Not a mine on the toilet, actually.
Ah the January sales. Don’t we just love them? Those titles that perhaps you looked into from the previous year but were on the fence about purchasing suddenly become much more enticing as the prices they suddenly retail for plummet by often generous proportions. Such is the case with Lumines: Electronic Symphony (pronounced Loo-min-us, not Loo-mines as I’ve thought for years, thanks to borderline sexual voice over lady!), a game that I wanted to try and downloaded the demo for, but looked at the £34.99 price tag and thought it was just too much at the time when I could pick up Everybody’s Golf for the same price but would presumably provide a much lengthier experience. In these financially tight times this is often the case with gamers, and so we have to thank retailers for accepting we feel the pinch a little more than we’d like after the Christmas holiday.
And so to my point, I picked up Lumines for a penny under a tenner, and felt sure that at this price I’d get my money’s worth out of it. For those of you who don’t know, Lumines debuted in 2004 as a Launch title for the original PSP to rave reviews. It was created by Tetsuya Mizuguchi, founder of Q Entertainment, who previously had worked for Sega on Space Channel 5 and Rez, and his vision was to create a zen-like experience where the music of Lumines was integrated seamlessly with gameplay, and gameplay would directly effect the music which is similar in principle to what he achieved with Rez. And boy, did they deliver.
Lumines’ concept is actually quite simple, and has been compared to Tetris many times, but the games only really share the similarity of falling blocks. You control sets of four blocks in a square formation that fall from the top of the screen, and you are tasked with creatin 4×4 or larger squares in the play area. You only have two colours to deal with, which may make it sound overly simple, but in practice it’s far from it. Each time you create a square, it lights up on screen ready to disappear, but it only does so as a timeline that constantly scrolls left to right with the song being played passes through it. Each time a set of blocks disappear, or you move your blocks from left to right or speed the rate of their fall up, a sound effect that fits perfectly into the tone of the song is produced. The larger the 4×4 squares that are created, the more the sound effect changes and pops out at you. Add to this the fact that squares can be interlaced with each other, and power ups can be used and you’ll quickly notice that the gameplay constantly adds extra layers to the music and you effectively end up creating your own version of each song purely by playing it. The whole concept and execution really is exceptionally creative and satisfying, as literally every move you make adds to the experience.
The Vita version of Lumines utilises powerups well known to the series, and also adds a new one into the mix. Because you are dealing with 4×4 cubes, the nature of their layout means that you can’t always create squares, but as gameplay continues you end up building lines and snakes of each colour through the grid. At random points in the game, Lumines will throw a coloured square with a + through it at you (chain block), and if you make a 4×4 cube using this special block, all squares that are the same colour and run horizontally and vertically from the block also disappear. This can really help in tight situations and can create monumental combos, often clearing off up to three quarters of the entire grid. If you play the game tactically you can also use the touch screen to add in a special block (more on this later) and so it negates some of the random and potentially frustrating situations of desperately trying to stack blocks with a full screen while praying for a special to appear.
Where Lumines differs from previous versions, is the introduction of the new “shuffle block”. When this block randomly appears it changes the layout of all blocks it touches. Whilst this can actually balls things up for you in the early stages with an empty screen, it’s often a life saver when your screen is nearly full up, and again can give you absolutely massive combos. At it’s heart this is a high scoring game, so the introduction of the shuffle block is both welcome and very cleverly implemented. Granted, it’s not a huge change to the formula, but when the formula was this perfect to begin with, it would be silly to mess with it.
You will find several modes in Lumines, and perhaps the biggest let down (for me at least) is that the puzzle mode present in previous versions is no longer present. This mode would task you with created specific shapes and patterns with the blocks, which was harder than it sounds because any 4×4 square you created would disappear and could completely mess up the shape you were near to constructing. Luckily, the rest of the game modes and the XP and levelling system they have introduced have made up for this loss, though it is still missed (and hopefully will make a come back next time, it would be much more successful than the comeback of Boyzone I can assure you).
Voyage is where you will initially spend the majority of your time, and in this mode you will play through every song (skin) the game has to offer you in a specific order. Cleverly, the difficulty goes up and down in each skin, and increases as you progress, so you sometimes end up manically trying to quickly clear a skin where the blocks fall quickly and the timeline moves slowly, in the hope that the next skin will have a faster timeline and slower block fall rate. Voyage manages to change pace very frequently with each skin lasting a few minutes, so you are able to get much further into the game if you are not as skilled than in previous versions (though don’t think this game is easy, as it will take several serious play sessions to clear Voyage mode).
Previously, skins would be unlocked each time you cleared them in the main game mode, but not so anymore. Each time you play Lumines, for every block you clear you receive experience points. Each time you have enough XP to gain a level, you unlock new skins and avatars. Playlist mode lets you create playlists (bet you didn’t see that coming) from your favourite skins in the game, and new avatars mean new abilities to assist you in both the main modes and Duel, the ad-hoc two player component. Each avatar you unlock has a different ability for single player, and Duel mode. While a lot of the abilities you use are the same from avatar to avatar, the fact that they have two abilities each means that each avatar set up is often unique. Abilities range from the cross shaped chain block mentioned previously, to “hang time” which increases the wait time of blocks, or “giant steps” which changes the next three blocks to uniform single colours. Duel abilities are often similar, but a few different ones appear, such as “invisible man” which changes one of your opponents blocks to an invisible block, potentially messing up their progress. Your avatar stays at the bottom left of the screen, and is activated by touching it. Once used it has to recharge, and although this happens over time, you can tap the rear touch pad to speed things up. The amount of charge is represented by a percentage, and in later stages you’ll find yourself tapping the rear touch pad like a maniac, trying to speed things up. This is inventive and works well, utilising the Vita’s features without feeling forced.
The final two modes Lumines offers are “stopwatch” and “master” mode. Stopwatch is a quick-fire round where you can set the play time from 30 seconds to 3 minutes, and you have to get the highest score possible in the time you specify. Although I didn’t really get into this mode, I can see it being good for bus or train journeys when time is limited (as Voyage mode ends up being intense sessions that can last a couple of hours). Master mode has five stages and is much, much harder than Voyage, and so gives a great level of replayability that even hardcore series fans will have trouble with. Q Entertainment have done their best to add social and connectivity aspects to the game and have done well, though I feel Duel mode could and should have had online play. Despite this you still have Near functionality where you can trade skins and avatars as gifts, and a little extra called “world block” where the amount of squares you have cleared each time you log in chips away at a giant block containing millions of squares, with every player helping to destroy it. Unfortunately I haven’t found a time yet where enough players have participated to destroy the world block completely (it resets every 24 hours), though I did get a sense of achievement from uploading my scores, seeing how many people have contributed and seeing that I contributed more than the average number of squares erased by other players.
What will make or break this game for you (aside from whether you are a puzzle fan or not) is the soundtrack. It’s actually surprisingly varied, though it does lean quite heavily towards dance and electro (which I was fine with). Highlights include The Chemical Brothers, LCD Soundsystem, Underworld, Faithless and Mylo, but the list goes on and on, comprising of 33 separate acts. The songs blend together well and never feel out of place. Graphically, the game is also beautiful to look at, with each skin having it’s own block style and colours, and funky, computer generated backgrounds which you can see in the screenshots. I love the visual style and the only drawback is the bright, pastel like colours of the background occasionally obscure the view and blend in with the squares on screen, though this is exceptionally rare and only happens for very brief moments. The good thing about Lumines is you can play in mammoth sessions if you choose to, or you can dip in for a quick session when you see fit. The replayability is exceptional and it’s really a big credit for Q Entertainment for creating such an addictive title. The game feels polished and well put together, and it’s certainly a title to come back to for years to come, as the concept doesn’t grow old much like Tetris never did and the soundtrack has cherry picked classics that will hopefully remain timeless. Would I have felt skimped if I’d lumped £34.99 on Lumines when it was first released? Probably not, but the fact that you can pick it up so much cheaper now is really an added bonus and it certainly shouldn’t be missed at the price you can now find it for. It’s not perfect, and for some bizarre reason it only has a handful of trophies (13 trophies and no platinum, making me wonder if it was originally intended as a download only) but it’s a real blast to play and will make you crank your headphones up higher than any other game on the Vita out there (except for DJ Max of course!).