Review: BLOK DROP U (Wii U eShop)

In Soviet Russia...

Developed by the one-man team at RCMADIAX, BLOK DROP U represents the first eShop release to emerge from the Nintendo Web Framework platform, an HTML5-based approach that aims to deliver browser-bite-sized indie experiences direct to your GamePad. True to that concept, BLOK DROP U is a simple physics-based puzzler with a fun and unique design that's worth a play for puzzle fans, in spite of a spartan interface and a short shelf-life.

Your titular goal in BLOK DROP U is to guide a single red square — from its starting position at the top of a tower of other, tenuously-stacked squares — safely onto a platform below, by tapping to remove intervening pieces of the pile. It plays out something like a video-game version of Jenga mixed with a more hands-on approach to Angry Birds, with simple, intuitive gameplay that offers a satisfying mix of careful planning, frantic tapping, and trial-and-error experimentation — often all in the same level.

It's split into three sets of ten stages apiece, each built around a particular theme. The first ten levels offer up unfettered block-dropping basics, the next ten introduce moving, rotating blades to the equation, and the final set adds in spring-loaded bounce blocks. Each addition changes the feel of the levels considerably — the fast-moving blades mean you'll need to take timing into consideration to ensure a safe landing, while the bounce blocks turn the puzzles into a physics-fuelled playground of high-bounce hijinks. The blades also present what are by far the toughest of the challenges, though the difficulty within stage-sets themselves can feel erratic, with comparatively easy stages often sandwiched between more difficult puzzles.

No matter how difficult they get, there are clever, intricate solutions to each puzzle — and finding them is incredibly rewarding — but the physics have enough play that you don't ever have to figure out a single "right way" to progress, and it can be just as much fun to MacGyver your way through a stage with nothing but confidence and swift stylus strikes. In fact, that's one of BLOK DROP's biggest draws; it's a game that can be as contemplative or as frantic as you'd like, and whichever way you choose to solve a puzzle, it's always satisfying.

Even with a healthy amount of restarts and plenty of time for trial and error, BLOK DROP U's thirty stages can easily be completed in an hour or two. The developer has plans to add in more levels via free DLC in future — an additional fifty are planned as of this writing — which should help extend the life of the game considerably, especially if each set includes novel stage elements. In the meantime, once you've mastered the final stage you've seen it all, and there's nothing specifically designed to tempt you back. Self-starters might enjoy coming up with secondary solutions on repeated trips through the meditative levels, but some way of scoring your puzzle solutions — whether by time or number of blocks chipped away before touchdown — would have added a lot in the way of replay value.

Graphically, BLOK DROP U sports an industrial aura of simple textures decked out in whites, blacks, and greys, only slightly ornamented by a pleasingly pixelated isometric font and splashes of colour from the single red block and brilliantly orange blades. It's a somewhat striking, minimalist style that's dulled by some surprisingly fuzzy sprite-work, but it gets the job done, and won't distract from the block-dropping at hand. The soundtrack consists of a single, mid-tempo electronic loop: funky, catchy, and even a little eerie, but stretched a bit thin as the backing track to the entire experience.

While minimalism fits the graphics and sound to a point, the interface feels a tad too streamlined for its own good. There's no pause button, and no way to replay any specific level, or resume from where you left off if you take a break; you'll have to start each set from the beginning every time you play. In fact, there doesn't seem to be anything saved between play-sessions at all — even the tutorial screen shows up every time you start. The ten-level sets are short enough that the lack of level select isn't a huge problem, and playing through previously conquered stages is still fun, but with gameplay that's practically made for short bursts and quick sessions, the ability to select a single puzzle seems like it should be a given. There's also the fact that even after landing the red square safely on the ground, you'll still have to manually tap away any remaining blocks to clear the level. There's a reason for this — a wayward rectangle could potentially knock your block into the abyss on its way down — but it still often feels like an unnecessary step, especially when the remaining blocks are standing stock-still, patiently awaiting their imminent and rather unsporting demise.

Finally, we encountered a consistent glitch where tapping on any level's introductory title card will get rid of blocks "behind the curtain", so to speak, before the stage begins. Tapping to advance the screen is a hard habit to break, and we were greeted by quite a few half-collapsed, helpless scenes of pre-plummeting block towers before we could train ourselves out of it; to be fair, it's not always frustrating — inadvertently beating a level like this is a gleefully gratifying experience.

Conclusion

A unique and genuinely fun puzzle game with some decidedly rough edges, BLOK DROP U is a brief but engaging experience that will appeal to indie-lovers and puzzle fans in spite of its flaws — and it's easier to forgive those flaws when it costs less than a latte. That said, if presentation or replay value are a priority, this drop won't be for you; with no level select and no scoring to see how you stack up, its lasting appeal is limited. Still, if you're looking for a physics-based puzzler to play through in an afternoon, this delivers something different, fun, and definitely worth trying.