The title of Rooms: The Main Building may be a bit of a head-scratcher, but the gameplay will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever played a slide puzzle. Yet there is more to this puzzler than simply sliding blocks around to complete a jumbled image. Your goal in each stage is to move your character from block to block in order to reach the exit door, but things aren't as simple as they seem. You can only move the block that your character is currently occupying, and you can only walk horizontally between blocks. Walls and locked doors conspire to impede your progress, while ladders, keys, and teleporters offer ways to circumvent these obstacles. There is an intriguing variety of elements that make these puzzles increasingly complex and challenging. Unfortunately, the blurry visuals can make it hard to pick out helpful elements in busy squares, potentially leading to some ruinous missteps. Yet the appeal of the well-crafted puzzles remains intact, making this bargain-priced game a good bet for anyone looking to flex their mental muscles.
The game begins when the character you control, Mr. X, is sucked into a strange realm that looks a lot like a nighttime street in an urban residential neighborhood of a European city. There, he is greeted by a talking book (naturally) that informs him he must solve all the puzzles in order to escape back to reality. This plot occasionally pops up with some light item-based tasks, but Rooms is really all about the puzzles. Eighty puzzles are represented by rooms spread across four mansions. Each puzzle is made up of squares. Some squares contain blocks, while others are empty. Puzzles range in size from three to 16 squares and contain a number of blocks and usually more than one empty square.
The primary goal is to move the blocks around the squares in order to guide Mr. X to the exit block. The secondary goal is to put all the blocks in their proper places; kind of like solving a jigsaw puzzle with only a portion of the pieces. The trick is, you can only move the block that Mr. X currently occupies. You may know how to arrange the blocks in the correct pattern but not know how to get Mr. X into the block you need to move. Likewise, Mr. X might have ample movement options, but unless you figure out how to slide the blocks into the correct spots, you are out of luck. The two distinct kinds of motion are inextricably linked, and you have to be flexible as you use both mechanics in concert with one another to solve the puzzle.
As Rooms familiarizes you with the two movement mechanics, it also slowly introduces you to the various elements that further complicate each puzzle. Some elements expand your movement capabilities, like the ladders that let Mr. X travel vertically. Teleporters enable him to warp between specific points, while the subway allows him slightly more freedom of teleportation, provided you can position the station blocks correctly. Other elements act as direct hindrances. Gold frames on any of the four sides of a block restrict your travel, as do wooden planks, though they can be destroyed with explosives. In order to blow up a chest of explosives, you need a candle to ignite it. Candles, keys, cell phones, and fishbowls are just some of the elements you actually pick up and keep in your inventory for the duration of the puzzle. And then there are the elements that affect the movement of the blocks themselves. Entering linked wardrobes causes their blocks to swap positions, activating a grandfather clock rotates the block it is in, and moving a block with a mirror in it will cause another block with an identical mirror to move in the opposite direction. These features can really throw a wrench into your best laid plans.
These elements are all introduced gradually as you work your way through the four mansions. Each is initially presented in a straightforward situation and then implemented in more complex ways as you progress. As different elements start to combine in different ways, puzzles become much trickier. Instead of just using the wardrobe to move the ladder into the right spot, you may have to first find out how to position the fire hydrant above the flooded block in order to drain it and access the submerged key, which then unlocks the door to the teleporter. Each element introduces a new knot that you must untie in the correct order lest you end up even more tangled than you were when you started. Picking your way through the puzzles in Rooms can be an engrossing experience, and it's very satisfactying to reach a perfect solution.
Later puzzles get quite involved, but the learning curve is so smooth that it is only close to the end that you are likely to find yourself truly stumped. In these puzzles, it is tough enough to get Mr. X to the exit, let alone position every block in the proper place to earn a gold rating. While the difficulty is well tuned, the same cannot be said for the visual presentation. Rooms is not a sharp-looking game. The whole game has a fuzzy appearance, and the colors are muddled, making it tough to know which puzzle pieces line up with each other. Furthermore, the blurriness can make it tough to spot puzzle elements in busy blocks, occasionally obscuring items and objects that are crucial to the solution. Moving your pointer over an object will activate a glowing halo, so there's no danger of you not being able to find things. However, some blocks are so packed with elements that it can be easy to activate the wrong thing and spoil your plans. A steady hand and a sharp eye can help minimize these frustrations, but the lackluster visuals are definitely a hindrance.
The 80 puzzles in the single-player story will keep you busy for a while, and there are 20 more in the two-player Battle mode. These symmetrical puzzles put each player in a mirrored version of the same puzzle with one lone exit in the middle. The first to reach the exit is the victor, but there is no smooth learning curve here and, oddly, no way to select which puzzle you want to play. Battle puzzles feature any number of elements straight from the get go, so it's best if both players have spent some time with the story mode. Seeing your opponent moving blocks around, using puzzle elements, and picking up items can be a powerful motivator, and the tension this creates adds an invigorating urgency to the proceedings. If you prefer a solo situation with similar pressure, there are two modes that unlock once you have progressed far enough in the story mode, both of which feature the story mode puzzles. Time Limit mode is self-explanatory, while Challenge mode restricts the amount of block moves you can make in your efforts to reach the exit.
There is also a Build mode that allows you to create your own puzzles. After choosing your grid size, you add blocks and puzzle elements to your heart's content. While it contains every element you could possibly want, Build mode suffers the most from the fuzzy graphics. The object menu is small and poorly laid out, and many elements can be tough to wrangle given their size and appearance. Fortunately, these graphical issues aren't bad enough to hinder the whole game, and the multilayered, challenging puzzles shine through the haze. Rooms: The Main Building requires a lot of cleverness and mental flexibility, and the satisfaction you gain from unraveling its puzzles is substantial. With plenty of good puzzles for only $29.99, Rooms is worth a visit for anyone seeking a cerebral challenge.