Electron Dance
29Sep/10Off

1533 on Tidalis

Atonement is fertilising a sudden crop of Tidalis reviews on the web. After Chris Park admitted the ship of Arcen Games was heading towards the rocks of financial woe, there was a brief, one-night stand outpouring of love for Arcen and Tidalis.

I'm no exception. Fearing Arcen might go under, I brought my Tidalis purchase forward. I'm going to talk more about the game's troubles rather than launch fireworks and celebrate. A lot of other decent people have done that. And indecent people too.

Psychohistory

On 12th December 2009, Dr. David Li (not to be confused with the same David Li who derived the Gaussian copula function at the centre of the subprime crisis) of the University of Beverly Hills published an astounding mathematical deduction. By analysing years of statistical gaming trends combined with the efficient market hypothesis, he deduced the following identity.

After Arcen Games released puzzle game Tidalis this year, Li was discredited and left academia entirely. Rumour now puts Li somewhere in Melanesia, operating in secret, either working to clear his name or bring ruin to the world that spurned him. Such was the casual acceptance of Li's identity, gamers in their legion stared at browser windows in shock, mouth agape. Park is Strategy, Strategy is Park. No one said anything about Park is Bloody Bejeweled, WTF.

Well, Chris has told anyone willing to listen that the last thing he wanted to be was The Strategy Guy. He's always been working on a multitude of ideas, sometimes trying to fill in gaming sweet spots that other games seemed to promise but not deliver on. AI War was originally just a side project to get him over a rut in the development of Alden Ridge, an as-yet unfinished zombie adventure game. For more Park Facts, you should listen to Jordan Rivas' remarkable hour-long interview with the man himself.

My God, It's Full of Jewels

Although Arcen is seen as Chris Park's show, Tidalis is more Lars Bull's brainchild. Lars is a puzzle-evangelistic mental headcase, which is why there's so much ingenuity and emergent complexity in Tidalis.

Look at a screenshot and Tidalis looks like Bejeweled. This is how Tidalis inherits the 'casual' label. Yeah okay, to some extent Tidalis is a casual game – I can fit in a short game any time and not worry about saving progress or anything like that. But the correct label for Tidalis is hardcore casual.

The concept is a little difficult to convey. Clicking a block emits a coloured stream. If the stream hits at least three blocks of the same colour before the stream is exhausted, the blocks vanish. Blocks can be rotated at will, their orientation dictating the direction the stream travels in.

What you don't realise until you play is that Tidalis requires insane spatial-temporal skills. Experienced Bejewelled players are used to sorting jewels ahead of time, looking for matches down the road. If, on the other hand, you're the kind of person who just fiddles around hoping matches just turn up, you'll quickly notice that Tidalis will tax your brain from the get-go. Add in a time limit or blocks raining from the sky and you're talking about a real workout. And there are those levels that demand combos to win...

Like World of Goo, Tidalis continues to innovate and showers you with different ideas - different blocks, different win conditions, different lose conditions - that force you to recalibrate your Tidalis skill set with every new puzzle. What was once a strength can now be your Achilles' heel and vice versa. Ice that prevents you from rotating blocks. Tinder blocks that can only be removed by taking out adjacent red blocks. A bloody level which says take out 10 tinder blocks but you'll lose if you use 20 red blocks in the process. Gravity and magnets that bend streams. Water-flooded puzzles. And the mind bending sun and moon levels. After I played sun and moon puzzles for an hour, my doctor said I was using parts of my brain not meant to be used until the human species evolves into non-corporeal entities in one million years.

There is immense depth here and I really cannot overstate this. And amongst the predefined adventure mode of 118 puzzles, the explorer in you might be interested in trying to dig up the hidden brain teaser puzzles - which includes a little homage to AI War if you can find it.

Hardcore Casual What?

But Tidalis' real problem is its market.

Arcen's audience has consisted of niche hardcore RTS gamers, entranced with the intelligence of AI War. This audience needed resuscitation after learning Chris' next project was "casual". You can find comments on Tidalis like this littering the web: "I don't really like casual games." So Arcen's established fanbase is not automatically converting across to the new release.

On the other side, I've seen more than one comment of this ilk: "I just couldn't get into it." Tidalis, for a casual game, is taxing and anyone expecting a bit of lighthearted Bejeweled fun will be in for a bit of a surprise. I've been working through adventure mode and my progress has got slower... and slower... and sloo-www---

Unique games have a hidden cost: they sometimes find it hard to locate their market. Marketing the Tidalis demo to casual players may not do that well. Yet aim it at the hardcore madskillz crowd and you get "meh, casual crap".

Hopefully the Arcen brand and positive word of mouth will break through this deadlock and help Tidalis find its hardcore casual audience.

Ignore Grumpy Old Men

Now this is the bit where I get all mean and evil and tell you what I didn't like about Tidalis. It's all very well saying this is a damn great game and I've wasted countless hours trying to smash the adventure mode. But there are some things that may give you pause, that make you feel the internet lied to you and is actually sleeping with someone else behind your back. Without protection.

The Tidalis interface is the main thing. This screenshot highlights three problems in one go:

First, the three layers of visuals undermine readability.  The second is there is so much text in this game and I gave up reading most of it - in fact reading often requires the use of anorexic scrollbars. Third, Tidalis has problems explaining itself – this particular screen is one of the more difficult reading challenges. (In fact, I wonder if these particular constraints were a bridge too far in terms of accessible play.)

The tutorial can also come in for a little bashing. Tidalis' tutorial is a sequence of simple puzzles with supporting text but what it needs is something with more focus and continuity - the constant switching between text and puzzle was jarring. It put me off the advanced tutorial until I was 40% through the adventure mode.

The character of Tidalis is an odd one as it feels like a children's game, particularly the story in adventure mode. The story is quirky but didn't engage me (although Pickles is kind of loveable). I'm halfway through and if it didn't grab me by now... well it's not going to.

And finally, the big thorny issue. I have the uncomfortable feeling that sometimes I am at the mercy of lady luck. There are several nasty levels where it feels like you need a good dose of luck to win. In fact, most puzzles with complicated requirements (stream blockers, complex combos) make me feel that luck is a major factor. However, I could be wrong because there are a number of super skills that you need to get through some of the puzzles, like shooting a stream from a falling block or building a combo while a stream is on the move.

(Quick tip. If you don't click with the real crazy Tidalis super skill stuff, you might steer clear of adventure mode once the going gets tough and enjoy the quick or custom game modes. Or try out the two player modes if you know someone who doesn't spit in your face when you talk about games in public.)

Hang On, Didn't You Say You Liked It?

Yes. I can't stop playing the damn thing. It's got that VVVVVV hook: simple to pick up, but damn does it test you. I'm determined to beat every puzzle even if kills me. And it surely will.

I didn't cite these gripes to put you off Tidalis, I cited them to caution you not to expect AAA polish when you plop the demo onto your desktop. As Arcen are known to keep the updates flowing it's possible some of the interface issues will be minimised down the line, eventually invalidating this article I spent many hours slaving over.

Tidalis is a tough game but worth every penny/cent/agorot. I can recommend it to anyone who thinks they are a hardcore gamer. Are you hardcore enough?

Post-game buzz: Fun, challenging, incredibly rich. Will cause spontaneous brain enlargement.

There are other interface issues as well I also got lost when trying to move out of menus and the game. After playing for so long, I still don't know whether ESC pauses or escapes?

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Comments (4) Trackbacks (0)
  1. This was a great read HM. When I wrote my little ditty over at Tap I’d not played nearly enough Tidalis to really get to the guts of it all. I’m working my way through adventure mode at the moment and I’ve got to say it seems strange and a bit out of place to have a story breaking up the challenges. I think AI War would be more suited to having a few story elements dropped in.

    I’ve been enjoying some of the combo levels so far and yeah I agree, it does seem like luck plays a part at times. Finkbug, one of our regulars recommended a game called Blocksum which looks really great, but I’m pretty sure you don’t need anymore recommendations ;-)

    Strange you mention VVVVVV as well because that’s the other game I’ve got on the burner. It could be the best platformer I’ve ever played. My girlfriend wont allow me to play it without her watching though so progress is quite slow!

  2. Chris is happy with AI War as it is, minimal narrative. I haven’t played, so I have no comment to offer. I’m not sure the story really helps Tidalis that much, but it’s inoffensive. I know that Chris & Co. did a lot of thinking about what kind of story to implement, while his wife did the actual writing in the end if I recall correctly. If he can just get Christopher J Park up to speed then the whole family can work on the next project.

    There are some real bastard levels in Tidalis, and I’m ploughing through some now which are real head scratchers (e.g. clear 5 stones, but there’s an indestructable wall blocking the bottom – took me a while to work that one out). But I’m having great fun. Whenever I see a win condition involving combos, though, I experience palpitations…

    VVVVVV is simply awesome. Of the few things I’ve played this year, it’s my top game thus far. I couldn’t put it down, so I feel your pain.

  3. Yeah I’ve read a fair bit on the forums about Arcen not wanting to add any narrative to AI War, which suits me fine, it’s just that a puzzle game seems less suited to one than a space strategy game involving humanity’s last stand against two rogue AIs! What I’ve seen so far of the story in Tidalis seems pretty gentle and I do have a soft spot for the critter’s voices. In fact the soundtrack is great as well.

    My favourite bits so far in VVVVVV (still can’t say that properly, my girlfriend keeps telling me I miss a V) have been The Gravitron and The Tower. And Vedi Vidi Vici. And the world where the screen wraps. And that cute escort mission. The whole thing is thrilling and makes me giddy. It’s so pure and perfect — and I’m a grounded Mario fan! Oh and the soundtrack — oh my, the soundtrack…

    Hmm. That was a lot of ‘and’s.

  4. I am ashamed. I had to skip my first Tidalis level, 71. I think I spent over an hour on it failing.

    There’s nothing wrong with the use of “and”, particularly in reference to VVVVVV. I’ve got quite good at saying it, actually! At my writing group I read out a couple of Electron Dance pieces, and VVVVVV was on them. Practice makes perfect.


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