Preview: Jason Rohrer’s Primrose
Probably best known for Passage, a game about the inevitability of death, Jason Rohrer has made a name for himself as a primary figure in the growing movement of art-games. Until now his games have essentially been an experiment in artistic expression through game design, exploring themes like regret, death, and creativity with basic game mechanics.
But Primrose takes a break from the debate with some unique puzzle gaming in the same vein as Tetris. Like most good puzzle games, the idea behind Primrose is simple: your goal is to accumulate points by surrounding blocks of one colour with blocks of another colour on a 7×7 grid. When a group of blocks have been surrounded, they disappear, giving you a certain amount of points depending on how many blocks were collected. Then the surrounding blocks are changed to the colour of the blocks that were eliminated.
But like always, it’s not quite as simple as that. Blocks are given to you randomly, two at a time, and must be placed in a particular order. So, you might get an orange block and a green block and be required to set down the orange block first. Further, the second block of a pair must be placed in the same row or column as the first block. This restriction adds depth to the game, forcing the player to come up with a particular strategy for block placement to ensure that no blocks are placed where they can’t be used.
Finally, combos can be achieved to multiply your point total when eliminating blocks. Through strategic placement and planning, the colour changes that occur when you surround a group of blocks can be used to eliminate multiple groups of blocks. For example, when a group of green blocks are surrounded and turn their surrounding blocks green, those newly-green blocks may complete the surrounding of another group of blocks, which will also be eliminated for even more points.
The combo technique is of course the key to getting a high score, and success depends on the player’s development of various combo strategies; anticipating colour changes and careful placement of blocks is central.
Like any good puzzle game, Primrose is easy to get into but difficult to master, and presents the player with some simple mechanics that blossom into a difficult problem as higher scores are strived for and more blocks fill the screen. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that new colours are introduced after a certain amount of moves, increasing the complexity of the dynamics between the blocks considerably.
The game is quite challenging, but of course most puzzle gamers wouldn’t have it any other way; the best puzzle games present us with an essentially unsolvable problem that will keep even the most expert of players coming back for another challenge, and that is exactly what Primrose does.
Primrose also features some very clean and simple graphics with no clutter and plenty of soft, bright colours. The result is an interface that is reminiscent of a computer console from a classic sci-fi movie, with big bright buttons and lights. The sound effects reinforce this look, with different retro-sounding, synthesizer-like tones that accompany the placement of each colour of block.
All of this adds up to a very clean, simple, and presentable game that is easy to get into. I played the PC version of the game, but you can tell it is clearly optimized for the iPhone; the iPhone’s touch controls should be completely intuitive in Primrose, and the style of gameplay is perfect for a quick game while trying to kill some time waiting for the bus. Further, the game presents the player with no fluff, meaning iPhone users will be able to get straight into the game with the tap of a finger.
Overall, Primrose, while not being a groundbreaking title by any means, is a great example of very solid puzzle-gaming that will be right at home on the iPhone or any PC. It’s very tightly-crafted, and shows a great understanding of gameplay mechanics and the way they interact to make a compelling game.
It also shows that Jason is not only an artist, but also has the chops to make some addictive and professional-quality entertainment as well.
Primrose is set to be released February 19th for iPhone, Mac, Windows, and GNU/Linux.
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