Alexei Pajitnov's name will forever be linked to Tetris, arguably the best puzzle game of all time. Luckily, the accomplishment of designing what is probably the most addictive game ever overshadows his recent track record, which includes mediocre selections such as Microsoft Puzzle Collection and a string of mediocre games for MicroProse, including Knight Moves and Qwirks, a poor PC adaptation of the excellent Puyo Puyo.
Pajitnov's latest, Pandora's Box, is a welcome return to form. While not quite as mind-and-finger-numbingly addictive as the game he is famous for, it still makes for a fun diversion.
Pandora's Box isn't actually a single game, but rather a collection of ten different puzzle types. For the most part, each type is a variation on the jigsaw puzzle, and some are more fun than others. In each puzzle, you must arrange the pieces to complete a picture or an object. What the pieces are, and what you need to do to arrange them properly, differs from puzzle to puzzle.
The puzzle types themselves range from renovated versions of old favorites, such as Rotoscope, a circular slider puzzle, to innovative variations like Outer Layer, which requires you to place the textures on a 3D object such as a vase or a sculpture. Other puzzles types are a bit more typical. Overlap is a straightforward jigsaw puzzle; the only difference is that the pieces can, as the name suggests, overlap. Slices is simply a vertical jigsaw puzzle that requires you to stack pieces of a 3D object. And Focus Point, the best of the lot, requires you to assemble out-of-focus pieces of an image.
There are also two puzzle types that stray from the jigsaw formula. Image Hole, probably the least interesting puzzle in the game, involves a covered picture. Shapes move around the board, revealing the image as they pass over. Your goal is to line up the shape with its corresponding portion of the picture underneath. It sounds interesting, but the shapes are too vague to make it anything more than frustrating most of the time. The other non-jigsaw puzzle is Find and Fill. In this puzzle, you are presented with a picture with sections missing and a separate jumble of shapes. You must use a simple paint program to find and fill the shapes that are missing from the picture. It's fun, but the picture that's provided for reference is so tiny the puzzle often ends up being nothing more than a guessing game.
What makes Pandora's Box more interesting than just a puzzle anthology is its attempt to give meaning to the proceedings. The story follows the basics of the Greek myth from which the game takes its name. Pandora has unleashed chaos - in the form of seven trickster gods - into the world, and you must recapture them. To do this, you must solve puzzles. What's intriguing is that the jigsaw nature of the puzzles fits the theme somewhat - you must restore order to chaos by piecing together fragments of puzzles into a whole - and your overall sense of purpose, even if it's the most basic "find the stuff" premise, is rare for the genre.
You must capture the seven tricksters: mythological and religious figures such as Eris, Puck, and Coyote. You pursue each of them to several cities, each of which has ten puzzles. Under one of the puzzles is a piece of the box. There are four pieces associated with each of these mischievous spirits, and once you have obtained all four pieces from one, you then go after the trickster himself. Once you've captured him, you move on to the next trickster, the next set of cities, and the next set of puzzles. There's a lot to do and a lot of puzzles to solve. The escalating difficulty and the slow introduction of new puzzle types help to keep things interesting.
Pandora's Box isn't the Half-Life of puzzle games, but it is revolutionary in a sense. It's not only a great way to divert yourself for short periods of time, but the overall sense of accomplishment you'll feel when you complete a series of its puzzles makes it something you'll go back to time and time again. And while the individual pieces may be a bit weak on their own, the overall experience is satisfying and worthwhile.