Review: Art of Balance TOUCH! (3DS eShop)

Art of brilliance

WiiWare puzzler Art of Balance is one of the best games on the service: instinctive and addictive, it made the well-worn act of stacking shapes feel fresh again. Now on the 3DS eShop, Art of Balance TOUCH! keeps the winning formula going.

The premise to Art of Balance is simple. In each stage you're given blocks of various shapes, and you have to arrange them into a stable formation that won't fall over once the final block is laid. It sounds almost insultingly simple, but devious design soon sets in: round blocks are tough to balance anywhere but the top of your stack, and cross or semi-circular shapes can give your brain a real twisting.

When you've got to grips with all the shapes, blocks with new properties appear. Glass blocks shatter if three things are stacked on top of them; timer blocks disappear a few seconds after a shape touches them. Figuring out how the shapes fit together and in what order is some of the best mental exercise the eShop has yet offered, and executing your plan takes skill and a steady hand, using either the touch screen or buttons.

Like Fun! Fun! Minigolf TOUCH! before it, Shin'en's second WiiWare-to-eShop transition carries all the stages from the home console version and adds new ones on top. Art of Balance's four worlds double to eight, each of which introduces new block types, shapes and platform styles. Even if you race through the first four worlds, the game's second half can be a cruel master.

It's not just mean for meanness' sake, though. The introduction of a new block type that flips gravity is a real game-changer – drop it anywhere in your stack and gravity changes from down to up or vice versa. Far from just making better use of vertical space, it adds another dimension to each stack: the top could become the bottom, necessitating smarter, more precise planning than before.

The introduction of these new elements late in the game makes its latter half last far longer than the initial stages, particularly for those who've already clocked the first half on the WiiWare release. You're looking at some solid hours of play to see it through to completion, and while there's no replay value in Arcade mode the all-new Endurance mode, opened up after finishing the first world, rectifies that.

Essentially a score attack or challenge mode, Endurance gives you one random puzzle after the other, dishing out points based on difficulty and how quickly you solved it. It's not just puzzles you've already clocked either, testing your ability to think on the fly instead of recalling past solutions. The random selection of puzzles might irritate some but the bonuses accrued for completing tougher teasers takes off some of the edge. After you lose three lives you see how you fare on the system's leaderboard, though it's a shame you can't compare these scores to your friends'.

Another missed opportunity is the lack of level creator: while we've all been spoiled by Pushmo's level editor and sharing, Art of Balance was a perfect candidate for puzzle players to show off their handiwork. There's still plenty to last here, though.

Rounding out the content offering are 13 achievement-style awards - “amass 100,000 points in Endurance mode”, “solve 150 levels” - but sadly WiiWare's multiplayer mode hasn't made the leap. It's all wrapped up in typically glossy Shin'en visuals (though the water is a little off), though the 3D effect doesn't grant any gameplay advantages. With two styles of camera – one where objects seem to come out of the screen, the other granting depth – you can suit yourself. Taking the edge off all the frustrating failures is a gloriously soothing lounge soundtrack.

Conclusion

Even for WiiWare veterans, Art of Balance: Touch! is worth the double-dip for the extra puzzles, blocks and endurance mode, plus the ability to play on the go. Deceptively simple and gloriously satisfying, it's another strong addition to the eShop's puzzle line up.