PC, family friendly

It’s always such a good sign that I can’t write a review of a game because I won’t stop playing it. I had no idea what to expect from SpelunKing, but I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so enjoyably moreish.

Despite the name presumably also making you think of Spelunky, it has precisely nothing in common with that game. Instead, what we have here is a melding of a traditional match-3 puzzle game with the completely excellent SteamWorld Dig. Which is, well, not something anyone had been predicting.

I’ve played an awful lot of match-3 games. I’m a big fan of the genre made famous by Bejeweled, and never better delivered than the Nintendo DS’s Zoo Keeper. Damn I loved Zoo Keeper. And of course it was then never better implemented into a cross genre bonanza than the mighty Puzzle Quest. SpelunKing isn’t quite up there with Puzzle Quest, but it’s the most refreshing take on the puzzle format since Gems Of War, and innovates in one specific way that adds an enormous amount.

Which is to say, you move about the large sprawling levels by matching. Each stage is a section of a mine, through which you explore by dragging tiles into rows of three or more. But where you align them determines the direction in which the camera moves. Match some on the far left and left it’ll drift. Top right and your view will head diagonally in that direction. Using this, you can explore the mines, look for hidden doorways, minecarts to bust open (by matching enough tiles adjacent to them), and chests to plunder with discovered keys.

All the way, your matching is also resource gathering, as you pick up stone, wood, gold and precious gems. When you’ve found a lost satchel in a level, and indeed all the elements needed to open the exit door, as well as dug through rock walls to reach hidden areas, or found an item necessary for bypassing a specific obstacle, you return to the surface and spend those resources on upgrading the rundown town in which it’s all set.

So wood and stone improves the local store, the quarry, blacksmith, and so on, and each of these of course sell or make you items that enhance your next run. Here it’s very SteamWorld, as digs are limited by how much lamplight you have, with the visible area of matching tiles shrinking as fuel runs low. Fortunately it can be topped up by matching tiles in specific orders, which is often easier said than done, and adds another element to manage as you’re playing.

There is, however, one great big dollop of a problem in here. It’s the puzzle areas. As is fairly traditional in match-3 games, it has sections where you’re tasked with clearing a screen of specifically arranged tiles in a limited number of turns. Except, here, they’re awful. They are woefully, ridiculously difficult, reliant on far too much guesswork due to the peculiar way in which new tiles drop in to replace others in the main game. Out in the main mines, tiles drop in from above as you’d expect, but then also slide in strange diagonal routes to fill gaps. It’s great as you’re playing, leads to much more variety. But in the puzzles, it’s silly hard to try to predict the movement of the included tiles a number of moves ahead. It ends up being frustrating guessing, or just cheesing the puzzle by using up “hints” – gathered by matching shields in the main game, or bought with earned gold.

There’s absolutely none of the monetisation that you’d see in a mobile equivalent, so thank goodness for that. But honestly, it’s far better to ensure you’ve got spare gold to buy hints to just blag the entire puzzle, rather than wasting your time trying to fathom it. Because, very unfortunately, they’re necessary for gathering the items you need to open exit doors. Two paragraphs on this one issue, but it is pretty fundamental. I so dearly wish they could have been sensibly created puzzles that are reasonably easy to solve, or just completely junked altogether, given how relaxed the rest of the game is. Still, fortunately they can be cheesed, so the rest of the game remains accessible despite them.

And the rest of it is lovely! There’s an option for a “relaxed mode”, that removes the lowering lantern light, and says generally lower difficulty, and I really don’t want either of those. They make it just enough of a challenge to merit some thought, but aren’t pesky or fussy. It also adds an interesting element when the order of tiles is particularly tough, say three spades in a row, as your area of vision shrinks and you struggle to find an area where that’s even possible. There’s no great loss to running out, you just start over and have to return to where you failed to retrieve your inventory, which is to say, have fun playing the game some more.

And really, that one element of moving around the mine by where you match is so smart, and adds so much. The deeper you go, the more involved it gets, the more tile types there are to bust through, and upgrades to add to your town. And it has me completely hooked! Which for under £6 as it is until the 11th, is excellent news.

It’s worth adding that yes, this is presented and sold as a “casual game”. It runs at that five-year-old resolution that all casual games do, and is available via Big Fish. You know the sort of thing. I mean, the publisher is the utterly ungooglable “GC Games” (you will only find GameCube games, oddly enough), and the developer, Playcademy, has nothing but a Facebook page. And yet, honestly, this isn’t at all as shovelled as that appearance can suggest. I almost wonder if they realise what they’ve got here!

  • Playcademy, GC Games
  • Steam
  • £5.75/€6.55/$8

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  1. This sounds interesting mechanically, but I absolutely CANNOT get over the complete disparity in visual style between the actual game and the town map and character art. The latter, I like. The former, I don’t. But I could put up with it, if that was just how it looked overall and it didn’t switch between the styles. Really strange choice.

  2. I just picked this up and the presentation is a bit rough all around. But its otherwise the most fun I’ve had with match three since You Must Build a Boat.

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