Blocks That Matter is an intriguing game. Everything about it screams Indie Game, from the bizarre title to the oddball plot to the clever visuals. When a game stars a pair of legendary game developers, you know you are in for something unique. In that respect, Swing Swing Submarine did not disappoint. But does unique necessarily mean good? Let’s take a look.
Readers of my reviews will quickly learn that I’ve got a thing for really crisp, vector style graphics, and BTM has them. The environments, player, and enemies all have the same clean look. You spend the game controlling a small robot, and though it is just a cube with spindly legs, vestigial arms, and an antenna, the artists were able to work a bit of personality into our hero. When he runs, we get a cartoon style blur of legs, and when he walks he’s got a purposeful little bop to his step. If he takes a hit, he shows some damage, and when his equipment gets upgraded, he is visibly improved.
There is a fair amount of variety to the game’s settings, but for the most part it keeps things simple, visually. Blocks are easily discernible, and you’ll get to poke around in levels with grass, dry grass, and snow themes, but enemies are limited to slimes and slimes that are on fire… Though the size tends to vary from time to time. Worthy of note, however, are the story panels, which have a more detailed, hand-painted look to them. The intro and ending treats you to a handful of these, and any time a character speaks, it is accompanied by a similarly detailed portrait.
Now that form is out of the way, how do the graphics function? Pretty well, actually. Reminders regarding the many controls of the the game are pushed to the corners, and the bottom of the screen lets you know how many of each type of block you have collected, as well as the total number of shapes you’ll be able to assemble using them. There is even a quick and easy visual indicator on the block itself that lets you know if it is subject to gravity or not. Well done, all around.
This game doesn’t have gameplay, it has gameplays… or gamesplay… Whatever the plural might be. The point is, the game is divided into two completely distinct but closely related modes. Most of the game is played in platform mode. This mode lets you run, jump, and drill. The key to the game is the collection of blocks. You’ll see cubes of wood, stone, sand, obsidian, iron, diamond, and other materials scattered through the environment, waiting for you to mine them, then craft them. (This may sound familiar, but I assure you, the not-so-coincidental resemblance between BTM and Minecraft is entirely superficial.) You’ll initially only be able to harvest blocks by jumping at them from beneath, and even then, only blocks made of wood, sand, or stone. Before long, though, you’ll earn yourself a drill, which not only allows you to start harvesting from the side, it gives you the ability to move much faster while it is running. As the game progresses, you’ll earn improvements that let you harvest metal and even diamond blocks.
Once you’ve got a healthy stockpile of blocks, what do you do with them? Well, that’s where the other half of this game comes in, the puzzle mode. Entering this mode gives you a green grid and lets you place blocks you’ve collected anywhere within your view, with one or two caveats. First, you must build off of a stable surface; either a pre-placed block or the wall, ceiling, or floor. Second, you must only ever place blocks in groups of four interconnected cubes. Gamers and mathematicians will quickly recognize these shapes as tetrominoes, the very same blocks you use to form lines in the game Tetris. The Tetris influences don’t end there, though. In time you’ll gain an upgrade that lets you eradicate any horizontal line of 8 or more. There is even a bonus level called “Manual Tetris” which tasks you with wiping out 4 of these lines at the same time. This is one of the only ways to clear away blocks of certain unharvestable types, like obsidian.
The goal of each level is to reach a portal to escape to the next one. Since the amount of blocks available on each level is finite, you’ll spend most of your time trying to work out arrangements of blocks that will allow you to reach various parts of the board while still remaining accessible to be collected again. Since you’ll earn a star if you reach the exit with enough spare blocks, block economy is an essential skill. Each level also has a chest. It is usually tucked in an out-of-the-way place, and typically requires either some very fancy footwork or very careful thought to retrieve. Doing so will earn you a Block That Matters, a small cube representing important indie and not-so-indie titles that prominently feature blocks or blocky graphics.
Though the game I’ve described is interesting enough, BTM has a bit more to it. Slimes begin to show up, which will destroy your little bot in two hits. You can either avoid them or take more permanent measures by dropping a block on them. Every now and then a massive slime will chase you thorough a level, requiring you to do all of the usual puzzle solving and platforming with the added incentive of rapidly approaching doom. TNT and lava mix with predictable results, and wood burns, allowing it to act as a fuse. Later you’ll encounter ice blocks that can be moved but not collected, locks that must have a specific block held against them to open, and fire slimes which pack a much mightier punch but also can light wood and TNT on fire. It can lead to some really engaging puzzle solving.
The gameplay was very good, but not perfect. The controls initially really bugged me. I was playing this on Steam, so by default I’ve got the keyboard as my platform controls, but I was not a fan. Things got much better once I plugged in the trusty Xbox controller, but there were still one or two quirks that gave me trouble. I never seemed to come to terms with the fact that I can’t activate puzzle mode while jumping, leading to me getting frustrated when I tapped the appropriate button and nothing happened. This was particularly prevalent on the boss chase levels. All in all, though, it plays well, and since community levels are being created with the included editor, if you like it, you’ll have plenty more to look forward to.
The music in this game is catchy and well suited to the visuals, and sound effects were useful. I especially liked how the sound of footsteps changes depending on the type of block you’re walking on. Neat.
The story of this is rather unusual. Basically, Alexey and Markus, two renowned game developers, have decided to collaborate on a project. Now, when the creator of Tetris and the creator of Minecraft join forces, surely the result will be a game that will devour the leisure time of the entire world, yes? Well, a shadowy figure we’ll call ‘The Boss’ certainly thinks so. This mastermind kidnaps our intrepid developers until they finish their game. Fortunately, it turns out it isn’t a game that they are working on at all, but a robot. They remotely activate it and send it to rescue them.
The dialog in the game is clever and humorous, and though I wouldn’t call the story deep, it does develop to a degree, and succeeds in giving the game structure beyond simply collecting blocks and spitting them back out, which is nice.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started playing this game, but after getting a hang of the controls, I found a puzzle game inside a platformer, or a platform game wrapped around a puzzler. Whichever way you look at it, it is well done.
9.0 / 10: A creative and fun hybrid of puzzle and platforming, and one that is well worth playing.