Review: Paint it Back

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Oh noes! A ghost has scared all of the paintings in the art museum out of existence with his terrifying gaze. What are we to do? Repaint the whole gallery, that’s what.

This silly premise is the set up to Paint it Back, a nonogram puzzler from indie studio Casual Labs. By now I hope you know what a nonogram is. You know, those crossword-meets-Sudoku puzzles where numbers appear next to the rows and columns of a grid and the task is to systematically deduct the correct pattern to correctly fill in the squares until a final image is revealed? For gamers, Nintendo’s Picross is probably the most recognizable example of the genre to serve as a point of reference.

Paint it Back doesn’t do anything particularly new or original with the rules of nonogram puzzles, but it hones the core mechanics to about as close to perfection as they can get. The logic behind the puzzles has been designed with the utmost care, minimizing guesswork to only the largest, most challenging puzzles–and even then logical deductions still outweigh the need to guess.

The game balances difficulty in an ingenious way, scaling the size and end reward of puzzles depending on chosen level of challenge so that players of all skill levels are accommodated. For example a 30×30 puzzle played on Normal is split into nine smaller 10×10 sections that are solved individually and then form the full image once all sections are finished. That same puzzle on Pro difficulty is broken down into four slightly larger 15×15 sections. At the highest difficulty, Master, the whole puzzle appears at 30×30 for the maximum challenge. Each difficulty tier rewards an additional ribbon for completion–one ribbon for Normal, two for Pro, three for Master–and the ribbons serve as a form of currency that unlock new puzzle galleries. Ribbons do need to be earned in order to progress through all puzzle galleries, but the unlock requirements are never so strict that advancement becomes gated.

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Casual Labs also nailed Paint it Back‘s interface; it’s clean, intuitive, and efficient. Gamepad controls are supported and operate smoothly, but mouse control is clearly the recommended input method. Left clicking fills in squares while right clicking places X marks to denote squares that you want to leave blank. Individual squares can be marked as such by precise pointing and clicking, or large groupings can be painted by holding down either click and then dragging to quickly fill in full rows or columns with one smooth motion. If an error is made, squares can be unpainted just as easily (there’s a manual redo/undo function as well). Keeping track of where you’re at on the grid is always clear thanks to a transparent glowing cross that extends from the cursor in both directions along the current row and column to highlight the exact position. As you work through a particular row or column, the numbers on the side become greyed out to show where you stand in a number sequence or if all necessary squares in a line have been painted so you know which unneeded squares can be crossed out. Activating mark-up mode allows for painting in squares in a different color so you can work through a tricky section before actually committing to fill in the puzzle, helping to avoid mistakes that might become impossible to back trace later on. Another helpful tool for practicing a puzzle is the Helping Hand. When the optional Helping Hand is activated before starting a puzzle, a little hand animation will appear whenever a square is incorrectly painted and auto-erase the mistake. The catch is that you don’t get credit for completing the puzzle if the Helping Hand is used, so it’s just something to use as a warm-up for the more difficult puzzles.

Some smaller details to the UI could be improved. Once the puzzles grow to 30×30 and larger, for instance, they can be difficult to see on a single screen when played at Master difficulty due to the scaled down grid squares and number font. Some form of magnification or zoom function would come in handy. Another limitation is the ability to only save one puzzle in progress at a time. When working on the Master puzzles it would be nice to store multiple works-in-progress, for when you get stumped on one and want to get a start on another. On the plus side, the game does allow for saving up to six individual profiles, in case you’re in a household with multiple players who want to save their own progress.

Paint it Back is overflowing with content. Its 150 base puzzles range in size, from as small as 5×5 to as large as 40×30, and are categorized into galleries of different themes, including animals, bugs, sports, portraits, dream scenes, and more. Some of the smaller puzzles are generic images like a sunflower, beach sunrise, or jack-o-lantern, but the majority of the puzzle paintings skew cute and silly with subjects like a surfing elephant, a puppy walking the plank, an ant wearing a top hat, a stallion caught wearing high heels, a zip-lining secret agent crab, Satan himself mowing the lawn, the sun put behind bars, or a certain red-headed late night talk show host waking up beneath the Gateway Arch. While filling them in, the puzzles are black and white, but upon completion the final image appears in full color. During play, there’s also a graphic of a canvas on an easel in the top-left corner that shows the image title as well as your real-time progress on the painting in color.

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Additionally, after earning 100 ribbons a Mystery Masterpiece gallery becomes unlocked, which allows you to endlessly play random small puzzles with no pressure, or tackle random large puzzles while attempting to earn special badges for beating speedrun times, using a limited number of X marks, or not wasting paint on wrong squares. Since originally launching late last year, the game has recently been updated with an MS Paint-like level editor as well as Steam Workshop support for creating and sharing user-generated puzzles. Access to the editor and Workshop content is provided directly from the main menu. Searching for puzzles is as easy as scrolling through a list and choosing which ones to subscribe to. Puzzles can be downloaded and played immediately without having to close and reboot the game, and once finished puzzles can be rated with a thumbs up or down. For a small game, there seems to be a fairly active community pumping in new content. Obviously my favorite user-created puzzles so far have been the pixel art renditions of classic 8-bit characters like Link, Samus Aran, Yoshi, Pac-Man, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Q-bert, but there are also plenty of images of political satire and other random themes.

Paint it Back is such a well made nonogram puzzler, perhaps the best money can buy on Steam. Yes it sticks to the very basic rules of what a nonogram is, but every aspect of the game shows an attention to detail that you just have to appreciate. The puzzle logic is on point, the interface is clear and precise, the difficulty options are well balanced, the presentation is lighthearted and full of humor, and the abundance of content will keep you puzzle-painting away for literally tens of hours, if not forever depending on how loyal the Workshop community stays over the long haul. I’ve played for nearly 40 hours so far and still haven’t earned all ribbons or done more than a dozen user-created puzzles, that’s how much value this game has to offer.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Puzzle images presented with silly charm and humor
+ Intuitive controls and interface
+ Tiered difficulty settings
+ Wealth of content
+ Excellent puzzle logic; little if any guesswork

Cons:
– The larger puzzles squished onto a single screen can be hard to see
– Only one puzzle-in-progress can be saved at a time

Game Info:
Platform: PC/Mac/Linux
Publisher: Casual Labs
Developer: Casual Labs
Release Date: 10/14/2015
Genre: Puzzle
Players: 1

Source: Review code provided by developer

Buy From: Steam

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!