Puzzlers that have the fortune to become full-on series have always had an interesting meta-game in play with their parishioners, in re: trying to stay popular despite starting out with well-defined mechanics that don’t often need refinement. For example,Tetris and Bejeweled haven’t changed a bit since their respective debuts, but not only have they gone on to sire dozens of successors, they’ve had their designs pilfered outright to serve as the basis for other popular puzzle games, such as Puzzle Quest and Meteos.
Lumines is one such series spun from the same Tetristian loom. It’s newest installment, subtitled Electronic Symphony, is tasked not only with giving consumers another worthy launch game to play on their shiny new Vitas, but also asserting its relevance in a series that many viewed as perfect when it first debuted. The results are mixed. Electronic Symphony is definitely a great game, but only in the right of its beloved predecessors.
Lumines has a headier premise than most puzzle games. At first glance, it seems like a simple “match falling blocks of the same color” set up. Then there’s the timing line, and the abstract, hyperactive backgrounds, and the music. And then the trance.
To say that Lumines is more complex than it lets on is a disservice to complexity. This game infects players on a subconscious level. When four or more squares of the same color are matched together, they light up into a single polygon, which can be increased in size by forming more 2×2 blocks until they’re wiped clean by a line moving across the screen. However, this line isn’t just there to put a time limit on how many blocks you can form before they disappear; it’s keeping time with the beats of the music playing in the background.
As the puzzle develops, players are drawn into a mode of playing that subtly coerces them to match the blocks in time with the music, such that the melody, colors of the background, and colorful dissolution of the blocks forms its own unique harmony. Players start to create their own visual cues based upon the music and background animation. Describing it accurately is difficult, but it boils down to synthesizing all of the different elements onscreen into the most satisfying mix.
The game’s main mode, dubbed “Voyage,” is a massive playlist of house music, techno, and all the various sub-genres under the umbrella of “electronica.” Each song in the mix is paired with a different color combination for the blocks, so when one song ends and the next begins, there’s a complete visual upheaval that changes the pace of the puzzle. In general, the transitions from song to song are very natural, and become more assured with repeated playthroughs, but some are quite jarring, especially from faster to slower songs.
In addition to “Voyage,” there’s also a “Duel” mode for two players; “Playlist,” which lets players select songs they’ve unlocked to play in any length and order they choose; “Stopwatch,” which challenges players to clear blocks under certain time limits, and “Master,” a series of playlists that move at increased speeds. There’s really nothing here that innovates on the core mechanics, just the addition or subtraction of certain pressures for the player’s taste. The amount of depth in this package is therefore completely contingent on how much one enjoys Lumines.
One final thing Electronic Symphony adds that really feels fresh is the “World Block.” Each day (starting from the International Dateline), Lumines records the amount of blocks that are cleared by each PSN user. It then aggregates these blocks and subtracts them from a giant, All Spark-esque “World Block” comprised of 2 million units. It’s a cool idea, because it averages the number of people playing with how many blocks they contribute to the effort, and the results are ostensibly displayed in real time. At the moment however, the game doesn’t do a great job of syncing player contributions, which is especially frustrating because those contributions can be redeemed for bonus XP.
Between this game and Rayman Origins, the Vita has two titles that are pushing its color range about as far as one can perceive. Lights, strobing, and intense bloom effects are Lumines’ forte, and it all looks quite good.
Sound, on the other hand, is a matter of personal preference. House music junkies will find a lot to like here, whereas fair weather fans and/or peripheral patrons might not enjoy the soundtrack. In fact, the gameplay is so reliant on its music that it might turn people off altogether, but it’s fine for what it is.
As implied above, players already familiar with Lumines will know exactly what to expect here; very little has changed. However, those new to the series would do well to give it a fair bit of time before it becomes enjoyable. Lumines is at its best when players fall into its rhythm and visuals, which takes about 15 minutes to happen, and that sensation comes only after a fair bit of practice. The game is very liturgical in that sense; players have to assent to its pace and parameters before they can get the most out of it.
This is also what makes Lumines such an odd bird in the puzzle genre. It appears to be very well suited for the portable space, having made its bones on the PSP, but it’s not very enjoyable in short bursts. To get the most out of Electronic Symphony, time needs to be set aside; players need to commit themselves to its wiles. Pausing a “Voyage” to get off the bus, or go change out the laundry, disrupts Lumines’ core appeal. It’s designed to suck the player in, which some may see as the antithesis of a portable title. That’s an argument for another time, but what’s important is that Lumines doesn’t perform well as a quick-fix puzzler.
The value of Lumines: Electronic Symphony is debatable. Players who gravitate toward long form puzzle challenges and high-score hunting will fall in love with its charms, as will fans of electronic music. It’s unlike any other puzzler, and it’s well worth every gamer’s time to experience the symbiotic relationship that forms between player and game during a good run. Aside from that, however, this remains little more than a glossy refreshment of a game that appeared 7 years ago. It’s a great design, to be sure, but in the end it’s still just putting blocks together.