I will freely admit that I’m something of a Puzzle By Nikoli W fanboy. Having reviewed every one of the developer’s puzzle games, I’ve come to expect certain things. I expect a game every couple of months; an innovative take on puzzles that I’ve never encountered before; and a couple of evenings lost. They may be clinical and a little joyless, but Nikoli (whoever they are) really do manage to get my mental synapses firing.
Every rule needs its exception. For the first time since reviewing the first game on Xbox, Puzzle By Nikoli W Sudoku, I’ve come across one that – Shock! Horror! – just isn’t very good. It’s nice to know that the Nikoli team are human after all.
Puzzle by Nikoli W Numberlink is possibly the easiest of their games to describe, and therein lies the problem. As with all their other puzzle games, you are given a grid with numbers on. This time, the numbers could have been anything – a picture of a cat, a photo of a disappointed reviewer – because they’re just there to display a connection. The number 1 needs to be connected to the other number 1; the number 9 to the other number 9; etc.
You connect these pairs of numbers by drawing a line. That line could go anywhere. They snake around the grid, but have to pass through the centre of squares. The lines can’t cross over other lines, nor can they pass through other numbers. And once all the pairs have been connected by lines, there should be no blank square on the grid.
It would have taken a couple of paragraphs more to describe the other Puzzle By Nikoli W puzzles. But a Numberlink is really that simple: pairs of numbers all joined by snaking lines.
It sounds elegant, but it’s to a fault. The fault is that something that Puzzle By Nikoli W is known for, that I had taken for granted, has gone with Numberlink: you are not making constant, logical deductions on the way to a solution. Numberlink can’t be solved by making incremental progress. It wants you to guess.
The opening of a puzzle might start a bit like this. You find a pair of numbers that will not get in the way if they’re connected. Perhaps the two numbers are on the edges of the grid, so all you’re doing by connecting them is reducing the general size of the arena. But that’s purely a guess: it’s absolutely possible that these two numbers WILL get in the way. You will only find out later on.
If you’re like us, the next step is to find the problem-numbers. These are the numbers that constantly get in the way of each other, and will probably result in a path winding well out of the way, just so it can avoid the other number. We would tend to address these next. And the final stage would be resolving the final numbers, hoping that there’s enough room for their snaking paths to reach each other.
And do you know what happens, more often than not, with this process? There won’t be room. Something will go wrong. And you’re erasing all your paths and choices, reverting to a previous state and trying again. Failure after failure will happen until something clicks into place, and a particular problem-pairing is resolved, or a thin corridor opens up that allows you to snake to a problematic 7.
Perhaps, on some holistic, meta level, something never clicked with me. Perhaps I just wasn’t good enough to know or understand some patterns that make Puzzle By Nikoli W Numberlink easier. But if there are plays, if there are approaches to completing these puzzles, they weren’t surfaced in the traditionally very good tutorial. Instead, the tutorial tries to prepare you by saying you will get things wrong: just try, try again.
There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with a bit of trial and error, and there is still some deduction to be done. But, at least to my tastes, the result is so much less satisfying. The series of small wins that pepper a Puzzle By Nikoli W game are gone, and replaced by a series of small failures. It doesn’t feel good, and I certainly don’t feel like a Mensa mastermind as I do it.
The usual UX brilliance that comes from a Puzzle By Nikoli W game is gone, too. When you connect a pair, the numbers don’t light up or distinguish themselves from the other numbers. It means you can be scanning the puzzle for the numbers that you haven’t finished yet, and it’s wasted time that Puzzle By Nikoli W Numberlink didn’t need.
Equally, it’s possible to lay a path that crosses paths and numbers, even though the rules state that you can’t. If Puzzle By Nikoli W Numberlink informed you, by flashing those areas red, or even not letting you do it in the first place, then all would be forgiven. But nothing happens, and you wonder whether Numberlink had enough time in the oven to bake. It’s certainly not up to previous standards.
Still, if you find something that does click for you within Puzzle By Nikoli W Numberlink, then you get the benefit of all the usual Nikoli perks. There are plenty of puzzles here, fifty to be exact, and they span Easy, Medium and Hard difficulties. The controls are spot on, working with both analogue and d-pad, while there are options for undo-ing every mistake you have made. It’s missing any kind personality or charisma, but it’s a fine-tuned formula that has worked for all their other games.
We’re not angry, we’re just disappointed. But we’ll let Puzzle By Nikoli W off: they’ve nailed so many puzzle games in the past that we’ll forgive them one stinker. Because that’s what Puzzle By Nikoli W Numberlink ultimately is: an unsatisfying meander into trial-and-error that leaves a bad smell in the nostrils.