There are three constants in this world, it seems – Death, Taxes, and Picross sequels. Nintendo’s long-running puzzle franchise has now seen a whopping 33 entries and shows no signs of stopping, even though little has changed in the core gameplay of the main entries. But perhaps that’s the primary strength of Picross; there’s no shortage of potential nonogram puzzles one could create in the numbered grids that each game is packed with, and this is the rare sort of game that just about anyone can play. As the latest in this long lineage of puzzle games, Picross S3 is exactly the kind of game that you expect it to be – featuring hundreds of challenging nonogram puzzles that are sure to take dozens of hours to clear in their entirety – but, rather surprisingly, it also has a few surprises to set it apart from its predecessors.
For those of you who haven’t picked up one of the many predecessors, Picross puzzles are deduction challenges that could best be described as something of a cross between Minesweeper and Sudoku. Each puzzle consists of a neat grid laid out with a series of numbers affixed to its rows and columns, and these numbers tell you exactly how many squares in that row or column need to be coloured in.
Now, you can’t fill in just any square in that row or column, so the puzzle is an ongoing battle of cross-referencing different sets of numbers with each other to find overlaps, gradually processing different sections of the puzzle and eliminating possibilities until you arrive at a pixelated picture of some sort. It may sound about as fun as balancing a chequebook or doing maths homework, but there’s a dangerously addictive quality to that dopamine rush you get upon completing each puzzle and thinking “Ohhhhhhh” when you finally realize what exactly it was that you were crafting so meticulously for all this time. This is the sort of game that you sit down to play for just a few minutes only to find yourself sitting in the same position an hour later wondering where the time went.
By now, Jupiter Corporation has gotten its tutorial creation down to a science, creating an impressively approachable experience that scales perfectly according to a player’s skill level. A wealth of (skippable) tutorials are available that do an impressive job of communicating the finer points of Picross puzzles to new players, and the presence of several dozen 5x5 and 10x10 puzzles for each puzzle type ensure that new players are given plenty of time to walk before they feel ready to run. And for those that still struggle when taking on one of the intimidating 20x20, they can use a variety of assist features that – to some degree – have the game solving itself for you.
At the outset of every puzzle, a “Hint Roulette” can be used that randomly completes one row and one column of the puzzle, giving you a solid place to start going forward. During the puzzle, you can also have it set so that there are glowing blue numbers next to any row or column in which you can currently make progress, and you can even have the game directly correct you if you happen to make a mistake in filling in a square. Those that are feeling a bit more masochistic can turn all (or just some) of these features off if they so choose, making for an experience that’s truly as difficult or as breezy as you want.
It’s rather impressive, too, how much mileage Jupiter has managed to get out of this relatively basic ruleset, as there are now four distinct puzzle types to tackle. On top of the 150 standard puzzles, there’s a “Mega Picross” mode that remixes each those 150 and reimagines them with a new, more complex ruleset in which the numbers next to the grid can apply to two adjacent rows or columns. Then there’s the “Clip Picross” mode in which you complete five monstrous puzzles in a piecemeal fashion, each one being comprised of a series of smaller puzzles. You gradually unlock these smaller puzzles by completing certain puzzles in the Standard and Mega mode, so finishing each of these Clip Picross puzzles proves to be one of the most satisfying, long-term feats in Picross S3.
New to Picross S3, then, is the fourth type of puzzle which is aptly called “Color Picross”. Whereas each of the other modes sees you simply filling in all the squares with one colour, Color Picross puzzles see you usually using three or four colours at a time. It may seem like a relatively small change, but this proves to make an enormous difference in how each puzzle is solved, easily making these the most complicated and challenging puzzles the series has offered to date. It’s no longer a simple binary matter of whether or not that particular square should be filled in, the question now also extends to which colour that square should be filled in with, if at all. Once again, the tutorials do a great job of communicating the rules, but it definitely takes quite a few tries before you can finally wrap your head around what these puzzles ask of you. Once it clicks, these Color Picross puzzles prove to be the most rewarding that Picross S3 has to offer; completing each one creates feels like an accomplishment in a special new way that the other, one colour puzzles just can’t touch.
From a presentation perspective, Picross S3 sticks to the minimalist, futuristic look that has served the last several entries in the series so well. Each puzzle is well-drawn in terms of the spritework, though the quality does notably improve as the resolution of the image is raised; this obviously goes without saying, but a mushroom drawn in a 5x5 grid simply requires more imagination to ‘see’ than something drawn in 20x20, simply due to the high pixel count. Aside from that, the ‘diamond’ aesthetic that defines the soft backgrounds and bold text is pleasing to the eye, perfectly fitting the kind of vibe that a relaxing puzzle game should go for. To match all this, the soundtrack similarly has a pleasing and subtle tone to it, though we were a bit surprised at the slightly higher ambition present here. Rather than simply focusing on jazzy muzak, this soundtrack branches out a little into chiptune and folk; nothing groundbreaking, but the uptick in variety is welcome given how long you’ll be spending with some of these puzzles.
This being a Picross game, replayability is all but guaranteed, but it also hinges on just how enamoured you are with the core concept of the puzzle-solving. There are several hundred puzzles on offer here, spread out across four different modes, which should take you several hours to complete if you’re just going for completion. Then, of course, there’s a star offered for each puzzle if you can manage to clear it without using any assist features, which is sure to significantly bump up the playtime if you choose to go for that ‘100%’. On top of all this, you can also have a friend join in for some local co-op, opening the door to some light competition as the game tracks how many squares each player has filled.
At the end of the day, you probably already know if you’re going to pick up this game or not; Picross S3 hasn’t changed much from its predecessor and the same will likely be said about the inevitable Picross S4. That being said, we especially enjoyed the introduction of the Color Picross mode here, as it notably builds on the foundation of Picross in interesting and challenging ways, bringing something new to the arguably stale formula. Picross S3 is easily the best entry in the series on the Switch and it's one that we can easily recommend to both fans and newcomers alike. Naturally, those of you that have played the previous games will want to take a minute to ask yourself if you’re down for another few hundred Picross puzzles, but this represents the most bang for your buck in this Switch sub-series yet and stands as an excellent example of how to do a puzzle game right.