minesweeper Plus" approach to this game certainly will not appeal to everyone, and it's unlikely to win anyone over who is not already a fan of the genre. On top of that, the poorly-judged, frustrating first few minutes of trying to learn the game are going to turn off even more potential players.

But stick with it, and you'll be richly rewarded with an excellent, resilient puzzler that's both difficult to master, and difficult to put down.

Conclusion

A cumbersome name, confusing instructions and unintuitive controls all conspire to hide this genuine gem of a puzzler. EJ Puzzles: Hooked may require a pretty large investment of brainpower to figure out, but once it finally "clicks" for the player, it offers effectively endless variations on a truly addictive and clever formula. Any gamer looking to have smart, dynamic puzzles at his or her side during long trips or sleepless nights will get a lot out of this surprisingly rewarding title.