This format is a shorter, more to the point, off-shot of the normal review/op-eds I normally do. A ranking will be given at the end from a scale that starts at (from the lowest to the highest): Bad – meh – fine – good – great. Anything not appropriate for these “scores” will likely warrant a more in-depth discussion, which is what I normally do, so this range does not cover all games, just the ones that I think are suited to this format.
When Grindstone was announced as a timed-exclusive to the Apple Arcade, I was bummed; I don’t have any Apple products, so Capybara’s latest was in a platform I had no access to. Thankfully, now it has released on what feels like the perfect platform for it; the Nintendo Switch. Having spent 10+ hours with it, I can report that the game is great; it nails everything I want from a ‘casual’ experience and then some.
Before I get into the review, Grindstone may give the appearance of a certain type of game to those unaware of what the game actually is; Grindstone has no microtransactions or gotcha mechanics, the price you pay upfront is the only money you have to spent to enjoy it. I feel like a lot of people may see the cartoonish style and the fact that it came from ‘mobile’ and think that the colored enemies are a substitute for candy in a ‘Candy Crush’ clone, but that is simply not true; the only similarity between the two games is the fact that they both have enemy types distinguished by color.
In fact, Grindstone is not even a ‘match-3’ type of puzzle game, which surprised even me, since its been a year since I thought about this game; the gameplay is actually a lot more interesting. This is a “connect the dots” type of game; you start a chain and link it with other enemies of the same color to make combos and gain resources. The bigger the combo, the more resources you get, the more options you have while playing. For example, making a combo of over 10 enemies will result in gems that can be used to change the color of the enemy mid-chain, which will allow you to make even bigger combos or attack specific enemies you wouldn’t be able to otherwise. There isn’t too much depth beyond this, but for a ‘casual’ experience, this is more than enough to keep each stage interesting; this isn’t Picross where the latter levels are the interesting part for seasoned players, this is core mechanics flexible enough to be replicated for dozens of hours through RNG and randomly generating new levels. Sometimes, this hurts the experience as the objectives don’t really match the placing of enemies, but that is rare and easily fixable by restarting the level.
My actual critique of the game is that the structure feels like padding to a game that really doesn’t need it; there are multiple groups of levels that the player needs to beat, before facing one of the many bosses of the game. Those bosses are actually pretty cool the first time, but not as fun the second time; you need to get through each boss twice and their build up, before getting new “biomes” and bosses, which is unnecessary. I would have liked a more tightly compact campaign with more modes for replayability, rather than this incredibly drawn-out process to get to the good stuff.
That is a shame, because the game mechanically hits the perfect balance of casual engagement I want from this type of games, but also because the best asset of the game takes so long to appreciate; the bosses, the worlds, the enemies, even the characters and their gear, all look fantastic. Capybara manage to nail this weird, cartoonish, over-the-top style they were going for and it is a joy to look at; the way characters animate, the design is phenomenal, everything that you can look at in Grindstone has had a lot of care and work put into it and it shows. The soundtrack is also really good, especially for the second phase of the level (after you hit the objective, you need to make your way to the exit or stay and earn more resources).
Beyond that, Grindstone does have a few neat surprises. Firstly, the resource gathering and upgrading in this game are pretty good; they aren’t necessary for the most part, but they do offer some visual flair and some interesting choices when choosing which three equipment you are going to use for the next level and how that affects your playstyle. Furthermore, I love tactical games that present information and consequences as clearly as possible and Grindstone may lack the tacticity of those games, but it has their transparency; you will know when you are about to be hit, or how your next move will affect you, and so on, but they go a step further and actually have various animations for the enemies and their state, so you will know that certain enemies will become hostile the next turn.
Overall, Grindstone works in the ways I want it to: I can pick it up for 15 minutes and have fun or spent hours on it and not realize it; I can be fresh and still be entertained, or I can be sleepy and tired, but still manage it. All in all, it is a GREAT game that could have had a lot less time demands from the player, but I’ve happily spent that time in my way and had a blast doing so.