Monday, August 2, 2010

Critter Crunch

I'm not normally into puzzle games. They do say that there's something about solving puzzles that releases a pleasure chemical in the human brain, but still. While it commanded my respect while I watch it in development, honestly the only reason I picked up Critter Crunch was because it was free (me being a PS+ member and all). It took me getting this chance to play it for essentially nothing that made me see, however, this title is more than worth its normal price of admission.

Critter Crunch is, like many typical puzzle games, an imaginative take on Tetris. The narrative is provided by a quirky explorer who is researching the ecosystem of a certain island inhabited by Biggs, a round furry animal with a hearty appetite. You play as Biggs as he travels across the island feeding on various critters as a part of the natural food chain.

Each level challenges you to fill Biggs' hunger bar to completion by eating jewels. The critters slowly descend down a set a vines, and your job is to prey on them before they reach the bottom and dogpile Biggs. You do this by exploiting the food chain, feeding smaller critters to larger ones until they pop open, dropping tasty jewels for Biggs to eat.

You can also go for score chains by popping open multiple critters at once. For example, popping one critter will cause any others sitting beside it (that are the same color) to also pop, just like in Tetris. Also, feeding a small critter to medium critter that is sitting right below a large critter will cause the larger critter to immediately snatch up the medium critter, resulting in a "food chain" bonus. Popping eight or more critters in one chain summons Smalls, Biggs' son. Once Smalls arrives, you can feed him for a pretty big bonus, but feeding him also causes the critters to descend faster.

It isn't long before quite a few monkey wrenches are thrown into the formula. These come in the form of special critters, and power-ups. Occasionally, you'll come across critters that are glowing. Popping these fellas will reveal power-ups, of which there are a fair bit. Garlic lets you move the entire hoard of critters up one row, giving you a bit of breathing space. Watermelon seeds let you immediately pop critters without having to feed them; great for killing off particularly troublesome critters. The spray can recolors all the critters to matching colors, setting them up for potentially huge chains.

In addition, you'll also encounter a number of special critters to add some twist to the gameplay. Bomb critters can eat any size of critter, and explode when popped, taking any others nearby with it. Executors, when popped, also destroy any other critters on the board that are the same color and type as any critters that were sitting beside it. Morph critters constantly change between different colors and types. Rock critters can't be moved, and refuse to eat critters. They have to be destroyed by popping the critters above them. Toxic critters are infected with a disease that will quickly spread to other critters. When popped, they drop jewels that can drain your hunger and hurt your score.

Besides the rather large adventure mode (featuring what must be dozens of levels), Critter Crunch comes packing quite a bit of replay value, such as Puzzle Challenges, which challenge you to clear to board in a certain number of moves. It also features both local and online multiplayer in the form of co-op and versus. At the time that I played the game, there were absolutely no public games being hosted, but I wasn't too surprised, given the genre. You still have the option to play with friends, though.

One other highlight of Critter Crunch is its great presentation. The graphics consist of crisp, hand-drawn animation that looks absolutely fantastic on an HDTV. Load screens, while reasonably frequent, are extremely brief.

Overall, this is a very lighthearted, accessible game. There's challenge for those who want it, but for the rest of us, Critter Crunch is a fun game that's easy to get into (thanks in no small part to the brief but informative tutorials). An 8.5/10

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