Listen to conversations with Richard Garfield, designer of Magic: The Gathering, and he will often talk about ‘impossible design problems’. Some games, he says, can have a multitude of aims, but those aims often won’t, or can’t, mix. They’re irreconcilable; you will never get them to work together, and part of being a designer is to recognise these situations and pull the eject cord, scarpering quickly. Doodle Devil: 3volution got us thinking about that principle – the Kobayashi Maru of the gaming world – as we’re pretty sure that it’s a victim of it.
Doodle Devil: 3volution is an extremely simple game. It’s a chemistry set, with you taking elements and matching them up with other elements. Your aim is to get a reaction, combining two potent elements together to create a new one. That new one can then be used on other elements and so forth, until you’ve created a vast library of elements, all with the aim of completing the collection and unlocking achievements.
So, you’re mixing ‘fire’ and ‘water’ to make ‘steam’, ‘man’ and ‘woman’ to make ‘sex’, and then attempting to make ‘steamy sex’ by smooshing the steam and sex together – alas, to no avail. Failing is half the fun, and the other half is getting the flourish and swoop of two elements combining successfully. Combinations can be amusing – use a ‘werewolf’ on a ‘man’ and you get two werewolves – while others are a little more far-fetched.
If Doodle Devil: 3volution is so simple, how does it feature an ‘impossible design problem’? Our critical issue with Doodle Devil, and the series as a whole, is that it is almost impossible to play as the designers want you to. The designers desperately want you to use logic and your noggin: what would happen if you mixed ‘blood’ and ‘vampire’? They undoubtedly imagine you hunched over your elements like a mad scientist, mixing and plotting, cackling as your guesses come off in spectacular fashion.
The problem is, playing logically leads to dead-end after dead-end. This isn’t just because some connections are illogical (they are) and some perfectly logical matches don’t lead to anything (they do, like the vampire and blood), but it’s because the number of elements soon becomes unmanageably large, and you lose track of what you have or haven’t matched. You’ll forget that you’ve made a connection already, and a lengthy animation will produce the same element that you’ve had dozens of times before. It becomes some kind of torture as you wonder whether you’ve tried ‘fire’ on absolutely everything. You did, right?
So what happens? We devolve into the same pattern that we do in every Doodle game. Everyone we’ve talked to does the same thing: you start methodically combining every element with every other element, working from row to row, ensuring that you haven’t missed a feasible match. The game becomes a process, and you may as well be Homer Simpson’s bobbing bird toy. There’s little joy to be had in it, but if you want to dodge the dead-ends and actually make progress, it’s essential. That’s the ‘impossible design problem’ of Doodle games, and we’re not convinced that they are wholly functional or enjoyable.
To Doodle Devil: 3volution’s credit, it attempts to mitigate this problem, just in an extremely weird way. It has a shop, and you are given 10,000 coins to spend. We advise you to hop here straight away, as there are some quality-of-life improvers that you should have from the start. One applies borders to the elements, displaying whether they have a feasible match, while another stops you from making the same match that you’ve made before. This last one, in particular, is manna from heaven. You need it in your life.
We say ‘weird’ for a number of reasons: these power-ups don’t actually work as you’d expect, for a start, as they don’t show you feasible pairings now, they show you feasible pairings from the moment the game started. So, if you have an element that has one match in total, but you have made that match already, well, Doodle Devil: 3volution will proudly shout ‘hey, this element has a match!’. It’s bordering on useless. The description of the power-up doesn’t portray it that way of course, so you’ll have to figure that one out yourself.
The power-ups, too, should be an unlock from the start, or at least something you can opt out of if needed, as they simply make the game better. But the real brain-twister is why is there a shop in the first place? This is a finite game, barely a couple of hours’ worth of gameplay, and Doodle Devil: 3volution has a game store that seems ripped from a free-to-play title, and then gives you enough currency to buy everything in it several times over.
The answer is pretty simple, and you’ve probably anticipated it: Doodle Devil: 3volution was a free-to-play title on mobile, and it’s been ported, near-wholesale, to console as a paid game. But instead of ripping out the store and the other trappings of a monetised game (the game often tells you to ‘tap’ the screen, which tempted us to get out of the seat and start prodding our telly), it’s kept them all in and just shoved some cash in your hands. It’s about as inelegant as it sounds, and – surely – it wouldn’t have taken long to make these rewards unlocks, options, or anything else, really.
These ruined vestiges of the mobile port can be found elsewhere. There are two completely inexplicable minigames attached to Doodle Devil: 3volution. One is a Devil Slots fruit machine, where you can ‘bet’ on rows of the machine, and the bet gets multiplied by the matching symbols that may or may not turn up. It’s a bizarre inclusion because you’re given all the gold you could possibly need from the start, and you won’t need more unless you want to undermine the enjoyment of the game by buying solution after solution. Achievements are attached to certain multipliers, so you can mindlessly press A for some Gamerscore, we suppose.
Then there’s a Demon Battle minigame, where you can use the demons you’ve accumulated in the game proper for one-on-one Poke-battles with other demons. Sounds brilliant, doesn’t it? Nope. These battles are automated, aside from the odd ability to choose between healing, stunning or attacking your opponent, all on long cooldowns that stop you from interacting anyway. If you buy a Succubus, the top-tier demon (and you can, because you sit on a giant pile of gold from the start, so why wouldn’t you?), then you can sit back and watch it dominate all opponents without a single finger lifted.
We could complain about some of the slightly dodgy combinations (why does ‘man’ combine with so many elements, but ‘woman’ doesn’t?), and the utterly awful audio (with a demon wittering on about the combinations you are or aren’t making), yet let’s turn to a few positives. Should you have the patience of a saint, and play as Doodle Devil: 3volution really wants you to play, then there is fun to be had here. That’s partly down to the Doodle chocolate-box formula – “you never know what you’re going to get” – but it’s also down to the themes of Doodle Devil. Creating Cthulhu and other demons is great; working out which combinations will result in the Deadly Sins isn’t bad either; and it’s got a mean streak in some of its best combinations, as well as some fun gamer references (we’ll let you guess what the BFG 9000 combines with). And, for all our complaints, we’re still in the queue to play a Doodle game when it comes out, so there must be something in the mindless, methodical combinations that attracts us.
Doodle Devil: 3volution on the Xbox falls foul of the same problems that have plagued Doodle games since the beginning of creation. Progress begins well, with elements mixing logically and a fun flourish when you get a pairing right. But then the pattern sets in, and you’re painstakingly combining every element with every other element, with the emphasis on ‘pain’. If you’re sold on the Doodle franchise and you know what you’re in for, then a warning and a positive: this is a mobile game with barely any effort made to hide the fact, while the cheeky, mischievous tone is one of the series’ best. Ultimately, you likely already know if Doodle Devil: 3volution is a sin that you want to dabble in, so go forth and corrupt.