Review: Sketchcross

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It has taken far too long, but the PlayStation Vita finally has its answer to Picross.

Like Nintendo’s series of puzzle games, Sketchcross from Spiky Fish Games is a Nonogram logic puzzler. So what’s a Nonogram? It’s a type of picture puzzle that’s basically a hybrid of Sudoku, Minesweeper, and crosswords. Each puzzle consists of a grid — in this game they start as small as 5×5 and go all the way up to 30×30 — with numbers on the edges indicating how many squares in each column and row must be filled in. For example, on a 5×5 grid, if the number 5 appears next to a row or column, that means all squares in that row or column should be penciled in. However, if a sequence of numbers is shown, such as 1-1-1, you would alternate between a filled space and an empty space. Similarly, a 2-2 sequence would be completed by coloring the first two squares, leaving a space in the middle, and then coloring the next two squares.

As the puzzles grow larger, the patterns become far more difficult to discern. Through a steady process of elimination, you must determine which squares to fill in and which squares to leave blank until the darkened squares form a complete image. Once a puzzle is solved the hidden image is reconstructed as a blue and green 3D model, a small visual flourish waiting as a reward for your efforts. For the most part the puzzles in Sketchcross have clear starting points and logical solutions. However, in certain instances number sequences occur that require guessing, which is a big Nonogram no-no. Good Nonogram design should allow for systematically working out the number patterns from start to finish without ever requiring any guesswork, because even one mistakenly filled in square will throw off the entire puzzle and make it difficult to go back and correct without restarting from scratch.

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The great thing about Sketchcross, though, is its varying level of difficulty. All 50 included puzzles can be completed at easy, normal, or hard difficulty. On the easy setting, puzzles have longer par completion times (you can take as long as needed to complete the puzzle, but a gold star is rewarded for beating the par time) and offer the benefit of an unlimited hint system which, at the push of a button, immediately validates a column/row or indicates if a column/row is incorrectly filled out. Switching to normal removes the hint system and reduces the par completion times. Hard difficulty carries over the same par times as normal, but instead of an endless timer the clock counts down in reverse, forcing you to solve the puzzle before time expires.

Completion time leaderboards are provided for each individual puzzle–though they don’t always seem to sync properly, as on a few occasions I noticed that some of my best times as seen from the level select menu were not showing up on the leaderboards. In addition to improving par times, Frenzy Mode offers snack gaming replay value in the form of an endless supply of randomly generated 5×5 puzzles. Each Frenzy puzzle has a strict 30 second time limit. If you finish before the clock hits zero a new puzzle loads, and thus the goal becomes trying to solve as many of them as you can in one run. It’s the perfect mode for daily time wasting when only small windows of gaming are available.

Sketchcross has a clean, minimalistic black and white presentation mimicking the look, feel and sound of pencil scribbles on crumpled notebook paper. However, the UI is a mixed bag. The menus are simple enough to navigate but do feel a bit slow and clunky. It’s odd that there is no way to wipe a puzzle clean or pause the game and restart for times when you make a mistake or miss a par time and want to start over. Instead, you have to quit back to the level select and flip through the book menus to get back to the level you were on. It takes a lot of unnecessary steps to do something that a basic restart button would address. I’m also surprised that the game doesn’t allow for saving puzzles in progress to resume later. Par times for some of the harder puzzles go as high as 20 to 30 minutes, and you may need even longer on the first try. That’s a long time to be staring at the Vita screen in a single session on a puzzle game that requires intense focus such as this, so the option to save and quit would have been handy for taking breaks. Sure, you can always pause and put the Vita to sleep, but that only works if you intend to come right back to the game.

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The controls are equally inconsistent. Sketchcross supports both button and touchscreen input, each with its own advantages and disadvantages depending on the grid size of a puzzle. Button controls are more precise, but they are also slow because you have to navigate with a cursor and are only able to color in the grid one square at a time due to the inability to simply hold down a button and drag the cursor to smoothly fill in a line. Touch controls are much quicker because you can tap to paint any square on the grid or drag your finger across the screen to smoothly paint in long lines across multiple squares. However, once the puzzles become larger than 20×20 and take up more screen space, the squares become so small that, unless you have needle-thin fingers or a soft-tipped stylus that is safe to use, the accuracy of the touchscreen recognition decreases to the point where the game fills in a square next to the one you intended or an attempted line draw swerves off into other columns/rows. The view can be zoomed in and out to combat this, but then you just get caught into the hassle of constantly needing to zoom and pan the camera.

Neither control scheme feels fully optimized to work intuitively on its own, but when used in unison they do work well enough to get the job done. In other words, the controls are effective, just not always efficient. The good news is that the larger puzzles that bog down the controls make up only a small fraction of the total puzzle count. The first 35 to 40 puzzles are fine–it’s the last 10 that become too big to work comfortably with the Vita’s hardware. Given the platform’s limitations, 30×30 puzzles probably weren’t such a good idea. I would have preferred more puzzles at the 15×15 and 20×20 size.

Although it is lacking in execution and optimization in certain areas, I hold a favorable opinion of Sketchcross overall. It is a fun and largely functional Nonogram puzzler with multiple levels of challenge to accommodate puzzle solvers of all skill levels and a decent amount of replay offered by leaderboards and Frenzy Mode. 50 puzzles is a little lightweight, but at $7.99 the value is equal to the amount of content. Spiky Fish also plans to patch in new features and expand the game with additional puzzles via free downloadable content beginning sometime this month, so there is reason to be optimistic about the game growing and improving moving forward. Sketchcross is well worth playing as is if you’re a puzzle game junkie, but for everyone else it may be best to wait and see what happens with the updates and DLC before committing to a buy.

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Pros:
+ Great to finally have a competent Nonogram puzzler on Vita
+ Multiple difficulty options accessible to all skill levels
+ Frenzy Mode offers fun bites of snack gaming on the go

Cons:
– Controls and UI lack optimization
– Larger 25×25 and 30×30 puzzles feel too big for the handheld format
– Guessing is needed to solve some puzzles

Game Info:
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Publisher: Spiky Fish Games
Developer: Spiky Fish Games
Release Date: 4/28/2015
Genre: Puzzle
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by developer

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!