Everybody loves Tetris, right? It’s so simple that even your grandma probably knows how to play it. A timeless classic. And who doesn’t love Smash Bros.? Despite its depth, it’s another game that’s simple to pick up and play, and is still a favourite at student dorm parties everywhere. Ever wondered what it would be like to mix those two games together? Probably not, but that hasn’t stopped the crazy folks at IlluminationGames and Seed Interactive attempting to do exactly that! Have they created a masterpiece, or a recipe for disaster?
Created in partnership with Canada’s Museums for Science and Innovation, the concept for StarBlox Inc. is certainly compelling. At its heart, it is a combat game – you’re placed in an arena against a foe or two who needs to be defeated. However, your punches and kicks don’t do much – you can kick your opponent into the incinerator, but that doesn’t achieve anything aside from slowing them down. Instead, you fight by playing Tetris. Sort of. You’re each given your own rocket featuring a Tetris-style puzzle, which must be completed faster than your opponent. The twist is that that the blocks fall right into the arena, making them fair game for anybody to grab. You have to beat your enemy to the blocks doing whatever you can to get them out of your way, then throw that block into the correct place in your puzzle (without forgetting to rotate the pieces so they fit).
Unlike Tetris however, the purpose isn’t to eliminate the blocks by making rows, but to link them – you need to connect the colours together in order to complete the objective for the stage in a manner similar to Columns or Puyo Puyo. Not so fast however, as your opponent can pummel you while your doing this, steal your block and kick you into the incinerator instead. Even if you don’t need the specific block that falls into the arena, you might want to get rid of it so your enemy can’t use it. This makes for frantic fighting as much as puzzle solving.
The team have done a pretty fantastic job of packing all this up into a scenario that makes the game more than the sum of its parts. You work for StarBlox, an intergalactic cargo company – that explains why there are so many blocks around the place! The puzzles that you’re solving are actually rocket ships which need cargo – those blocks that you are carelessly throwing around. Each colour represents a vital type of cargo needed to blast off, hence why you can’t just throw any old colour in there and hope for the best - the blocks will not fit unless the colour matches. It’s a clever way to portray what is basically a combat puzzle game, but it adds a huge amount of character to the proceedings as well as setting the scene for career mode progression.
Most pleasing are the plenty of nods to Portal, another block-obsessed game. Aside from the blocks bearing a striking resemblance to the various cubes found in Valve’s classic, the game is narrated by an AI with the same witty humour as GlaDOS (albeit with somewhat fewer murderous tendencies). Some stages feature the classic portals which throw your blocks to the other side of the screen, and even the incinerator reminds us (spoilers!) of the fate that your faithful companion cube met at Aperture Science. These little touches really make the game feel like a passion project from the developers and give the whole thing personality.
The game keeps things fresh by changing up the types of objectives on each stage. The most frequent objective involves chaining a certain amount of each colour block, with the winner being whoever is first to get the required amount of red, green, blue and yellow block chains. This requires players to rotate the blocks until the specific colour that can fit into the puzzle is in the right place. The other, more advanced style involves filling in the blank sections in your rocket, often shaped like a face, a fork, or something similar. This is more challenging in that you must throw specific shapes and colours into your rocket – you can't just throw anything in as most will not fit. Yet, it is also simpler in that you know what specific colour and shape you need and can focus on getting what you need rather than worry about other colours or shapes. Disposing of other blocks so that your opponent cannot use them becomes more important here.
In addition to the Career mode where you progress from one planet or asteroid to the next taking on opponents along the way, there is also a Head-to-Head mode where you take part in 4v4 battles with (and against) the CPU on any stage of your choosing. Perhaps the most unique feature in the game is the Guide to the Solar System. This contains information from NASA themselves about the various different planets, asteroids and other features of space, which are unlocked as you play through the game. Given its association with Canada’s Museums for Science and Innovation, there is an underlying emphasis on informing players while having fun at the same time. It is a neat touch, if something not entirely related to the gameplay.
If you've peeked below, you may be wondering why StarBlox Inc. hasn’t received a higher score. The main reason is because the attempt to fuse two very different types of game has resulted in something which can be confusing and even overwhelming. The best puzzle games succeed because they keep it simple, with a clear focus on giving the player a very specific, intuitive thing to do. This is true of all the examples cited above. Even something like Smash Bros. is very easy to pick up and play for somebody with no experience with the game, even if it can be rather hectic.
StarBlox Inc. misses the mark in this regard, generally being quite unintuitive simply because it requires the player to consider so much at one time. It is surprisingly difficult to gauge where to place blocks inside the puzzle when they don't actually fall inside that puzzle, not to mention having to rotate them before throwing them in from a distance outside of your rocket (which is substantially more difficult to judge than you'd imagine). This is only exacerbated by the fact that colours can only be placed in the rocket if they link with another colour. This means you can spend seconds faffing around with placement and rotation, and having to do all this while also defending yourself from your enemy and being equally as assertive towards them can be frustrating and confusing. Fundamentally, the combination of gameplay styles has resulted in a game which feels like its own mechanics get in the way.
Yet, there is a point where it all just about clicks. The game can prove hugely enjoyable despite being overwhelming at times. That moment when you feel like your foe has it won and yet, right at the last moment, you grab victory from the jaws of defeat with a well-timed throw of your block from the other side of the level that happens to land in the right place. The fact that the game takes a fair bit of mental dexterity to play makes those victories feel all the more sweet. This feeling is aided by the Burnout-style breaks into slow motion, capturing the moment when that final piece falls into place. An ingenious twist is that the game will do the same slow motion cuts when there is a near-miss, meaning you never actually know if you or the enemy has it won until the block lands into place, building up a palpable sense of tension. Watching your foe’s block fly past the target, followed by you dashing to grab that same block then throwing it into your own rocket within a second is one of the most satisfying feelings in gaming. The strength of this game is by far the satisfying sense of victory that comes from defeating every foe as it is nearly always a close tie and very rarely a washout.
This review might sound a little harsh overall, but let’s be clear – this game is great fun, rewarding and quite charming. The flaws and contradictions in the core concept prevent it from getting the stronger recommendation that we’d like to give it, but the team should absolutely be commended for a genuinely interesting and original concept, something that should be rewarded given the sea of lazy budget clones that plague the eShop. The effort and passion is evident, and those with particularly dexterous minds might have no problem with the multitasking expected of the player.
StarBlox Inc. is a fun and unique little experiment of a game, let down only by the results of that experiment that don’t quite come together. At the same time. the sheer satisfaction that comes from victory helps overcome some of the fundamental flaws in the concept and the net result is an original, if convoluted, puzzle-fighter. Ultimately, this is a still an enjoyable title that gets a qualified recommendation.