Review: Pixel Defenders Puzzle

Next update will include a Bowie cameo.

Dance, magic dance / Put that baby spell on me.

Pixel Defenders Puzzle has a bit of a branding problem. It bills itself as a match-three game, but that’s misleading and actually does the game a disservice–don’t expect Bejeweled or Piyo Blocks. The word “defenders” conjures up thoughts of tower-defense, but that’s not what this game’s up to either. As for the “pixel” bit, well, the less said about that cutesy crutch the better. The title preys upon one’s expectations, but who from the title would have expected such a thoughtful and addictive timewaster as this?

PDP combines the match-combination gameplay of Triple Town with the turn-based combat of classic JRPG’s. Enemies appear at the top of the screen with allotments of hit points, damage ratings, and special powers. You have to fight them off through the careful placement and usage of your pieces at the bottom. Foresight is critical here: you have to anticipate what the board will look like several moves into the future.

The game provides you each turn with a new, randomly selected piece to plop on the battlefield. Usually this will be a basic colored block, useless on its own but able to be combined in threes to form little pixelated warriors. Three adjacent green blocks make a ranger, while blue blocks make wizards, black blocks necromancers, and so on. In subsequent turns you can order these troops to attack the enemies at the top of the screen. If you manage to arrange them yet again into threes, just like the blocks that formed them they’ll combine Voltron-style into a new, more powerful unit. Three level ones make a level two, three level twos make a level three, and the hierarchy tops out at level four. Should you deploy lots of low-level grunts or combine these into fewer, more potent champions? Much of PDP’s strategic depth rests in that tension.

Nobody puts Baby in the corner, Phil. -- ed.

You can trap the VIP in a corner as I’ve done here, but she’ll take extra damage if hit.

Perhaps the best reason to consolidate your forces is to keep the board from becoming too cluttered. Units can only attack so many times before they vanish and are replaced by inert obstacles that interrupt further 3-chains. Pretty soon the battlefield will be littered with these annoying, impassable tombstones. But if you arrange everything perfectly, so that the remnant obstacles form rows of three, they’ll disappear too and free you up to lay more blocks.

In the midst of all this a royal “VIP” character wanders about the board. It moves randomly and so can interfere unexpectedly with your carefully laid arrangements. Frustrating and brainless though it is, the VIP is important: if the enemies manage to kill it, it’s game over. Thus the VIP acts both as a direct foil to your plans and as an indirect time limit constraining their ambitions. It will gum up the works and if you take too long it will die, so you need to make efficiency your motto.

I wish I could say the retro “pixel” theme were but a cute façade, easy to ignore and inconsequential for gameplay, but the fact is it limits the information shown on screen, much to the game’s detriment. As much as PDP is about spatial organization, it’s also about arithmetic–if you can’t crunch the numbers, then you won’t know how many turns it’ll take to kill the baddies, or how many before they kill the VIP. But you have to tap the screen to find out just how much damage a character does, or to see its special abilities.

Dang, Phil.

If you don’t earn full stars on every level you’re imperfect. Flawed, really.

When you do this, the battlefield goes all whitewashed and recedes into the background while the subpanel you want interrupts the gameplay. That panel could easily just stay on the screen; there’s no reason it can’t be displayed at all times on the bottom or in the margins. But I suppose with all that on-screen information the game wouldn’t look quite so deliberately simplistic and retro. But retro themes need not entail retro interfaces, and at Retina resolutions there’s no excuse not to make crucial information more easily accessible.

It’s encouraging how much this game has improved over successive patches. Just this week the developers removed all in-app purchases, so now your $0.99 buys you blessed freedom from temptation. They’ve also added a simple “undo” function so that an errant tap can’t ruin your day. If a subsequent update should make it easier to see units’ damage and special abilities, the game will have reached its apex.

Pixel Defenders Puzzle is unlikely to leave you enraptured for hours on end–it’s at its best in spurts, the perfect thing to play while you’re having your oil changed or waiting for class to start. In this PDP fulfills a certain desirable niche. Too many of the games that are good in short bursts are also utterly mindless. If you’d prefer more satisfying mental exercise, you’d be hard-pressed to do better than this.

The game was played on an iPhone 4 for this review

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Pocket Tactics Rating

4 Star Rating

4/5 Stars