I didn’t know where to start with a Grindstone review. While it has shortcomings, the primary one feeding into a very subjective gripe of mine regarding consumables in video games, it’s undeniable how expertly crafted its puzzles are. It’s a game which should appeal to everyone on genre tropes alone, and yet unlike its mainstream brethren which seem to focus on quantity over quality, Grindstone’s levels are evidently bespoke, to a standard which leaves me with no reservations in calling its puzzles masterclasses in design. Individually analysed you can understand their appeal, but in succession – identifying their position on Grindstone mountain and the way they feed into each other – is where the true genius lies.
Jorj is unmistakably Nordic; his bare, hulking biceps take the brunt of the perpetual snow, and after being knocked about a bit by multicoloured creeps, he’ll pop back to the inn for a tall mug of mead. Grindstone Mountain, the precipitous landmark looming over our pub-blacksmith-tannery combo building is our destination, a cove of critters, jerks, traps, loot and a lot of 7×7 grids. Under the basic rule set of matching the same coloured enemy to create as long a chain as possible, we traverse over a hundred levels in the name of plunder and glory, having a lot of fun on the way and finally understanding the appeal of match 3 games.
I’ve never broken into the colour-matching genre of video games, a niche dominated by mobile titans like Candy Crush but was once a browser based staple in the form of Bejeweled, and both examples illustrate how wide reaching gaming is outside of the demographic I inhabit. It’s a match (no pun intended) made in heaven for casual gamers, a regular state of success perpetuated by gameplay that is as much based on planning as it is luck. Jewels, gems, sweets or, in this case, creeps tumble from the top of the screen as you swipe away chains of them, never being able to truly predict what’s coming next, yet still capable of making educated decisions based on what’s in front of you right now. They’re puzzle game’s for sure, but not in the same way The Witness or Hexcells is a puzzle game, they’re easier to play, and to deviate away from sounding like I’m belittling the experience of a match 3, I’m glad these “easier” puzzle experiences exist, if only to attract more people to gaming at large.
Enter Grindstone, a tile matching puzzler wrapped in the distinct indie foil of games like Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, a release rooted in the indie boom of the early 2010’s made by Capybara Games, developer of both it and Grindstone. Candy Crush might have fizzles, pops and colours so bold they simulate puke from a unicorn, but Grindstone is notably different, more refined I’d say, and a hell of a lot more charming, so much so it gives off this sense of quality you wouldn’t associate with a type of game almost exclusively made for a casual audience. It’s certainly colourful, but tastefully juxtaposed often with glum and dreary backgrounds in addition to the everpresent harshness of snowfall. It’s an aesthetic which has flavours of a cartoon, Adult Swim or Cartoon Network specifically, one bordering between kiddy fun time and aged cynicism, playing in further to the contrast in its colour scheme. It’s not afraid to dull the contrast for effect, later levels may be set in a hellscape lavaland, but the red and orange tinged flames set a tone of animosity and violence in the face of cute looking enemies and, if desired, a complete absence of gore, replaced instead, perhaps with a wink, with candy.
It’s a visual treat, animations too, an even more important area in this regard. Chaining together an attack can only be so fun, but when Jorj slices through them with such vigour, it’s clear Capybara maximised what they could in this regard. Massive chains of 20 or more creeps start with Jorj swinging at them slowly, building up in pace, changing his stance every slice, roaring like a bear, frightening and awesome. It’s this which makes Grindstone play like something more than a match 3 game, despite strictly being just that under the skin. Animations and particle effects collide in such a brutal, visceral fashion you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking it was an action game at a cursory glance. As you draw lines, creeps and jerks tremble in fear before the attack, and the manic, off kilter style in which Jorj completely annihilates them gives them good reason to act like that. The classic sword swipe sounds, the clean sheen effect and wind breaks as you pile through enemies, met with squelches only matched by wellies in mud all adds to making the experience as satisfying and as un-puzzlelike as possible.
All the while, Grindstone isn’t a gritty and mature game, and were it not for these tinges of indulgent violence, it’s totally a game I could see mothers from across all the lands playing endlessly. No slight to it in this regard either. As a tile matching game, it opened my eyes to a genre I once wrote off as “not for me”, done through genuinely masterfully crafted level designs, some making stop and you think about how to advance, others easing off the difficulty and just lets you have fun with an absurdly gimmicky set piece. The foundation for any game like this remains the same: match two or more of the same coloured enemy to kill them. Common creeps are hostile, attacking Jorj if he stands adjacent to them, while other rarer enemies might attack in a complete 8 square radius around them, others in a mortar style ranged boundary and in the case of boss levels, they might attack through indirect means like gradually expanding thorny vines or ticking time bombs. To complete a level, you only ever have to complete one of three objectives, two of the three acting as bonuses, offering extra loot in the case of chests and stars rewarded in the destruction of crowned jerks. The first of the two supplementary targets has you collect a key from a creep and then break into a chest, often requiring Jorj to have built up a chain of at least 10 to break into. The second required Jorj slay our regal adversary by first chaining together at least 5 creeps, ensuring we finish with a creep of the same colour as the jerk and then knock the crown off his head. Importantly, both of these are (almost, maybe, I’m not totally sure) inessential to progressing with the main campaign, serving as a means of increasing a level’s difficulty for those that want it without making the core puzzle overly hard for those that don’t, the “core puzzle” in this regard often falling back one a limited pool of objectives: kill x amount of creeps, kill x amount of jerks, use x environmental item x amount of times.
It’s a simple design decision, and one which works superbly in making a good pace through the game’s staggering 150 levels. Up until level 40 or so, an argument could be made that the game perhaps eers on the side of easiness, but take into account the tertiary objectives and the difficulty levels out significantly. Especially half way through the game, even completing just the required puzzle is hard enough, incorporating enemies and environmental hazards in wild, deadly ways. It’s impressively paced for such an extended experience, giving the player just enough to chew on before feeling like levels are starting to blend together. One enemy, a ranged chap capable of spearing an entire row of creeps, shows up quite early in and plays a pivotal role in the game’s long standing variety. Trapdoors for example introduced late in the game are initially triggered by the player whacking a lever on the level somewhere, and once acclimated to it, our javelin buddy might start launching sticks at it hoping to send the player in a falling fate. Another enemy, one whose far sighted ranged attacks limit their ability to attack in close quarters may seem at first susceptible to the obvious strategy of staying close, but some levels place them in hard to reach places, often creating their own choke points, forcing the player to solve a puzzle in a way which has us focus on them before even attempting to solve the puzzle itself. And sometimes, as I alluded to before, Capybara Games seem aware of the absurd amount of levels present in the game and just decide to have fun with it, chucking in a novelty puzzle every now and again which take mechanics and enemies and use them in plain funny, broken ways, ones less intent on making the player squirm and instead seem to beat the level themselves, offering some repose from the onslaught of content at play.
I had the most fun, shockingly enough, just going through the puzzles in Grindstone, and I make note of this because we have to address the other, less fundamental aspects to the game, one of which being the progression system. Throughout the game, you’ll earn gems – thematically fitting given our plunderous sensibilities – in addition to the guts and organs of the foes we slay, all of which can be used to create things: swords, shields, potions. The usual affair in the life of an adventurer. It explores a customisable side to Grindstone, one of potential depth and experimentation, and one which I quickly gave up on. Three words: single use consumables. I hate ‘em, and unfortunately the extent of Grindstone’s equipment system is absolutely full of them. In battle (or puzzle solving to the less ostentatious) we have access to some tools, a sword, shield and bow & arrow. The standard gear works pretty self evidently; the sword instakills creeps adjacent to you, while the shield blocks hostile creep attacks and the bow & arrow offers a single ranged kill to creeps, or perhaps a means of lowering a chest or jerk’s health by one. Now, some blueprints contain schematics for weapons of similar natures. I used a sword which attacked in a straight line, demolishing 4 creeps in a charging swipe, but my bow & arrow in addition to my shield remained the stock gear, because most unlockable equipment in the game is single use, meaning you have to repair or refill it after using it, something I found annoying, tedious and counterproductive in a game which seemed to encourage experimentation. It doesn’t take much to refuel your stuff, but the thought of even having to seemed strange to me, and it personally inhibited how much I wanted to experiment with weapons which, on paper, sounded interesting. Some cursory Google searches show people have looked to optimise resource gain through farming, which to me goes against the simple joy of Grindstone’s gameplay loop.
That’s the game’s primary progression system, and given I couldn’t get behind its execution, it made it only more important the core game held up, and thankfully it does. In its current form, Grindstone has 230 levels. I stopped at the original cap of 150, and while the game ironically runs out of steam in the final twenty or so factory-themed levels, it was a thoroughly entertaining ride. Moreover it was one that taught me how easy it can be to dismiss an entire genre on baseless assumptions, and how woefully wrong I was to do so. Grindstone, within and outside of its niche, creates levels with such ingenuity and variety, in such great numbers too, it’s impossible not to recommend. On a subjective level I would have liked to see an added system for progression, as while base game does a suitable job encouraging you to press on, the missed opportunity found in the equipment system had me yearning for something in a similar vein. Daily and weekly challenges were added in later updates, issuing forth a plentiful stream of consistent cosmetic unlocks for studious players. A studious player I am not – too many games to play, far too little time – yet appreciating Grindstone even in its pared back form comes naturally in merit to the games masterful puzzle design.