Publisher: Ubisoft / Developer: Q Entertainment / Price: $39.99 / Played on: PlayStation Vita / ESRB: Everyone [No Descriptors]
Having skipped the PSP, I was never exposed to Lumines in its most popular incarnation when it was released in the U.S. about seven years ago, and it’s pretty much flown under my radar ever since. As such, playing Lumines Electronic Symphony on the Vita was my first experience with this puzzle game, which combines color matching and stacking elements of Doctor Mario and Tetris with music-infused gameplay. The game offers a very solid experience overall, but the real question is this: if you’ve played Lumines before, is it worth buying again in this new package?
In a lot of ways, Lumines presents a pretty familiar sight when you first start playing: an empty playing field with blocks falling slowly, then quickly, down to the bottom, forcing you to use your best reflexes and spatial reasoning skills to make everything fit. Stack blocks too high and it’s game over. Electronica plays as you manage your blocks, the beat moving the thin Timeline horinzontally across the screen in time with the beat.
Each block is made up of four smaller boxes, each forming two-by-two squares and composed of only one or two colors each. Gamers can clear blocks by matching colors into new squares that must be at least two-by-two in size, but can grow depending on how many more same-colored boxes you can add to the grouping before the Timeline sweeps by and clears them. In addition, when any block’s boxes settle above an overhang, they don’t remain in place (as they do in Tetris). Instead, they fall down until they hit the stacked blocks or game floor below, meaning that gravity is a consideration into how you’ll form your groupings of colors.
Meanwhile, as you make progress, the game’s skins change every so often, resulting in differently colored blocks (though always remaining only two colors), different backgrounds, and—most notably—different music tracks.
In all, the game is very fun and challenging, though never so challenging as to make you want to throw your system across the room. For that, you can try Challenge mode, which gives you a time limit to clear a certain amount of blocks. The game’s basic mode, Journey, never increases in difficulty or speed, letting you simply get swept up in the audiovisual experience. The longer you play, the more XP you get, which unlocks more skins, tracks, and avatars (which offer small gameplay power-ups like Chain blocks and Shuffle blocks, which can eliminate scores of same-colored boxes, rearrange your stack, and so on). These can be accessed when playing in Playlist mode—which is basically the same as Journey, but where you pick the skins and the order of their appearance—or in Duel mode.
The multiplayer is probably the most disappointing aspect of the game, since it’s restricted only to local games. In Duel, the regular-sized playfield is split between you and your opponent. The dividing line between each player’s territory moves right or left depending on who’s clearing more blocks, meaning if you don’t clear quickly enough your play-area will shrink, making it that much harder to keep clearing.
It’s not the most compelling multiplayer puzzle mode I’ve played, as matches tend to end a little too quickly when one player gets the upper hand over the other. But even still, it’s the kind of thing I’d like to keep trying against strangers and friends—without having to bring my portable console that’s connected to an entire Sony Entertainment Network to my friend’s place just so we can link up our systems. Worse still, the ad hoc link-up mode doesn’t seem particularly stable. During our first match, his 3G system kicked him out of the game because it asked if he wanted to connect to the data network—an inexplicable error that didn’t happen again, but didn’t make a very good first impression. I see the absence of online multiplayer as a hugely missed opportunity, as it could’ve really helped the Vita version of this game stand out among other launch titles.
The control scheme is pretty standard fare for a block-rotating puzzle game. The D-pad and the left analog stick are available for navigating your block around the field, while all the other buttons are devoted to rotating blocks clockwise or counter-clockwise. The front and rear touch screens get in on the act too. Tapping your avatar in the lower left corner on the front screen activates the aforementioned special power. And once you do that, tapping the rear screen as you play recharges your power more quickly than clearing blocks alone.
The controls are very responsive overall. The only complaint I have is mainly my own problem to get over. In Tetris, a game I’m far more intimately familiar, you’ve got a tiny window of time when your block hits the bottom to still move things around before it gets locked into place, with your next block dropping from the top. But in Lumines, this window isn’t there, causing me a bit of grief as I got used to the game. In truth, I still haven’t managed to overcome this issue, but if you don’t think this will cause you any distress, it’s not worth worrying about.
The visuals here are a seizure-inducing feast of lights and colors, all with smooth animations and eye-catching backgrounds that change with each song. In fact, they’re so eye-catching, I often found them to be a distraction from the gameplay. It’s sort of like trying to give a speech to a room full of people, all while the Philly Phanatic is waving a bunch of glowsticks while Moonwalking in the back of the room. On its own, it’s certainly cool to look at, but when trying to concentrate on playing the game, the animated backgrounds mostly just detracted. Moreover, the skin-changing aspect of the game made gameplay a little trickier than I’d like, too, since the colors of the blocks would change with each skin. While the skins themselves were cool to look at, each change made me bitch loudly until my eyes could adjust to the new field of play.
Are the animated backgrounds and skin changes features or bugs? That’s largely up to what you want to get out of the game. I was annoyed, but if you want to hold a discotheque in your hands, you’ll be thrilled.
In my reading about this latest incarnation of Lumines, I discovered that the major addition this time around are three-dimensionally rendered blocks. Indeed—those blocks have sides you can see, adding a little extra visual depth to the game, but not much more. Moreover, when the screen was crowded with activity and animation, I saw some very minor blips of slowdown. While not a rampant problem, I was still disappointed to see it at all.
As with the visuals in the game, if you dig electronica and dance music, then you’re exactly who Lumines was made for. Each track—all new for this edition of the game—is different enough from the others to make an impression, though I’d hesitate to say I’d like to listen to any of them unless I was playing the game.
Part of the sound’s appeal, though, is the way that each button push is incorporated into the overall aural landscape. Moving your block around the playfield adds beats to the songs, making it seem as though you’re helping to make the music. Even if you’re not trying to move in-time with the tempo, the game manages to make small rhythmic adjustments so you’re never off-beat. Tapping the rear screen to recharge your avatar’s powers comes with a similar effect.
If you like Lumines, there’s no reason you shouldn’t like this newest version of the game. That is, unless, you don’t like the high price of this PS Vita launch title, especially considering there’s a 10 dollar version of the puzzler, Lumines Supernova, on the PSN. If you’ve never played any version of Lumines before and you’re looking for a solid puzzle game for your new Vita, then this title is certainly worth your time. But if you’d rather save your money and stay home with your block-dance-party-game, then Lumines Electronic Symphony is a bit of a tougher sell.
7 / 10