Puzzle games are a dime a dozen, and to set itself apart, a puzzler is going to have to be pretty special. More than just exchanging pigs for birds or coins for jewels, a great puzzle is more than a gimmick. It challenges how you think.
A great puzzle game will also challenge how you see games, and that’s what the developers at Cipher Prime are working on. Their newest offering, Splice, isn’t just a great puzzle, but it may also change your definition of what a game can mean. Don’t get me wrong, all of the great puzzling fun is there, but it’s more than a place to sink a few minutes. Splice will create an experience that frustrates you but also surprises you with its beauty and genius.
Things start off really easy in Splice. You only seem to have a few moves, or splices, but there are only a few cells you have to shift, and the strand structure looks pretty simple. No big deal. Your microbes get a lot more complex very quickly, though, and even the simple ones are wrapped in sometimes difficult puzzles.
You’ll find that more than figuring out where to put individual cells, Splice is about pulling apart strands. The game will present the user with the outline of a finished strand and a chain of cells that probably doesn’t resemble the outline at all. Strands have a certain gravity to them, and as you pull them apart and put them together, you’ll see they don’t just remain in place, static, but that they’ll fly around. If you pull a chunk of cells off the left side of an unfinished chain, chances are that it’s going to fly off to the right. Reattach the cells, and you’ll pull everything back to the center.
There are a few rules to Splice, accessible via a help section, but there’s no tutorial. You’re left to figure out the mechanics on your own. If you aren’t able to pick up the hows of Splice pretty quickly, you might end up staring at your computer screen, scratching your head, wondering why some moves work and some just don’t.
I’ll give you the inside scoop, though. Each cell can make three bonds. That’s it. A cell will already have a single bond by default, holding it onto the chain, so that means you can connect it to another two cells, its children cells. Until you get the hang of it, you’ll be trying to stitch an extra child cell onto the bottom of a strand as you move chains around and feeling frustrated when it just won’t stick. Get everything into just the right place, though, and the strand seems to come alive as a microbe, and you’ll move on to the next puzzle.
As the difficulty ramps up and the puzzles become more mind-bending, Splice introduces new cells, specialized cell, sort of like real biology. There’s a cell to add new cells to the end, a cell that performs something like mitosis, and a cell that destroys all of its children cells. After you’ve got the hang of using those different cells, that’s when things really get complicated.
Each cell is introduced more or less independently, and you’ll have some time to get used to how the cells works and how to use it. Once you’ve had some practice, Splice starts combining the different kinds of cells, so you’re having to build them and bust them and move them around, all in the same puzzle. The order in which you move cells and activate the special cells becomes very important, as activating a cell buster too soon will leave you with too few cells but waiting too long too add cells will leave you with too many.
The Ghost in the Machine
Like all Cipher Prime games, Splice looks and sounds beautiful. The design was similar to previously reviewed Fractal, but scaled way back and more minimalist, if that’s even possible. There really isn’t a whole lot to say once you find out it’s by Cipher Prime, actually, because they’re known for making some nice stuff and aren’t likely to start putting out stinkers anytime soon. That said, Splice may be their most lovely game to date. The music is soothing, which is nice when the puzzles can be so frustrating, and it drew me further into the game and made me want to spend more time in the environment. All of the interstitial screens between puzzles were presented in such a way as to not jar the player from the contemplative state achieved by playing several puzzles in a row.
The background colors that create the theme for each level move from dark to warm to cool and back again as the player moves through Splice, and it almost feels like chromatherapy, soothing and meditative. The way the strands snapped back into place could be jarring if I was unprepared, but when I had completed a puzzle, the strands bounced around fluidly, as if floating, and added to the overall sense that I wasn’t just playing a game but was engaged in meditation. The end result was that Splice felt as much a piece of interactive art as it did a game.