There is nothing I enjoy more on a hot, summer day than to pour myself a tall glass of cool lemonade and sit on the front porch to do some nonograms. There’s something calming about a good logic puzzle that soothes the weary soul. Nonograms however haven’t been exactly setting the game world on fire, and in Sketchcross from Spiky Fish Games, we get our first introduction of these puzzles on the Vita. I’ve been wrapping my brain around these things for awhile now, and what I’ve learned just might shock you.
What’s a nonogram, you ask? To paraphrase, it’s a logic puzzle in which you’re given clues to fill in different squares on a grid. The solution will reveal a hidden, pixelated picture. Of course, the more complex the puzzle, the less pixelated it will look (and thus the more frustrating it will be).
Sketchcross starts off with a simple tutorial that, honestly, left me even more confused on how to play than before I started. Fortunately it didn’t take me long to pick up on the gist of things. On the outside edge of a 5×5 grid, there are number clues that tell you the order of filled in squares on that line. So for example if it says 3*1, then there is a group of three squares next to each other, then a space of some kind, and one square sitting all by itself. It takes some getting used to, but it’s easy to pick up.
Then as the game progresses into the later levels, that 5×5 grid becomes 10×10. Then 15×15. By the time you reach the upper levels, you’re dealing with mind-numbing 30×30 grids that will result in some pretty elaborate pictures. But the increase in size isn’t the only way the game offers different levels of difficulty. Before each puzzle you get to choose whether to do it Easy, Normal, or Hard. The puzzle stays the same, but the amount of time you’re given changes.
Easy is the most relaxed approach. Here you are given as much time as you want as well as a way to check and see if you’ve figured out a row correctly. Normal takes away that checking tool and also gives you a time limit to shoot for (if you miss it, the game doesn’t end but you’re not rewarded either). And Hard gives you a countdown timer in which to finish.
There is also Frenzy mode which throws a series of small puzzles at you to solve in under 30 seconds. The goal is to see how many you can finish in a row without failing. For me, the answer is “not a lot.”
Full confession: I had never heard of a nonogram before picking up Sketchcross. If I were a betting man, and I am, I’d wager few others have either. But it turns out they are kind of fun. I really enjoyed staring at the number layouts and trying to logically figure out each puzzle. It’s a shame then that I just can’t enjoy Sketchcross as much as I want to.
Sometimes it’s the little things that ruin it.
One of the most baffling parts of the game is in the layout of the controls. They made the odd decision to map the “Pause Menu” button to Triangle, instead of the Start button… which is how it is in almost every single game ever made dating back to the NES. I constantly found myself wanting to check something in the menu, or quit a puzzle, and I’d press Start… only to find nothing happen. I discovered Triangle almost by accident.
The other controls work fairly well though. The D-pad is used to move your cursor around the grid while Cross will fill in a square and Square will mark the spaces you know won’t be filled in. The shoulder buttons are used to zoom in and out of the puzzle and the Left Stick will pan the camera while zoomed in. You also have the option to use the touchscreen to fill in squares or navigate the menus. The touchscreen works well, but after progressing to more challenging levels, I found it easier to use the physical controls.
Controls aside, what really started to irk me was how some of these “logic” puzzles would end up a guessing game. Logic could get me half-way through, but then suddenly I was left with a number of possible solutions that could all technically be correct. A number of times I actually “finished” a puzzle but it wasn’t the solution I was supposed to get. That’s frustrating. It makes it nearly impossible to start a puzzle on Hard and have any hope of finishing it.
In those instances, it seemed like the best solution was to play it on Easy, remember where everything went, and replay it on Hard with the solution already known. The puzzle doesn’t change so the challenge at that point diminishes. Sure it’s cheating somewhat, but it seems like the game actually requires you to cheat. It’s frustrating but almost necessary since the later levels are locked until the earlier ones are completed in time. And with just 50 puzzles to play, (and many of the early ones completed in just seconds) the game’s light content doesn’t help.
Visually, Sketchcross isn’t very impressive, but then this is a puzzle game where looks just don’t matter. It’s designed to look like you’re using a pencil to shade in squares on a crumpled sheet of paper. To that end, it serves its purpose well.
And if I thought there wasn’t much happening with the visuals, the audio is nearly as empty. There’s a sound effect for a pencil scratching the paper and… come to think of it, that might be about it. There is also a constant musical tune playing in the background. It’s the type of menu music that you usually go into the system settings and turn off right away. I found my favorite way to play was to put on my own custom soundtrack in the Music app and just ignore the game’s audio. It’s not that the audio is bad, just incredibly dull (well, the music might actually be bad).
In the end, Sketchcross is a nice idea with a flawed execution. I love the idea of the game. A game featuring nonograms would be a perfect fit on the Vita. Sketchcross starts out very promising. When the puzzles work, the game is a lot of fun, but when it suddenly becomes a guessing game rather than a puzzle, it falls apart.