Block puzzlers: the genre that keeps on giving. Just when you think all the possibilities of the humble square have been exhausted, along comes another game to prove just how wrong you are. PIX3D combines cuboids and pixel art in a retro love-in that's fun, despite a general lack of challenge in its main mode.
PIX3D's concept is both incredibly simple and clever. Each puzzle presents you with an array of 3D cubes floating in space; the goal is to rotate the camera around the area until you align the shapes to form a 2D pixel image. Typically the quick-fire puzzles only last a few seconds each, though you might find that some extend a little longer on trickier stages, and you're awarded up to three stars per level depending on how fast you are.
The muddle of squares looks somewhat overwhelming at first, but as with all good puzzle games it only takes a couple of tries before it all makes sense. A smaller version of the target image sits on-screen at all times, and if you're really stuck you can use hints – built up through good performance – to see a guide arrow pointing you in the right direction. While the top screen houses all the puzzling – all the better for the 3D effect, which stretches far back when set to full – the touch screen can be swiped to swing the field about. It's snippy and accurate, but we preferred to use the Circle Pad instead, which felt like a more reliable control method. You can also use the D-Pad.
The blocky gameplay is appropriately framed by a delightful aesthetic that could easily hail from an Amiga. There are colourful, chunky sprites everywhere, and they're all great to look at; the perfectly-formed retro-style images are what make the puzzles so enjoyable. The music and sound effects are also tinged with more than a hint of the gaming 80s. There are only four pieces of music, and they're pretty repetitive, but they're also very hummable and fit the mood well.
There's an impressive amount of content shoved in PIX3D, especially for the low price. The central Arcade mode includes 1000 puzzles to spin about, sorted into categories such as 'food', 'science', 'houses' and – of course – 'gods'. Each set is capped by a bigger puzzle that consists of six pieces, each of which needs to be solved individually to see the full image. Due to the short levels, designed to be completed as fast as possible, you can snap through a set in minutes, but the sheer amount of them means it takes a couple of hours to get through everything.
The downside is that it's a bit too easy: many puzzles can be solved in exactly the same way, by simply moving so that the biggest pixel cluster is closest to you and then fiddling about a bit. The ever-present guide image leaves no real room for working out or guess work, too.
It only really hits its ideal difficulty around two-thirds of the way through Arcade, when puzzles start off in slightly more awkward positions, squares begin to flash in and out of view and the objects feature more symmetry and colours that don't stand out from each other as starkly. It never gets too tough in Arcade mode, though, and even these changes can be mastered quite quickly.
Extreme mode is quite the opposite. In this extra mode you have to complete puzzles against a countdown, and if you fail to meet the time limit it's game over. Any time left over upon a puzzle's completion is added onto the next puzzle's counter, so in theory you could end up with tens of seconds on the clock if you're good enough.
That's not very likely, though, as hazards roll in to make life as painful as possible. All squares turn white, blocks rain down to obscure your view, the screen darkens, objects flicker out of sight. It's a smart idea, and some of these effects could have readily fitted into Arcade mode to toughen it up. However, there are times when the dangers completely leap over the border of fairness.
Effects pop in at random points, so you could be about to complete a puzzle with split seconds to spare only for your controls to get reversed, resulting in failure. There's one that barges in, disregards how long is left on your timer and gives you just a few fleeting moments to either reach the solution or lose. If you've built up a decent amount of time and this happens at the start of a puzzle, you're stuffed – it's a vicious mechanic that is nothing but frustrating. It's possible to get through Extreme sets, but not without plenty of retries and a bag of luck; we much preferred Arcade mode.
The final mode is Sprint, which challenges you to finish sets as quickly as possible, time attack style. There's not a huge amount of incentive to do this, though, as there are no online leaderboards. Such a feature would have made for some good friendly competition, and with so many puzzles available it's easy to see how PIX3D could have been ripe for score contests.
Unfortunately the extremely limited puzzle creator doesn't add much. You can draw, save and play out your own picture level, but that's essentially it. There are no options to adjust difficulty or pixel placement – it's automatically generated for you – and no import / export functionality, so you can't share your most prized sprites with friends unless you pass them your system. Even QR code support would have been better than nothing. The tools available for sketching out your masterpiece aren't up to much either: you get a pen tool, a decent selection of colours and undo / redo buttons, nothing more. It's baffling that there isn't at least a fill tool; as it is, you have to colour in each square individually.
PIX3D is clever, wonderfully presented and packed with content, but it never reaches its full potential. The ability to share created levels and scores with other players online would have expanded its lifespan much further. The difficulty also rarely settles at the perfect level: the majority of the main Arcade mode is too easy, while Extreme mode can be frustratingly tough due to random mechanics that cannot be learnt. If you're not after a challenge, though, and just want to play with a simple-yet-satisfying concept as you gaze at some lovely pixel art, PIX3D is worth a look.