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Nikoli's Pencil Puzzle - 3DS Review

Game Info
Nikoli's Pencil Puzzle (a.k.a. Sudoku: The Puzzle Game Collection) 

3DS | Konami / Hudson Soft | 1 Player |
Play Coin Support | Out Now
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28th November 2011; By KnucklesSonic8

Nikoli's Pencil Puzzle
already gives Konami an advantage over other developers in that it's one of the first of its kind on the system. It's a bit surprising that Ubisoft's Puzzler Mind Gym 3D is the only other brain-teaser-focused title for the system, but what's even more surprising is the fact that I actually enjoyed this Hudson-developed puzzle collection. The on-the-go package does a good job of enticing prospective buyers with the line about their being a total of 600 brain teasers inside, but is the amount of content on offer enough for consumers to plop down $30?

    Serving as a collection of multiple games, Nikoli's Pencil Puzzle features four different games in all: Sudoku, Shikaku, Akari, and Hashi. Half of the entire load of puzzles belongs to Sudoku with 300 puzzles, while the others contain 110, 120, and 70 respectively. Instead of just having a Sudoku-focused retail release, it's nice that Hudson offered players three other modes to choose from -- even if they aren't as vast in terms of content.

    All puzzles can be played using the +Control Pad or the Stylus, where players can move a cursor and use presses of the A Button or simply tap different areas on the board. It makes the most sense to use the latter, but controlling the cursor with the +Control Pad can be useful for navigating around the game space without actually activating anything. You'll probably find it to be much easier, however, to use the Circle Pad instead.

Each game features four difficulty levels: Intro, Easy, Normal and Hard. In all cases, only the first five levels will be available to start with. From there, clearing a few puzzles will unlock five more, continuing until you've unlocked them all. While the first two settings usually have puzzles that fit within the box frame on the Touch Screen, Normal and Hard feature puzzles that use a larger space. This is the case in all modes except Sudoku. This forces you to move the frame around so you can see portions of the entire board, instead of being able to see it all at once on the Touch Screen. Rather than holding down the +Control Pad to move the cursor around in a not-so-intuitive fashion, using the L Button will allow you to drag the stylus along the field to get a different view that way. I didn't even realize this existed until after I completed a few of the larger puzzles the long way, since there was no mention of this in the manual.

    Before getting into any of the modes, players will want to make uses of the Tutorials menu where you can familiarize yourself with the rules and controls. Under the 'How to Play' option, the game will even walk you through a sample puzzle. When it says "Let's solve a puzzle together", though, I expected the demo to be more interactive and ease you into unfamiliar territory in a more accessible fashion. But I digress.

    As this is a 3DS game, the 3D Screen is used in all games to show basic visualizers, supposedly to make puzzles "come to life". The degree to which this is explored varies for each game, but for the most part, they're pretty weak. I'll get into that more towards the end. It's important to note, too, that you can change the visualizers so that the 3D Screen displays the entire puzzle or a countdown timer for the medal requirement. For some reason, the developers included mic support with the first visual setting so that the screen can change from the timer to the view of the puzzle. To me this was totally pointless, though.

The game also adopts a Crown medal system that rewards players for fast completion times. Crowns come in three different colours: Gold, Silver and Green. Even if you fail to meet the last requirement your session will still continue, but when you clear the puzzle you'll have little to show for it. Across all games, you can open up the Options Menu and select Save to preserve whatever progress you've made in a level. Sadly, you can only have one level save at a time (and that's across all modes). 

    One final feature that's been incorporated here is the Hint system. How hints work is instead of telling you exactly where there are things that need to be fixed, you need to move the cursor over to the space you're not sure about and the hint will confirm whether what you've done is correct or not. Each puzzle you complete will provide you with a single hint, but you can also purchase hints by using Play Coins -- five hints per coin -- which is a good idea. 

    Moving onto the individual games, Sudoku shouldn't really need an introduction. I think it's safe to assume that if you're researching this title, you're already aware of what Sudoku is and how it works. So instead, I'll go more into the interface. To place a particular number down on the board, you must first select it from the sidebar on the right before tapping the square where you want it to go. Holding down the L Button while having a number selected will highlight all other instances of that number in green, a common feature seen in most digital versions of Sudoku. 

    To place down small temporary numbers, you must press the X Button to switch modes, or tap the icon in the sidebar. Unfortunately, It's a little impractical trying to erase these small numbers. You have to hit the eraser, switch to temporary numbers, select the right number, and then switch back to normal play. Despite what you may have been used to with other Sudoku versions you've tried, in Pencil Puzzle, mistakes are only known if you figure out an error on your own or if you use a hint to confirm it for you. The only time a number will appear in red is if you insert a duplicate within the same row, column or grid area. It's not necessarily a bad thing, though, since it unwittingly leads players to be more aware of what they're doing.

Next is Shikaku (or 'Boxes') where the goal is to cover up the entire playing field with rectangles of different sizes by dragging them into place. The numbers on the board provide clues as to how many spaces the boxes need to be, but because they're not always presented in a clear manner, by process of elimination you need to deduce where the boxes are actually situated. This one clicked me really quickly to the point where I could complete Hard puzzles without much difficulty. When you realize your mistakes and start correcting them in a fast motion, Shikaku has its own kind of fun.

    The third game in this package is Hashi (or 'Bridges') and as it turns out, it's probably the most complicated of the four. Basically you have a series of dots or islands that need to be connected with other islands. The number represents how many lines can protrude out from it. Some bridges need to be doubled up so that instead of having one line going out in a given direction, you'll have two. As I said, it seems more complicated than the others, but it shouldn't take long to figure it out. Plus, the logic aspect is probably the strongest here. If a #4 island is against the corner of the frame, you know it has to have dual bridges protruding out from it on either side. If a #6 island is against a wall, you know that it will have dual bridges on all the other exposed sides. The best strategy is to start with the #8's and #7's and work your way around, as you'll likely realize for yourself. It's these kinds of techniques that make it pleasurable when things come together. When things make sense to you, you can spot errors and figure out where you went wrong. This puzzle mode doesn't always register your drags of the stylus perfectly, and the hints aren't always accurate (it says an island is correct meanwhile there are one too many lines stemming off from it). But other than that, Hashi is kind of satisfying to play.

    The final game in the collection is Akari (or 'Museum') where players are tasked with illuminating an entire board using well-placed light bulbs. The game resembles Sudoku in that you can only have one bulb along the same row or column, plus you can even place temporary bulbs to help you figure things out better. On the board, there are numerical tiles that indicate just how many bulbs need to be touching it before it can be activated. You'll start off focusing on these and then filling in the remaining empty spaces in such a way that you don't have more bulbs touching a number than you're supposed to. If you start placing bulbs in empty spaces as you go along, you'll find it throws you off when you seem to be stuck. It gets a bit more fun as you play it some more, so overall, this too is a nice activity.

Getting back to the 3D Screen visuals that I touched on earlier, my thoughts on them are somewhat neutral, but they do lean more towards the negative side. The 3D visualizer in Sudoku is quite bland, with a sphinx in a sandy desert and a set of ruins with trees in the foreground. Whenever you complete a row or column, numbers pop up on-screen and do a little "dance", if you will. Boxes has a Tron-like visualizer where the path of the lightcycles will draw a box shape, while Bomberman and even his pal Louie appear in Bridges. And in Museum, you have a trumpet-playing kid walking in the halls of the museum, with lights turning on and off and having a burglar appear from time to time. Nothing here feels polished at all, especially with the abrupt nature of some of them. Just looking at the screens for this game, you already know in advance what to expect from the 3D visuals. I know Hudson can do better than this, and to me this area of the game just seemed like a rush job with minimal effort. 

    More on the matter of presentation, the layout is mostly clean even though it's very basic in the way everything has been presented. As for the music, there are five tracks to choose from in addition to the main themes for each of the four games. None of the songs I listened to were soothing or relaxing. They were just...there.

    Now, in actuality, Konami has indicated that the game features five different puzzles. The information they released for this game indicates that there is an unlockable 3D puzzle to be found somewhere, but there's absolutely no indication whatsoever of how to unlock it. I cleared over 100 puzzles and played the game for eight hours in preparation for my review, and I was no closer to discovering this alleged unlockable than I was when I completed the first puzzle. So if this really does exist and I simply came up short with a required number of crowns or something, then the game still deserves to get pinned for not giving players any evidence that it actually exists.

Even with the boasted number of puzzles, there's something underwhelming about the entire package. Viewed out of context, the puzzles themselves are pretty good. If you're a fan of logic puzzles and these activities are new to you (as three of them were to me), then you'll probably enjoy them. But can Nikoli's Pencil Puzzle really succeed in the retail market? Not for $30, no!  I highly doubt anyone is going to give this a purchase at this price, regardless of how hungry they may be for a new 3DS game (save for maybe a few casual system owners who may not know a lot about gaming). Simply put, this game is not even close to being worth the price that it's listed at right now. It's a sad but true plight.

    Nikoli's Pencil Puzzle was a bit more than I bargained for in the sense that I didn't expect to get addicted to anything presented here, but I ended up enjoying the time I spent with the non-Sudoku games. If you're focused more on content (like the developers clearly were), then you may be willing to overlook the fact that the presentation is lacking. However, the $30 price tag isn't something you can overlook or even forgive. Sadly, this is what ultimately ruins this release, turning a decent puzzle collection into what some might describe as a waste of money.

18/30 - Okay/Average

Gameplay 7/10 - Four different activities in all with Sudoku taking much of the spotlight, control setup could be better in places, interface mostly works
Presentation 5/10 - Very very basic layout, presentation is lacking in more than one area, 3D visualizers show minimal effort
Enjoyment 3/5 - Activities themselves aren't bad at all, the game becomes most fun when the logic becomes instinctive, some puzzles are satisfying to solve
Extra Content 3/5 - 600 puzzles, decent tutorials, multiple difficulties, crowns, buy hints using Play Coins, pointless mic support, $30 is too much to ask

Equivalent to a score of 60% (percentage score is approximate and based solely on the previously stated rating) - Our Rating System

Review by KnucklesSonic8

Nikoli's Pencil Puzzle
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