Tetris, back when it first dropped, was an instant success. The uncomplicated block-clearing mechanic was fun and addictive. Recently, SlapDash Games dropped a puzzle game of its own: TiQal. The game effectively builds upon the simple yet enjoyable designs of other games from the puzzle genre while taking you on an adventure as an Aztec commoner searching for solutions to his tribe's problems.
The story is broken up into block-clearing levels. Like in Tetris, you are given single-colored blocks of varying shapes and sizes to drop on an ever-rising wall of muddled material. The blocks you drop of the same color can be combined to form a square cluster of four or more units that will subsequently explode, similar to Lumines. Additional blocks can be combined with already-clustered sequences to expand the single-colored formations into monoliths of epic proportions. This creates a delicate balance between growing your cluster of bricks and not letting the block levels get so high that you incur a foul and lose a life. Once your stack of pseudo-clay squares is sufficiently large, you can clear it by not attaching anything else to it for a few seconds. After the requisite time expires, the blocks break in a very satisfying shower of shards and an explosion of audio effects. When you clear more and more block combinations, the destroyed squares will fill a meter that yields a wide array of power-ups.
You must move your block-dropping apparatus across the top of the screen to capture the power-ups that bubble up from the bottom of the screen. Some common power-ups slow the wall's rate of ascension, blow a dart horizontally through the wall, allow disparate colors of blocks to be combined into a larger group, and more. The power-ups never get old and are themed in a way that accentuates the stylized Mesoamerican art direction. The Jaguar Strike yields a fearsome feline growl while highlighting and detonating all blocks on the wall of a particular color. When you grab the Spears of Mixcoatl, three ancient pikes will erupt out of the ground to clear columns of bricks. The Gift of Tohili causes your queued block to be replaced by a thrumming orb of fire. You can then drop this mass of incandescent gas upon a cluster of blocks to devastating effect. In every instance, the power-ups are just as useful as they are impressive in their execution. Early on, you may wonder why you are collecting Hearts of Ix Chel, but as the levels progress and the difficulty ramps up, you will be grateful the hearts are automatically combined in sets of 20 to yield extra lives.
The levels are constructed in the same mechanical way, with a fair amount of variation. The number of blocks you start with and the speed at which more arrive increase as your adventure continues. Early levels create an easy introduction to the game's mechanics. Initially, block levels rise with a tide of destructible blocks, but in later levels, a durable stone dais makes clearing certain sections difficult. Completing levels unlocks new power-ups, important quest items, additional block shapes, and new locations to visit. The three colors of the bricks also change with the varying mood and flavor of each level. Fire levels mix burning red and vibrant yellow blocks, while water-based settings enjoy more cool blue and deep purple pieces. The art direction in TiQal is immersive, and it really shines.
From the tribal vocal tracks that loop, to the call of spider monkeys, the thunder of drums, and the roar of jaguars, every element of the sound design harks back to a land of ziggurats, lost civilizations, and the lush Yucatan. The clattering of broken stone punctuates the destruction of every brick. The rolling of stone daises and carved menus feels weighty. For such a little game, it carries a lot of audio might. The music also seamlessly changes from a lilting tune of mystery and wonder to a score full of urgency and tension as the brick levels get perilously close to the top of the puzzle area. It's a feature you may take for granted in other games, but it's executed beautifully in TiQal.
Some may find the repetitious task of clearing bricks to be shallow, and anyone looking to download the game may be left without an opportunity to experience the multiplayer, since very few people appear to be online. You and a friend can play together in co-op Adventure mode either online or offline. Co-op play offers the same levels and the same puzzles as individual play--both of you drop pieces into the same wall of bricks. Sometimes it can get a bit confusing or frustrating as the wall gets higher and the space for placement becomes scarcer.
For 800 Microsoft points, TiQal gives you a taste of adventure and a lot of exciting brick-based action if you have the determination to play through each of the dangerous levels. TiQal has a lot of pick-up-and-play value and even though the gameplay is repetitious, the experience is rich and the locations are diverse. You can bet your pulque that puzzle fans will find a lot of familiar features and just as much fun in this exotic, elegantly simple game.