A few generations ago, puzzle games had a prominent presence on home consoles. Brimming with individual personality, many could be relied upon to offer some fun single- or multi-player play. You don't see as many of these games any more. Puzzle games have migrated more towards mobile platforms, a large number swirling together into a miasma of ho-hum match-3 jewels and bubbles.
Tumblestone would like to have a word about that.
A first glance at Tumblestone might not inspire much hope for breaking trends. A standard board will have a character stationed at the bottom of a well with columns of different-coloured blocks hanging above. The character can claim the bottom-most block of whichever column they are beneath, and claiming three of the same colour will eliminate those blocks from the board.
Yes, you're technically matching three, but hold up! Tumblestone does much more with this formula than one might initially expect.
The single-player Story Mode is a linear journey through a series of stages, most requiring a full clearing of the board. It's quickly realized that this is easier said than done, as triplets will often need to be removed in a certain order to uncover access to another viable clearing. Go in without thinking and the odds of hitting a dead end and needing to reset get rather high.
The puzzles of Story Mode are more cerebral than found in many other games. There are no time limits or pressure of blocks descending into doom, but what's presented is challenging enough. There are well over 300 puzzles here, and many of them refuse to be zipped through. There will be resets and brain burning and occasional grumbling, but finding that right route and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel as the last sets of blocks get stripped away is the most rewarding feeling felt in any puzzle game in recent memory.
The linear paths of Story Mode do tend to restrict one's options, but tokens are occasionally rewarded that allow a player to bypass a puzzle that's proving bothersome. It's likely that another puzzle just ahead will also be a stumper, too, but not to worry. Going back to that previous unsolved stage and beating it will allow that token to be reclaimed and used again. It's a fantastic element that gives a player some leniency while encouraging them to return to old puzzles with a fresh brain.
As players traverse through the multiple worlds of the story, extra blocks and gimmicks are introduced. One early example throws in obstructionist blocks that fade in and out of existence each move, putting some more emphasis on specific block selection. Things remain pretty fresh this way, and a light-hearted plot with quirky-looking yet harmlessly fun characters helps things along. Story Mode has enough meat to easily sink a few dozen hours into it alone, although it's hard to see anyone taking it on full bore. It feels more like something to engage with for a bit and then set aside for a while.
If you want to get less thinky and more speedy, then three arcade-style modes are also available for puzzly single-player jaunts. Marathon places all blocks except the bottom row behind see-through glass. Removing all the blocks from this row will shift the glass upward one row, but snagging a block from behind the glass will cause the whole group to descend one level. It's a push and pull situation that can last quite a while.
Heartbeat adds the pressure of a steadily descending well of blocks, adding more of a twitch-based pressure. Mistakes aren't fatal, but will shift the blocks even closer to a game over. The final arcade mode, Infinipuzzle, also has movement, but at a much slower pace. Its emphasis is on clearing the board as many times as possible instead of fighting off the block horde.
The three modes will likely appeal to different types of players at different times, which makes for nice variety. The controls are incredibly simple and won't get in the way during these faster events, and hitting the L and R buttons will snap the character to the far left or right of the well. A smart addition.
There's plenty to do for one player, but up to four humans and/or bots can also compete locally or online. A limited pool did not find any success over the Internet at the time of this review, but this is the sort of game where having your friends whooping and muttering next to you makes it all the more satisfying. And even when alone, the bots can be made difficult enough to make a few matches now and then worth it.
Tumblestone offers up three multiplayer modes: Puzzle Race, Battle and Tug of War. Puzzle Race is a self-explanatory dash to complete the same puzzle first. Battle Mode is similar to Heartbeat, adding the pressure of crushing blocks, and Tug of War chops the board up into segments that serve as checkpoints.
Multiplayer has the potential to be a party asset with the right crowds. The concept is so easy to pick up and the matches move quickly enough to keep players rotating and engaged. Handicaps can be given to more experienced players to even things out, if needed.
And yet, it's still not done. Tumblestone seasons its offerings with even more with incentives and extras. Playing through Story Mode will unlock characters and modifiers to be used in the other modes. Completing puzzles and achievements will also net XP that increases one's ranking, albeit pretty much for bragging rights and online matchmaking (if anyone is on to match with). Online leaderboards are also there to dominate.
The dozen modifiers throw a bevy of different wrenches into play, such as stubborn obstacle blocks, columns that flip on you, and rows that cycle blocks through like conveyor belts. These can be sprinkled into several of the modes in Arcade and Multiplayer.
If you have the crew over and haven't yet acquired all these goodies through Story Mode (there is no way you can be blamed for this), the game generously provides a Party Mode option to unlock every character and modifier for your use. No XP or achievements are granted while this is on, but who cares? Certainly not your friends, who will likely be fighting over the opportunity to play as a sausage.
Tumblestone has thought of just about everything to create a fun and rewarding puzzle game experience. It spreads out a smorgasbord of options for one player or more, balancing sit-and-think challenges with drag racing action and spur-of-the-moment accessibility. The whole thing comes wrapped in a pretty package and with a nearly overwhelming amount of extra options. The eShop price for Tumblestone might be on the higher side, and it's a pity there's not much of an online scene at the time of writing, but this is a full game that deserves a place among Tetris Attack, Dr. Mario and other friendly puzzlers that have chiseled out a name for themselves.