May 24, 2008 by Ted Arial
Ah, the puzzle game. More so than all other genres, it has the potential to be shamelessly derivative. If you're lucky, it may even be astoundingly innovative. More often than not, it's the former that's released, to varying degrees of success. Derivative can be fun, but a game truly shines when it innovates. Now, while it may not be a completely new concept (yes, you'll be dropping blocks like it's 1985), but this title's inventive and well implemented use of music and rhythm, along with its fast and fluid gameplay, elevates it right past 'enjoyably fun' into the realms of 'trance-inducingly addictive'. This game is hypnotic beyond any puzzle game before it. It can and will make hours breeze by like minutes. And that is a mark of a truly superb game, a standard of excellence by which the rest of its genre will be judged.
The actual play is fairly original, beyond the 'falling blocks' cliché. Groups of 4 blocks arranged in a square drop from the top of the board. There are only two colors on the playing field at the same time and you must arrange these blocks so that they form small squares, large squares, and odd compound squares (imagine two four pixel squares joined by a shared corner pixel). This is simpler than it sounds and it never really gets more complicated than this. The blocks never drop faster or slower, although the scrolling line (more on that later) will pass through slower or faster, which can introduce some unexpected challenges. Overall, there aren't any big changes in difficulty. Unsurprisingly, when you run out of space and a block goes over the top line on the board, it's game over. In a cool twist, squares of a color aren't eliminated immediately as you make them. A line scrolls across the screen, at varying speeds depending on the board, and clears the blocks as it passes over them. The effect is twofold; it encourages you to bide your time until the line passes and then rush to make huge combos before it crosses over again. It also throws off your rhythm by crossing over either faster or slower. The blind rush to drop blocks before the line returns is, in many cases, what leads to game overs, as it provokes the player into making silly mistakes that are difficult to mend as you progress further. This also ratchets up the intensity level, and as such, it doesn't get boring even as you put many hours into a single session.
Now, that's all well and good and by themselves those features would make a fine puzzle game. The true innovation comes from Tetsuya Mizuguchi and Q Entertainment's injection of hypnotic sights and sounds. As you rack up points, the board you're playing on will morph into another with completely different visual effects and audio motifs. Compounding on this, every single action you take creates a little sound. Move the dropping blocks to the left or right, and you might get a drum beat or a bleep. Drop them fast, and you might get a little riff. As you clear blocks, more musical themes and effects layer on. All of this sucks you in and hypnotizes you. Thanks to Q's masterful sound design, you actually feel like you're creating music as you play. On top of all this, the visual effects meld with the audio to create an entrancing, synesthetic experience that you won't want to put down.
Additionally, there is head-to-head multiplayer available, where you can unlock even more boards (referred to in-game as 'skins'). Sadly, only local ad-hoc play is available, but it's still enjoyable, if less original and enamoring than the rest of the game. Also, a puzzle mode is among the short selection of extra modes, where you have to make shapes with the blocks you're provided with. However, neither of these additional game types will hold your attention over the main mode.
The greatest negative factor I can muster about this aspect of the game is that you're forced to play through the early skins far too often. This is done to the point where they can actually get boring as you try and grind ahead to that later board that was so new and interesting. Don't be surprised if 'Shinin'' is engraved in your musical memory forever.
Although this is not a deciding factor in the grand majority of puzzle games out there, this title uses the PSP's power to full effect, with crisp animations and colorful flashes that sync with the pulsing audio. The profile character icons you can choose from have a fun and unique art style, and the menus look slick in all their shiny, silvery glory. All the skins look distinct, and though the later levels will make your eyes burn as you try and pick out colors, there's nothing negative to say about the visuals.
Sound is definitely this game's defining element. Tetsuya Mizuguchi and the highly talented people surrounding him are famous for their sound arrangements. This game is no exception. Expect spacey bleeps and boops, haunting guitar chugs punctuated by white noise, and unnervingly insistent choruses ordering you to shake your body, shake your body, shake your body down to the ground. Sound cues make you feel like you're the genius behind the music, and make the game much more personal. All the arrangements feel different and none of them are ear-stabbingly bad. A few are funny in their earnestness and several are absolutely bizarre at first, but will eventually grow on you. All of the weirder tracks are charming in their own way and if that's the greatest detriment I can level at this aspect of the game, can you really complain?
Lumines goes above and beyond the call of duty in every way. Adding immersive sound and visuals to a totally competent puzzle system is a recipe for greatness. This game is the yin to Meteos' yang- while individual sessions that last for minutes in that game will leave you breathless and sweating, playthroughs in Lumines can last for several hours. This will lull you into a strange sense of zen. It somehow manages to simultaneously be intense and relaxing, and that's just amazing.
Never before has a puzzle game been so totally immersive. The audiovisual responses to your actions are masterful and truly make the game and it's definitely an innovation I would love to see in more titles in the puzzle genre. With this release, Q Entertainment has evolved past the Tetris/Puyo Puyo clone paradigm and has created a game that will serve as a standard of superb design that all other puzzle titles will struggle to match. If you call yourself a puzzle fan, there's no way around it- you <i>need</i> to play this game.