Matthew Brown – Linux, Mac, Windows
The concept of a hidden world is an appealing one. What lies behind the visible, the tangible? What secrets are kept hidden by the obfuscating layer of reality? There are those of us who have moved through the veil, into these strange lands. We walk among you, our clandestine wanderings a source of both shame and devotion. We are the puzzle enthusiasts.
You are doubtless aware of us, and may well have passed, by way of Sudoku, across our threshold and into the foyer. But there are countless sights beyond what can be found next to the lifestyle section in Eason’s: the black lakes of Nurikabe; the winding mazes of Kakuro and Slitherlink; the curious artefacts of Campixu; the creepy visages of Splitigon. In these places, a grid is never just a grid.
The digital realm has opened up yet more avenues for logical thinking. Nintendo’s Picross 3D and Increpare’s PuzzleScript engine have yielded great delights, but Matthew Brown’s Hexcells series stands alongside these as a brilliant, totemic contribution. A splendid union between nonograms and Minesweeper, it has heralded Brown as something of a prophet in our dedicated (and, uh, apparently somewhat unhinged) enclave.
It’s with great expectation, then, that Brown’s newest creation, SquareCells, is received. Again using nonograms as a foundation, it begins, as all the best logic games do, with a disarmingly straightforward series of exercises, before eventually ramping into a taut and brain-wracking pattern hunt. Presenting you with the ever-welcome invitation of a blank grid, SquareCells places some numbers around the borders. These will let you know how many squares to fill in on each row and column, and, if you’re lucky, they’ll give a clue as to the precise pattern formed in each line. So far, so Griddler. But Brown throws in a dash of Nurikabe and a hint of, again, Minesweeper, with some squares that are themselves numbered, telling you that they are one of a certain number of connected tiles. The interplay between these different types of clues can often be quite subtle, and are well set up in later levels to deliver some of Brown’s most indelible epiphanies. With its gently paced difficulty curve and clean aesthetic, SquareCells is an ideal introduction to the obscure joys of our little plane. Don’t you want to see the literal matrix? –LD
A Good Gardener
Ian Endsley and Carter Lodwick – PC
Over the past few years there have been a number of games that have both channelled and questioned the nature of work: In 2011 Richard Hofmeier’s stress-inducing management sim Cart Life ushered players into the shoes of financially precarious street vendors. 2013’s Papers Please by Lucas Pope remains the single best ‘working at a border control station in order to support your sick family’ game around.
The gaunt colour schemes of those games did an excellent job of instilling an extra layer of morbidity into their already grim-as-can-be tales of hardship and struggle. It comes as somewhat of a surprise to see Ian Endsley and Carter Lodwick’s impressively colourful A Good Gardener join the line-up of dystopian games that offer weird perspectives from which to consider the dull reality of modern work.
A Good Gardener is an introspective experience. Its slow pace is a defining factor that sets it aside from the urgency of other games exploring similar themes. Set in the confines of a beautifully rendered roofless courtyard, you plant seeds that are supplied daily and water them as they grow. This simple concept mutates as the game steadily unfolds.
What begins with a confusing, unrewarding task develops into the proud pursuit of a perfect garden, but just as buds begin to flourish the garden is trimmed for reasons unknown. A mysterious authority figure visits occasionally to talk about your progress and divulge snippets of exposition to ponder over between his visits. In peculiar ways A Good Gardener touches on the gamification of labour, valorisation, and routine. It will inevitably leave you with something to think about long after the watering can is put away. –AW
Like a Boss
Count Strahd von Zarovich
Dungeons & Dragons
In a universe filled with goblins, ogres, cultists, undead and, well, you can’t leave out the dragons, it really takes something to stand out as particularly intimidating. As one of the earliest straight-up evil baddies in Dungeons and Dragons, Strahd can feel like a force of nature more than an enemy. Defeating him takes planning, resolve, and a bit of divine aid in the form of a holy sword. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to keep on your Dungeon Master’s good side, either. –LD
LD – Leo Devlin
AW – Aidan Wall