Looking back through the history of handheld gaming machines, it would be a rare occurrence to find one without a headlining puzzle game to its name. The Game Boy had, of course, Tetris; the game that arguably kick-started the handheld boom. The Game Gear (and, somewhat by extension, the Mega Drive as well) had Columns. Even the Game Boy Advance brought along the Mario franchise to a new genre with Mario vs Donkey Kong. The DS in particular introduced a good number of puzzlers that could be lauded as the machine’s best, including Planet Puzzle League, Meteos, and the Picross games. It may be too soon to call what could be the 3DS’ best puzzler, but the system’s eShop service alone - sparse in general as it may be - already has three contenders. Pullblox/Pushmo, Ketzal’s Corridors, and developer Shin’en’s latest title: Art of Balance Touch! Is this scale balanced in favour of puzzle fans, or a Jenga stack on its last piece?
Wii owners familiar with the online features of the machine may recognise this title, as it was one of the headliners of the WiiWare service. Much like Fun! Fun! Minigolf, Shin’en have taken the core concept of the original game and reworked it to benefit the nature of pick-up-and-play handhelds.
Art of Balance is more or less depicted in its name; players are given a stand of varying sizes as a base, positioned over a pond of water, and the goal is to place all the pieces given for that particular level on the stand bit by bit, not allowing any part of the resulting formation to touch the water for at least three seconds. Not nearly as complicated as it may sound given that the physics work only on a 2D plane, so it isn’t like balancing a house of cards. The primary challenge comes from deciding the correct order and rotational placement of each varying shape piece, which starts off as simple as pie with standard shapes, and ends up tougher than granny’s meatloaf, with reverse gravity, breakable pieces and moving platforms in abundance.
The original Art of Balance was already fairly well adjusted for quick game sessions, and being on the 3DS has only helped the game in this regard. Naturally, the Sleep Mode and Home suspend features built into the unit aid things, and the super-quick loading of the game and easy menu navigation certainly don’t hurt. Aesthetically the game is fairly unchanged from the WiiWare title, with the same high quality visual level minus the sublime water effects (though given the point of the game is to avoid said pool, that isn’t a major loss), and the 3D slider adds that extra dimension of graphical fidelity with no performance sacrifices. The background music and voiceovers stay intact too; the former still providing catchy upbeat tunes that still calm the mind retry after retry, and the latter being in no way intrusive or annoying.
The ’Touch!’ moniker in the name implies new content, and there is quite a bit of that. In the original WiiWare game, the primary control relied solely on the Wii Remote pointer to aim and place shape pieces, and while that was an intuitive method, it was also a fallible one depending on the steadiness of players’ hands. Art of Balance Touch! allows for two control options: the Touch Screen that can offer even more precision, whilst also being prone to jittery nerves, or the Circle Pad and buttons, which is a slower method of piece movement, but definitely the most accurate one. Both these control choices have their strengths and weaknesses, and it is left up to the player to decide which they prefer.
Other new aspects include the addition of Endurance Mode, which throws random levels at you with only three chances to retry a failed one - the intent on gaining as high a score as possible for the leader boards (offline only unfortunately). Those random levels include the assortment of new ones created especially for this version of the game that give a bigger challenge than any of the others. And speaking of challenge, Art of Balance Touch! also has its very own set of achievement-style tasks to complete, ranging from simple ‘Complete 50/100 levels’- type objectives, to much harder ones such as finishing a later puzzle in under 30 seconds. This game is geared specifically for the single player, but gives that player a huge list of requirements in order to complete it 100%.
Simple, concise, and loaded with the ‘one more try’ factor all great puzzle games have in spades. Neither control option is perfect, but most players will find a preference, and the game pulls no punches with later levels.
Bright, colourful, and a pleasing style to mesh with the 3D effect. Water ripples have taken a visual hit, though players should aspire never to see them anyway, and the range of block design styles between worlds of levels keeps things fresh.
Mostly a cut and paste from the original WiiWare version, though if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it, as they say. Pleasant, calming melodies together with an enthusiastic and pleasing voiceover means your earphones aren’t relegated to your pocket for this one.
Depending on the player’s familiarity with puzzlers of this nature, Art of Balance Touch! can potentially reach top of players’ 3DS activity list, or linger somewhere in the middle of it, with over 200 puzzles in total, an accomplishment list to tick off line by line, and there’s always the Endurance Mode to call you back and test your abilities. A bargain for £6.30, for sure.
Adding another string to the 3DS’ bow of worthwhile downloadable experiences, Art of Balance Touch! channels its forbearer and improves on it in every way, thanks to the nature of portable and new content. Fans of the WiiWare title might find this version a bit too familiar, but newbies to Shin’en’s puzzle series will have what is easily one of the best portable head scratchers at their fingertips.