One of the brightest games available at the launch of the PSP was Lumines. It's a smart, stylish puzzle game that redecorates itself as you play, delivering a somewhat rhythmic twist on the typical block-dropping action you'd expect from this sort of game. Now, that same portable puzzle gameplay is available on the Xbox 360 as Lumines Live!, via the Xbox Live Arcade. While the gameplay remains the same and the skinned-up presentation still has style, weirdly tiered access to the game's different modes and a fairly high price make this version less of a must-have than you might initially suspect.
At its core, Lumines Live! is functionally identical to the PSP game. You are given a wide pit to drop blocks made up of four squares into, and those squares come in two colors. When you match up those colored squares to form a block of four squares in the pit, it lights up. A timing bar moves across the pit in time with the music, and when the bar crosses a lit-up completed block, it disappears. Additional bonuses can be had for creating multiple lit-up blocks, all of which vanish as the timing bar sweeps across the screen. It's an elegant game that places a light emphasis on rhythm, but not so much that you'd ever call it a rhythm game. You'll occasionally get a block that has an icon on it. Creating a lit-up square that includes that icon-bearing block causes all blocks of the same color to vanish, provided they're connected to that initial block.
This same basic gameplay moves across multiple modes, but the challenge mode is the game's main form of play. Here, you start out with one visual style, and as you play and reach certain unspecified milestones, the game's graphics completely change and a new song starts playing, all without the game missing a beat. Your goal is to eventually see and unlock all of the skins, which you can then play in any order via the game's skin edit mode. No, it doesn't let you design your own skin--it just lets you play the game's skins in any order. There's also a time attack mode, where you have to bust as many blocks as you can in a set amount of time, as well as puzzle and mission modes, which ask you to complete very specific tasks to proceed. Overall, the key aspect to note about Lumines' gameplay is that it's extremely addictive and very slick. That addictive nature translates through all of the different modes, including the multiplayer.
As far as multiplayer goes, you can play against other players over Xbox Live in two-player matches. Here, you share the same pit, but it's split down the middle evenly between the two players. Both players drop blocks, and at the end of each pass of the timing bar, the player who caused the most blocks to disappear earns a segment of the other player's turf. This creates a sort of tug-of-war feel, and battling back from a huge disadvantage is both possible and satisfying. The player who forces the other player out of action wins. The game doesn't tolerate network latency very well, though. In a laggy game, the controls become extremely unresponsive, forcing you to sometimes hit buttons more than once to get it to accept your input. You can also play this mode versus CPU-controlled opponents in the vs. CPU mode. But in a ridiculous twist, only the first stage of this mode is available. Upon completing it, a message appears stating that you'll have to purchase a separate vs. CPU pack to play the rest of this mode.
This sort of tiered purchase plan is especially offensive because Lumines Live! is already tied with Bankshot Billiards 2 as the most expensive Xbox Live Arcade game at 1,200 points, or $15 at current points pricing. The vs. CPU mode contained some of the PSP game's most inventive skins, and getting a crippled version of it on the 360 is just crazy. In addition to the upcoming vs. CPU pack, there is an "advance challenge" pack in the works. This pack adds around 20 new skins to the game and will come in at a price of 600 points, or $7.50. This doesn't feel like a very good deal, either, largely because the skins included with the base pack don't feel quite as inventive as the ones found on the PSP, and the music played throughout most of the base pack isn't nearly as memorable as, say, the amazing Mondo Grosso tracks found in the PSP game. So if the game can't even deliver a few extremely high-quality tracks and skins with the core download, what makes paying extra for more of the same feel any better? These upcoming downloads make the base pack feel like a small part of a game that's been carved up into too many different pieces, rather than making you feel like you've got the potential to buy something extra for an already-great game. On top of that, it's possible to blow through the 12 skins, some of which recycle block graphics and sound effects from one to the next, in under an hour.
Even though there's some recycling going on, the game still has a good, unique sense of style to it. The different skins can be dramatically different, and there are just enough decent skins to make the game look good. On top of that, the graphics have real sharpness to them that you sort of got on the PSP, but you never see pixels or fuzzy edges to the blocks or anything like that. The audio is only as good as the skins, since each skin has a track associated with it that governs everything from the background track to the sounds made when you rotate a block. They're all pretty good, but there aren't any standout tracks in the bunch, either.
When you look at the Lumines base pack and the 1,200 point price tag, this Xbox Live Arcade release is of questionable value. Lumines veterans will probably get the most out of the online multiplayer, but at the same time, those are the very same people who will blast through all of the game's skins almost immediately. But it's still a quality puzzle game with a unique sense of style, so if you're willing to pony up the premium price for the game, and maybe even willing to put up with the razor-thin chunks of content that the game seems to have been sliced into, you might just get hooked on Lumines Live!.