It’s finally happened. The prolific and talented team behind the Puzzle by Nikoli W games have produced a duffer. They’re human after all.
If you’ve not encountered the Puzzle by Nikoli W series before, then you’ve got quite a library to sift through. They are a game studio dedicated to unearthing puzzle games that tend to have a few things in common: they take a grid and scatter them with numbers, lines and black squares. These games rarely feel familiar – although they have a take on sudoku if you’re interested – yet they somehow feel timeless. They are so clever and well designed that we often feel like we’ve been playing them forever.
Until Puzzle by Nikoli W Kakuro, that is. Comfortably the worst of the series, it’s a cumbersome, awkward little puzzle. Does it represent the Nikoli team scratching at the bottom of the barrel? Only time will tell. For now, though, you can give Kakuro a miss.
Things start off in a typical Nikoli fashion. It’s the same soundtrack, the same sharp if slightly boring presentation. Then you’re reading through the pages of text that act as the game’s tutorial.
Puzzle by Nikoli W Kakuro has a little bit of the Sudoku and Crossword about it. You are presented with a grid, and on that grid are numbers and black squares. The black squares are just there to create crossword-like ‘acrosses’ and ‘downs’, and you can largely ignore them as negative space. But the numbers are key to solving each problem.
The numbers run across or down – again, like your conventional crossword. But the numbers mean something very different than a crossword. They represent a total, and you try to meet it by jotting down numbers in the connecting cells that add up to that total.
To make this process a little less arbitrary, there are rules to what numbers you can place. The numbers must all be different in a given ‘across’ or ‘down’ for example. You can’t have two 2s or two 3s in the same run of numbers. The totals are also massive clues. If you have three blank squares running off the number ‘6’, then there are only three numbers that will add up to 6 and go there: a 3, 2 and 1. You can’t find another combination for making 6 from those three squares. The same goes for a total of 24 from three squares, as that has to be 7, 8 and 9 (the numbers top out at 9).
But this information is only partial, as the order in which the numbers are placed are also important. Is that 6 a 3, 2 and 1, or is it a 2, 3 and 1? This is where cross-referencing your total is needed. Columns run into rows, and suddenly you have more information.
Soon, some patterns start developing. See a 4? It’s never a 2 and 2, as that would include a duplicate number. So 4s are always 1 and 3, and they become a good starting point for any puzzle. 7s across three squares are useful too. The only way to make a 7 in this way is with a 1, 2 and 4 (trust us, you can write it out on paper if you’d like). That 4 is useful, as it’s often too large a number for corresponding columns and rows. Eventually, your grid starts to fill out.
But there’s a whacking great problem, and that problem is pretty evident from the screenshots. Can you see the cheat-sheet on the left hand side? That ugly, long list of numbers and cells? You are going to be constantly glancing over to it. Because you need to know the number and cell combinations that represent guaranteed placements. You probably aren’t going to memorise – at least in the short term – that a 22 in six cells means that you have a 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 7 in the connecting cells, so you will be constantly moving from the puzzle to the key and back again, as you try to internalise what the totals mean.
The alternative is to be doing constant small-scale sums. Which is fine, but you’re doing it constantly which gets wearing, and you’re having to memorise the results of your sums as – particularly in the later levels – a solution comes from cross-referencing these sums from one column to another row. It’s a matter of taste, but we found it to be far from the elegance and intuitiveness we expect from other Nikoli titles. This is about as convoluted as their games get.
With better tools, things might have been easier. We appreciate the key on the left-hand side of the screen, as Puzzle by Nikoli W Kakuro would have been a frigging nightmare without it. But is there any reason why the total numbers couldn’t light up when you’ve reached (or failed to reach) their tally? This would have been crazily useful for spotting errors early, or dragging the eye to parts of the puzzle that weren’t quite done yet.
A Sudoku-like feature that allowed us to keep notes in certain cells would also have been useful. When the grids are larger and sprawling, as they are on the higher difficulties, it becomes nigh-on impossible to internalise all of the totals and clues that we had found so far. So, we redid the same basic sums over and over again, simply because they fluttered out of our brain.
There are moments where it comes together, mostly because Puzzle by Nikoli W Kakuro is aware of its own limitations and never creates a puzzle that is too fiendish. Low totals flow into high totals, which means that there can only be one number that fits into the intersection. While we got stuck, it often wasn’t for very long. We could always find the part of the puzzle that started the chain reaction to a solution.
But did it have to feel so jankily awkward? For the first time in our history of reviewing Puzzle by Nikoli W games, we stopped and said ‘nah’. We didn’t chase the 1000G, and we left a few puzzles undone. Because completing a Kakuro is an ungainly exercise in cross-referencing numbers and performing basic maths. Puzzle by Nikoli W Kakuro is inelegant, and far from the quality we expect from the masters at Nikoli. We’re going to leave it for only the rainiest of rainy days.