‘Tumblestone’ Review

Platforms Xbox One/PC/Playstation 4/Wii U

Developer/Publisher Quantum Astrophysicists Guild

Genre Puzzle  Platform Played Xbox One

Puzzle games requiring you to match three of the same block are nothing new to the realm of gaming, but Tumblestone attempts to infuse this concept with some interesting new twists which results in a mind-boggling and, at times, infuriating experience. To its credit, the frustration felt while playing Tumblestone is solely directed towards oneself as you struggle to devise a solution to the puzzle in front of you. The game makes it essential to think multiple moves in advance, something which many modern puzzle titles fail to do.

In its most basic form, Tumblestone presents players with a large mass of coloured blocks which they must whittle down to nothing by systematically shooting three blocks of the same colour. Shooting a block removes it from the screen, but you cannot shoot a different colour until you have eliminated three in a row. If you fail to remove all of the blocks and find yourself in a position where it is impossible to complete the level, after a few seconds of inactivity a prompt will appear on the screen letting you know which button to press to reset the level. This can be done at any point, but having the game inform you when there are no options left is a greatly appreciated feature, particularly in some of the story mode’s later levels. While this basic style of gameplay can be used to create challenging levels by itself, Tumblestone introduces a wide variety of modifiers which alter the way levels or blocks behave. Unfortunately, when you are first exposed to these modifiers, there is absolutely no tutorial provided so you must learn entirely through trial and error. This approach works well enough when dealing with more simplistic modifiers such as shooting two blocks at a time instead of one, but one modifier in particular baffled me for the first five or six levels of its world before I actually understood what was going on. This modifier places another block underneath the column you shoot first in your set of three, and the colour of the block created matches the colour you happen to be shooting, forcing you to be incredibly strategic in your shot placement. However, since this is not explained at any point, my progress was thanks to sheer dumb luck until it dawned on me that these pillars did not have pre-ordained colours beneath them and I was in fact the reason they were constantly changing from attempt to attempt.

Within each of the twelve worlds, there is a drastic increase in difficulty over the 30 levels each world contains. Totaling 360 levels altogether, players should not expect to complete Tumblestone‘s story mode in less than 20 hours. This number may seem high for a puzzle game, which it certainly is, but averaging out that length of time, even a low estimate of 20 hours for completion affords an average of just 3 minutes and 20 seconds to complete each level. This is ample time for the first five or six levels within any given world, but after reaching the halfway point in each world, this number may easily double or triple before you succeed past a single level. Three times per world, on levels 10, 20, and 30, there will be still-frame cinematics before or after a much longer level containing multiple puzzles to solve. Levels 10 and 20 will present three or four consecutive puzzles which you must complete in order to progress, but if you fail to complete any of those puzzles, you must restart all of them. This is made more challenging by the fact that the puzzles are presented to you in a random order so you are not able to simply memorize movements from start to finish. The final level of each world is what the game refers to as a Puzzle Race, pitting you against at least one AI, with that number increasing up to three opponents, all competing to finish a puzzle first. The first one to clear three separate puzzles wins the match. Unlike the style of puzzle found in levels 10 and 20, each of the puzzles are completely separated from one another, meaning that after someone wins a round, everyone is placed back on even ground at the start of the next puzzle. When resetting the Puzzle Race, it only resets the puzzle you are working on, making it a far less punishing game mode.

Tumblestone seems to acknowledge that it is incredibly tough at times, as throughout the course of the story mode, you receive tokens which allow you to skip a stage if it is giving you an incredibly tough time. Many may find that skip tokens are not provided nearly as frequently as needed, as you only receive one per world after clearing a specific level, but this simply pushes the player to fight and think through puzzles rather than accepting defeat or shrugging off the level as being too tough. Yes, levels can be infuriating when you do not understand how to complete it, and there may be times when you shut off the game in anger, but returning to the game later to approach the level with a fresh set of eyes can often yield great success. If you still cannot beat the level, use a skip token and you will likely have more success on the next level. Returning to that skipped level at a later time and overcoming the obstacle you previously found impossible not only presents an incredible feeling, but gives you back the skip token you used, so that you may reuse it later. This is Tumblestone‘s way of compromising with the player and while those who do not enjoy a challenge will likely despise it, anyone looking to be tested will find it more than fair.

In regards to the actual plot of Tumblestone, it can be summarized as having quirky dialogue, a vague premise, and only one memorable character. During the still-frame cinematics, you learn about tumblestones and how they have suddenly appeared, much to the dismay of several characters. What follows is a lengthy chain of characters meeting one another, forming an increasingly large group to find the Tumblecrown, which will deal with the tumblestone problem. The dialogue is full of puns and one-liners, but by the end, only a character referred to as Sausage King (or Sausage for short) stands out as a bright spot. A lonely sausage who frequently places himself in a bun for consumption in order to atone for any blunder he makes is easily the best gag you encounter during the story as it repeatedly occurs and every other character in the scene is visibly dumbfounded and uncomfortable. Unfortunately, the overall sense of humour in the story mode is best suited for children, but there is absolutely no way a small child would be capable of solving many of the complex problems found in the game’s levels.

There are also a number of game modes available for local and online multiplayer to broaden the title’s appeal. Puzzle Race, which is exactly the same as the version you encounter during the story, Tug of War, and Battle, all with several different options to help customize the games. If you do not wish to compete to see who will finish puzzles first, you can simply crown the winner based on who can make a set number of triplets first in some game modes, and there is always an option to make the game tougher for certain individuals, with the handicap being referred to as weights. Rubber-banding when playing AI is also an option, to help keep the game competitive, and each AI can have their difficulty level changed to make the game more or less intense depending on the player’s whims. These options are fantastic, but in order to feel how competitive and stressful a multiplayer game of Tumblestone can be, human opponents are a must. The AI has a tendency to be overly difficult or pose absolutely no threat, with no legitimate middle ground being found, and the same can be said for the opponents you encounter during the story mode. Fortunately, online multiplayer helps to alleviate this, as even those without enough individuals to fill a local game can find some competition online. There is a fairly significant drawback to the multiplayer mode, which is the modifiers applied throughout the story not being unlocked and usable in multiplayer until the world containing said modifier has been completed in the story mode. It adds incentive to complete the story mode, but it also severely limits the options for players who find story levels to be too difficult to complete and turn to multiplayer as their primary source of enjoyment.

Lastly, there is an arcade section of Tumblestone, offering several other different game modes to players, but these all fall under the category of DLC, requiring an additional purchase in order to unlock them. You may test out the modes in a brief 60 second demo before being returned to the menu screen and told if you wish to play more of it, you must buy the additional package. Considering the game modifiers are locked until story mode worlds are completed, it feels like a very odd design choice to lock alternate game modes behind DLC. This further reduces the gameplay options people have if they find themselves unable to progress any further in the story before completing more than two or three worlds, while simultaneously having it advertised to them that they could simply pay for extra modes if they are not skilled enough to unlock enough modifiers to satisfy themselves. It is possible this was done intentionally to receive some additional funds considering the game will be made free to download for all Xbox Live Gold members starting mere days after the game releases, but regardless of motive, it is an off-putting feature.

Not without its flaws, Tumblestone provides an incredibly unique and challenging experience to those who play it. Due to the art style and sense of humour, many may get the impression it is designed for children, but the complexity of the puzzles and forethought required to complete them provide ample proof that nothing could be farther from the truth. This disconnect between appearance and gameplay may result in some unhappy consumers, so it is imperative that anyone looking at this game appreciates the difficulty which accompanies the story mode. Finding a new way to approach the “match three” style of puzzle game is no easy feat, but the Quantum Astrophysicists Guild has managed to do just that. Unfortunately, the creative modifications to the formula have been dampened slightly by locking multiplayer modifiers behind unlocks and additional modes behind DLC purchases. Overall, the degree of difficulty and variety of modifiers are sure to delight puzzle enthusiasts and provide dozens of hours of enjoyment and challenge. Those who want to have their puzzle solving skills put to the test while watching an anthropomorphic sausage lay down in a bun repeatedly will thoroughly enjoy Tumblestone, while those looking for a more casual experience will not.

The Good

  • Great variety in puzzle modifiers
  • Puzzles will legitimately test your skills
  • 360-level story mode will keep players busy for dozens of hours

The Bad

  • Modifiers do not unlock for multiplayer until after completing entire story mode worlds
  • Additional game modes only available after purchasing DLC pack
  • Relatively uninteresting plot and only one memorable character

The Score: 7.7