Tidalis is an ugly, plasticky game with unpleasant music. Its tiled playing fields make it look a particularly uninspired member of the match-three crowd, while its central conceit is actually so complex that it requires innumerable tutorials for you to fully get your head around it. Even then, the chances are pretty good that many of the game’s finer points will have passed you by.
None of this matters, however, because Tidalis
is ultimately clever and nuanced enough to be worth all the effort. Its brazen charmlessness may provide the first perverse thrill, but it’s far from the last one on offer.
Created by Arcen Games, the developer of last year’s tower defence-flavoured space strategy AI War: Fleet Command, there’s a lot more to Tidalis than the screenshots suggest. Blocks fall and colours must be matched, but that’s done not by rearranging the individual pieces themselves, but by altering the directional arrows printed on them. Clicking on a block causes a stream of light to flow from it and through any other identical blocks within a certain radius. Connect more than three of the same colour, and you’ll start to remove them from the grid.
There’s a handful of complications – if your stream triggers a chain of falling blocks, each will in turn trigger a new stream when it lands, encouraging you to think several moves ahead – and there’s a handful of smart energy-savers, too, such as the helpful way that selecting a block highlights any others of a matching hue, possibly prodding you towards longer chains. Such handholding aside, the idea is still sufficiently different – and sufficiently fiddly – to require an unusual amount of acclimatisation.
When it clicks, though, you’ll find yourself in the middle of a thoughtful and intricate puzzle game, in which you feel more like an electrical engineer than the magic builder or celestial removal man most match-three titles cast you as. By the half hour mark, it’s likely that the pleasure to be found in easing little threads of light through the game’s grids will be starting to become apparent, while the noisy, off-putting nature of the early boards will be giving way to a clear signal.
This is where Tidalis starts to vary things, padding a generous story mode by switching out the objectives, increasing the speed of drops, changing the dimensions of the playing field, and throwing in a range of special blocks. As with the likes of Lumines, the central dynamic is sufficiently powerful that a simple tweaking of these variables can make the whole thing seem new again, and beyond that, there’s a range of stand-alone brainteasers and networked multiplayer options awaiting those who truly fall in love.
While the game’s true appeal depends on the vigour of your inner engineer, there’s still a lot of collateral pleasure to be had from triggering an unexpected avalanche of blocks, and kicking off a chain that grows and grows as colours collapse and new streams are triggered. Don’t think: just sit back and watch the lines of light buzz and intersect, and the scores build up in unpredictable seismic shifts. True to Tidalis’ nature, such spectacles are exciting rather than pretty to watch, and you’ll almost certainly have muted the sound by this point, but there are plenty of glossier, more instantly appealing puzzle games that would struggle to have as many moments of genuine joy as this.