The puzzle genre can be very hit-and-miss, particularly on dedicated gaming consoles where players tend to expect a higher level of polish and quality than most mobile games are able to achieve. Tumblestone, on the surface, looks like your typical ‘match-three’ kind of puzzler and might struggle to stand out from the crowd on appearances alone; delve deeper, though, and you’ll realise that this is a much more complex offering than you might have originally expected.
There are five columns in every level of Tumblestone, each containing a variety of the titular blocks; your goal is to shoot three of the same colour to make them ‘pop’, slowly but surely clearing the entire board. You can only shoot the ones on the bottom of each column, however, and this causes more problems than you might think. The first catch with this game is that these boards have a certain order – or limited amount of orders – in which the Tumblestones must be shot, otherwise you’ll get towards the end of the board and realise you can’t see three of the same colour any more. The emphasis here isn’t on speed or clearing as many boards as you can in the quickest time – it’s about carefully working out each move in advance like a much more colourful (and angry cube-based) game of Chess.
The game’s main story mode sees you play through several worlds full of these puzzles and each world (as well as the individual levels within them) get harder and harder. This is thanks, in part, to the game’s second ‘catch’ – a constant stream of new mechanics. Each world presents a fresh idea that completely messes up your game plan and makes you think twice as hard; an early example is a block that sits in the way of your middle column, disappearing and reappearing each time you shoot a block. Suddenly, you’re now having to also count future moves in your head to work out when that block will be in the way.
The levels get incredibly tough (surprisingly early on, too) and you have to complete a level before you are allowed to move on to the next. It doesn’t take long before you have no choice but to slow down, think about every single little step you are about to take, and resist firing at the blocks as soon as you see three of the same colour. You can earn ‘skips’ which allow you to avoid particularly tricky levels, but these are rather rare so you can’t just keep relying on them.
Completing the main story’s hundreds of levels will take you a very long time so, in between sessions, you can try out some of the other modes on offer. The Arcade mode has three different takes on the main formula for you to try. In ‘Marathon’, rows of blocks appear behind a panel of glass with just one row peaking out of the bottom; you need to keep trying to clear all of the blocks below the glass as, if you shoot a block behind the glass instead, every row will move down towards the bottom of the screen making everything a whole lot harder. ‘Heartbeat’ sees the usual rows of blocks steadily move down at a constant rate, forcing you to make your moves quickly, and ‘Infinipuzzle’ sees you trying to clear the board as many times as possible.
There is also a multiplayer mode which allows you to either pass around some Joy-Cons (one per player is supported), or play alone against the computer if you prefer. Again, there are three different games to choose from (Puzzle Race, Battle, and Tug of War) and you can alter their settings to select how many rounds or points are needed to get the win. You can also choose from characters that are unlocked in the story mode (if you don’t select Sausage King then, quite frankly, you’re doing it wrong). Puzzle Race is (probably quite obviously) a race to be the first one to complete the same puzzle; Battle Mode works in the same way that Heartbeat does, making you pop Tumblestones as they plummet towards you, and Tug of War separates the board up into regular sections need to be worked on one at a time.
The multiplayer here is very reminiscent of the Switch’s early puzzle release, Puyo Puyo Tetris; each player has their own column on the screen and there is an equal amount of shouting at your friends when they steal a win from you at the last minute. As with most party style games, the amount of fun you’ll have with this completely depends on the people you are playing with. In a completely non-understandable decision, though, the online multiplayer functionality that is seen in every other version of the game has been completely omitted on Switch. The game is considerably cheaper on Nintendo's console than on rival systems at launch, so in a way that kind of makes up for it a little, but anyone who wanted to play the game online will be left sorely disappointed.
Tumblestone is full of humour throughout its story mode – the first playable character ‘Queen of the Nile’ spends the whole time warbling on about how much she just wants to get home to eat a salad, for example – and the whole thing is presented really nicely. The visuals look very pretty indeed both in Handheld mode, and on the TV, and the mix of bright colours works nicely. It is very well polished on the whole, actually; there are in-game achievements to work towards, adding just that little bit more to a game that could have survived even without it and it’s clear that Tumblestone has been made with a lot of love and care. What we have here is easily one of the best puzzle games on the console at the moment – but why release it with no online options? Even the Wii U version managed to have online support.
Tumblestone is an excellent puzzle game that definitely deserves to be played by fans of the genre. Aside from maybe Puyo Puyo Tetris, you are unlikely to find a puzzle game that offers quite this much content and such an addictive nature. The lack of any online functionality is disappointing, though, and whilst the Switch’s portability could have made this the definitive version, this odd omission takes away a nice feature unnecessarily. If you haven’t played the game before, though, or aren’t fussed about playing online – this is still a very solid choice.