It may be early days for download content exclusive to the 3DS, but we can confidently say that it's been a slow start. In fact, if you disregard 3D Classics and a free Pokédex 3D produced by Nintendo, Pyramids is only the second game to utilise the capabilities of the 3D screen. This adds a certain level of expectation to this title, and its success in dealing with this is distinctly mixed.
At its heart Pyramids is a retro title, at odds with its status as one of the pioneers of third-party downloadable 3D content. Each level takes place on a single screen with the objective of opening a locked door and collecting treasure, with an optional time limit to conquer. The gameplay is strictly 2D, while you can jump with the B button and, on the rare occasions that ammo is available, use Y to fire a bullet at an enemy. The main mechanic for solving each level is the ability to create and destroy blocks with a tap of A. These are used to resist projectiles, forge paths to platforms and other areas and in some cases lure enemies to their doom. The controls for these basic functions are competent, with just a few minutes necessary for gaining familiarity with all of your character’s capabilities.
This title has an uncanny resemblance to Solomon’s Key, in fact, but that shouldn’t be considered as a negative. The move-set and single screen gameplay may be simple on the surface, but like a lot of old NES-style games the degree of difficulty defines the experience. Early levels only require a simple progression to the goal, but within a short period you’re required to dodge falling rocks, spitting snakes and deadly bats. Bullets, as mentioned above, are exceptionally rare, so on most occasions enemies must be avoided, blocked or strategically led to a fall from a destroyed block. It’s tactical and tricky, with later levels truly challenging your puzzle-solving skills and reflexes in equal measure.
Despite all of these retro influences, some trends of modern gaming are still present in Pyramids. The level structure is a prime example: a total of 54 stages are divided into six areas, each with a different theme. Unlocking the next area isn’t a matter of simply clearing each level, but of attaining a minimum required number of stars. Each stage has three stars available: one star for simply reaching the goal, two stars for reaching the goal and collecting all treasure items, and three stars for achieving both of these tasks within a stringent time limit. While the first five areas are unlocked without too many perfect runs, the sixth can only be accessed if three stars have been obtained in all preceeding 45 levels. This system of targets for unlocking new areas is prominent in smartphone games, also present in the DSiWare edition of Cut the Rope, and generally works well in setting goals while encouraging improvement. Due to the difficulty in later stages, however, the idea of achieving every star in the first five areas is almost inconceivable: a great deal of patience, commitment and gaming skill is necessary in the pursuit of those final nine levels.
There is an extra set of nine stages available to unlock, though these are actually empty slots to be filled as a form of DLC in the coming weeks and months: developer Visual Impact has included a QR code area for this, rather than a download system. Additional levels will be released as QR images, one of which was provided exclusively to Nintendo Life, and within seconds of aligning the code with the 3DS cameras the extra content is available to play. While this title lacks any form of multiplayer or online functionality, this is a clever way of providing extra content through other means while utilising the system’s capabilities.
Putting all of this together, the core content as well as additional QR codes, there is plenty here to keep the majority of gamers busy for a long time. The simplicity of gameplay makes it a compulsive experience, with unlimited continues and sub-minute stages contributing to this, but the difficulty may be a turn-off after one too many "Level Failed" screens.
Visually, this title is reasonably pleasing on the eye. Animations are simplistic, however, and whether this is representative of nostalgic whimsy or overly simplistic graphic design is down to individual taste. The 3D effect is well executed, with each of the six areas having a different background noticeably moving off into the distance. The actual perspective is strange, with the levels being 2D structures placed in front of a 3D room or landscape, a death sending your tiny intrepid explorer towards the screen or into the background. Conceptually it doesn’t make sense and the depth has absolutely no impact on the actual gameplay but it is, nevertheless, a pleasing visual distraction. Sound is basic and competent, with music that is inoffensive but entirely forgettable.
Pyramids is one of the first 3D downloadable titles, yet owes its style of play and level design to the NES age of gaming. The 3D is almost inconsequential, but the result is a tough, well-constructed puzzle title with plenty of content. Despite these positives and the undoubted effort applied to the development, the punishing difficulty will exasperate and drive less experienced gamers away: the almost impossible target to unlock the final set of levels may also finish off expert players. Nevertheless, at a reasonable price point this title is worth consideration for fans of the genre, or gamers seeking an old-fashioned challenge to test their skills.