Indie Quickie: Cubotrox

Disclosure: A Steam code for Cubotrox was provided to VGBlogger.com for coverage consideration.

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What is it and who made it? An ingenious pixel art block puzzler from The Barberians Game Studio, Talking About Media, and Next2Indies.

What platforms is it on and how much does it cost? Grab it, flip it, and rub it down on Steam (PC/Mac) for $5.99 (plus a 17% launch discount until November 18th).

How much did we play? Completed 38 out of more than 100 puzzles in an hour and a half. Of those finished, I’ve earned 22 cubotrox high score badges. I have 7 of 19 achievements, and I’m currently #12 (of only 74 players of course) on the global high score leaderboard.

Any technical concerns, hardware requirements, or other details you should know about? I haven’t encountered any bugs so far. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that the game is not 100% color blind friendly. So if you are color blind, you’re likely to have trouble with some of the puzzles. Even without being color blind, the color shading on certain puzzles is so subtle that it can be difficult to distinguish between which block matches with the faded background coloration.

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Why should you play it?

    Think of Cubotrox as an interactive pixel art editor built around the timeless block puzzle concepts established by Tetris. The idea is simple: blocks fall from all sides of the screen at a steady rate, each consisting of a different color configuration of 2×2 pixels that must be grabbed, rotated, and shot back into the play area to match an unfinished cell of the presented pixel art image. The board itself needs to be rotated too, which allows you to aim the block grabbing/shooting line at all sides of the picture as needed. When a block is correctly positioned, it locks in place and colors in the previously watermarked section. Blocks can only be attached to other filled-in cells; you can’t shoot them out without another block already locked in to serve as a backboard to connect with. It’s possible to put a piece into a position that makes the rest of the puzzle unsolvable, so just because you have a block that can fill in a gap doesn’t mean you should use it right away. Letting unused blocks stack up around the image also is a bad idea, because, like Tetris, if blocks stack up and exceed the boundary of the screen, it’s game over. For those situations, blocks can be repositioned, outright deleted, or a button can be pressed to immediately spawn in the next block. There’s more brain power to this game than is initially let on.

    From this basic foundation, the game steadily builds upon itself through a well balanced learning curve. Early on there is no real urgency, just casual puzzle solving. Before long, the puzzles begin to ramp up the difficulty by imposing move or time limits (or sometimes both together at once), faster or slower block drop speeds, and more cerebral configurations that require stacking blocks around the board to create the necessary backstops for other pieces to latch onto. All the while points are earned for each successfully placed block, with a multiplier bar on the right side of the screen that fills up on successive placements, but slowly drops between blocks, rewarding quick recognition and reaction time with higher point output. Eclipsing each stage’s secret high score is rewarded with a cubotrox medal. During the score results screen at the end of completing a puzzle, you’re also given a ribbon with a number on it to signify your position on the global leaderboards for the current level. An overall leaderboard from the main menu also shows your cumulative score and level progression across all the puzzles.

    While the game plays great on its own, what truly sells the experience is the artwork. Many of the images are of random objects such as a sword, dog, watermelon, hamburger, smiley face, or slice of pizza. The real highlights, though, are the pixel art graphics The Barberians were able to source from other game devs. Having pixel art from games like Enter the Gungeon, Crypt of the Necrodancer, Aragami, They Bleed Pixels, Gods Will Be Watching, Nuclear Throne, and various other indie gems, adds so much charm and fan service appeal. Of course, some of the art calls back to–unofficially at least–gaming classics like Pac-Man and Street Fighter, for an extra kick of retro nostalgia.

Parting Thoughts: The combination of having to rotate both the blocks and the board itself takes some acclimation, but this process is eased along nicely thanks to an early series of tutorial stages and a balanced difficulty curve. However, one potential stumbling block for some players who may not be as quick of reflex or sharp of mind is the rigidly linear level progression. By that I mean one level must be completed before being able to unlock the next. This can be kind of annoying if you happen to get stuck on a particular puzzle and have no choice but to continue plugging away until it’s solved. Perhaps a more accessible option would be to have levels that unlock in clusters rather than one at a time, that way there’s at least some leeway to choose another puzzle if you get stumped, and then come back later to any unfinished puzzles. On certain puzzles, especially those with move limits, I also felt like luck of the draw was playing a factor in me succeeding or failing more so than actual puzzle-solving skill. Sometimes the first blocks that drop are exactly the ones you need to quickly fill in the crucial foundational pieces, while other times you can get bombarded with a sequence of pieces that are duplicates or aren’t ready to be used. But overall, Cubotrox hits exactly the right note of what a puzzle game should be, offering a simple set of mechanics that are seemingly easy at first but grow increasingly and deceptively challenging as the puzzles progress. You also just have to love the way Cubotrox celebrates the pixel art craft, as well as the strong spirit of indie game dev collaboration the game exudes.

What is Indie Quickie? It takes a lot longer to fully review a game than it does to get a good sense of what a game is. Even with a full-time staff of writers it would be impossible to fully review the thousands of games that are released every year. Indie Quickie is our way to offer snap impressions of the countless indie titles small teams and one-man game studios are releasing literally every single day, and to help guide players to worthwhile games they may not have heard about before.

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!