I love how nonsensical the Nikoli titles are becoming. We’re straying into Kingdom Hearts territory here. ‘Puzzle by’ makes perfect sense, but things quickly go downhill after that: Nikoli-W-Nurikabe-you-what-now? It’s not hugely helpful for potential purchasers.
But if you’ve been buying the Nikoli titles up to this point, you will be as excited as us. Because the ‘Puzzle by Nikoli W’ branding represents some rather positive things. It means polish, as the series has a robust, if slightly clinical, finish. It means grappling with puzzles that you probably haven’t seen anywhere before, as Nikoli constructs mindbenders that feel unusual, but have the intricacy and strategy of games that have been around for eons, like Sudoku or Picross. But the real kicker, at least for us, is that they don’t take any prisoners. Nikoli puzzles kick our ass, and our ass has not been so roundly kicked as it has with Nurikabe.
There’s a challenge in writing the review. Describing a Nurikabe puzzle is going to lead us down one of two paths. We could go for it, describe it in detail, and we’ll bore the pants of everyone reading. But aim to describe it succinctly, and we’ll risk whooshing over your heads. Even Nikoli’s tutorial acknowledges that it’s rather difficult to comprehend the basics.
Let’s aim for swift but clear. Imagine a Minesweeper grid, with a few numbers scattered across it. These numbers represent ‘islands’ of connected white squares. If there’s a 1, it’s one on its own: that 1 is an island of a single square. A 5 will sit in an island of four other white blocks. A seven will be a mass of seven squares, all connected.
Got that? Cool. Now, as you can imagine, no island connects to another island. That helps, as you can start blacking out the squares between islands. Suddenly the grid is filling out. Puzzle by Nikoli W Nurikabe helpfully offers a ‘dot’ tool that allows you to earmark squares for islands.
Now we’re going to twist your melon. Switch your brain over to thinking about the black squares, rather than the white ones. Now, the black squares must be one, giant island. They must connect up in a vast chain of black squares, with no widowed black squares separated from the rest. Got a single black square in a corner? You’ve failed. They have to be the rivers between the islands.
Next, they must never, ever create a square. If, within your black chain, you can spot a 2×2 square or larger, then something has gone wrong. Your black island must be wisp-thin, while also connecting up with every black square. If you’ve reached the end of the level with all of these rules abided by, and the number of white squares corresponding with the numbers that are within them, well, you can press ‘Check’ and hope. A fanfare goes off if you’ve done it successfully, and you can play the next level.
Did we lose you at any point? It’s completely understandable, as Puzzle by Nikoli W Nurikabe is, by far, the most knotty and impenetrable of the Puzzle by Nikoli series. But it’s within these layered elements that veins of gold reside. If you can soldier on, understanding not only how the rules work, but how that leads to deductions on your part (placing your first black or dotted square can be giant leap for puzzling kind), then this is a wonderfully gratifying puzzler. It’s got the cleverness and depth of strategy that makes it feel timeless. You could tell us that it’s been around since the dawn of Chess, and we’d have believed you.
Why is it so good? That’s as hard to describe as the rules. We’d suggest that the joy comes from the way you switch-mode in the puzzle. We found ourselves thinking in ‘whites’, trying to piece together islands, and keeping them separate from each other where possible. Then we’d flip an imaginary switch and start thinking in ‘blacks’ (it really does feel like manually switching on different parts of your brain, like you’re trying to see the duck AND the rabbit in an optical illusion, both at the same time). With the blacks tidied up and connected, you’re then thinking in ‘squares’ ensuring that no Columns-like square has been created.
It’s bloody masterful is what it is. And different from the other Puzzle by Nikoli titles, we spent an absolute age in each one. Particularly in the Hard puzzles, it wasn’t unusual for us to be staring at the grid for thirty minutes. They become epics, Ben Hurs in a square grid. Making a single dot or square of progress can be huge – a complete revelation for the puzzle – but it takes time to find it. And, once you have a grid that looks and feels correct, having gotten over the hump of difficulty, well, that can feel glorious.
So why not a score higher than 4? We grappled with that ourselves. Because virtually everything here is puzzle perfection. What are we punishing it for?
Our heart says higher, but our head says otherwise. There’s a few reasons for that. It is, after all, rather sterile in its presentation. There’s little colour or interest to be had here, and we hankered after POWGI’s quips and jokes inbetween puzzles. The number of puzzles is also quite small, even with the slight price point and the sheer amount of time that you will be staring confused, looking for a solution.
And to enjoy it, you have to clear an almighty hurdle. It’s high-jump-sized. The tutorial does a decent job of explaining what the puzzle is, but doesn’t give you tips on the best practice for how you clear it. We almost didn’t clear that hurdle ourselves, and there were only a few Easy difficulty puzzles for us to take a screwdriver to the stabilisers. And we have to admit to ourselves that this is not for everyone. It’s finicky in a way that no Sudoku or crossword is: it demands immense patience, and requires a player to delay their sense of reward, as puzzles can last for hours.
With a few more tools (there is an unhelpful Check function that doesn’t really offer hints about where you might be going wrong), a Word-style Paperclip to give you pointers, or a better tutorial, we might have been reaching for the paddle with 4.5 on it. But, as it stands, we don’t quite think it deserves it. It’s a stern-faced teacher who refuses to help those who lag behind.
But grasp what it’s doing, and Puzzle by Nikoli W Nurikabe is one of the best pencil-scribbling puzzlers out there. If you complain that the puzzles in the back of the Sunday Times are too easy, and sado-masochistically lust for something that will beat you into submission with its demand for logic, then Puzzle by Nikoli W Nurikabe is timeless.
It’s our favourite from a series that is getting better with each iteration. Bravo, and keep them coming.
You can buy Puzzle by Nikoli W Nurikabe from the Xbox Store
- A puzzle type that already feels like a classic
- So many ways to approach each puzzle
- Extremely taxing, but in a good way
- Lacks tools and tutorials to onboard you
- Slightly skimpy number of puzzles
- Presentation is clinical
- Massive thanks for the free copy of the game go to - Purchased by TXH
- Formats - Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One
- Version reviewed - Xbox One on Xbox Series X
- Release date - 7 December 2022
- Launch price from - £3.99