Critter Crunch is the new puzzler from Capybara Games. Well, it’s not really new since there has been an iPhone version since 2007 but it is new to the PSN and to many PlayStation users. It has been hugely popular on the iPhone and Sony’s renewed vigour when it comes to the Store content as well as the more “casual” side of gaming has clearly resulted in a deal to bring it to the PSN. No European release date or price has been confirmed yet so this is strictly a North American deal right now but we assume SCEE will be working feverishly to get it on the EU store as soon as possible.
So what can you expect for your $6.99? Well, the first thing to note is the excellent presentation; at just over 420Mb it’s not a small download considering this is a simple puzzler (on the face of it). Within seconds of loading the game you can see what is taking up that space. The art assets in the game are beautifully rendered and crisply presented and the design is immediately ingratiating. All the background scenery looks almost like digitally painted fantasy art but the saturation has been turned up a notch to give it a slightly more cartoon-like feel. Similarly, the character design has all the titular critters resembling slightly overfed Pokémon. The cute Pokémon like Pikachu, not the weird ones like Beedrill.
Squeeze past the cartoon nature-documentary cut scenes which explain a little about the island (Krunchatoa) and the lead character (Biggs) and you’re immediately into the single player mode. Starting with only Adventure mode playable (Puzzle, Challenge and Survival modes are unlockables) you have no choice but to jump right in and go through the customary tutorials. Everything is explained to you clearly and the learning curve is very gradual so you have no excuses for failing at the earliest few levels. The difficulty ramps up as you progress and a few of the puzzles modes especially get reasonably tricky at later stages.
In the single player adventure mode you progress past each level by beating three stages and unlocking the next level (as well as the other game modes). Between stages you are presented with the island map (which is reminiscent of the level progression in Mario). Some levels have bonus stages and all of them so far, after the first, have a mix of adventure, puzzle and challenge stages.
On the face of it Critter Crunch is a fairly standard, if solidly executed, colour-match puzzler like Tetris or Bejewelled but the mechanics are a little bit deeper than that. Essentially there is a procession of critters moving down a set of vines. You have to pull in critters with your long tongue and spit them back at slightly larger critters that eat them. Feed two smaller critters to a larger one and it pops, taking all similar (in size and colour) critters with him and dropping a point-awarding jewel for you to eat. It is also possible to create “Food Chains” whereby you feed a tiny critter to a medium one and then that half-stuffed medium critter to a large one which will then pop. Chaining like this causes a coin to drop which boosts your score for a set period of time.
Popping a chain of eight or more critters results in the appearance of Biggs’ son: Smalls. When Smalls arrives at the side of the screen you have a short time to get over to him and hold down the circle button in order to… stay with me here… barf rainbows into his mouth. This will max out your bonus meter.
From this point on it plays like any other grid-based puzzle game but it has lashings of charm and humour laid on top of it. Fail a level and you get an instantly recognisable “tip screen” that you will have seen in dozens of games before. In Critter Crunch they are often no help at all and only there to crack a joke. These screens are genuinely funny, they won’t make you laugh out loud (at least, not often…) but they do raise a smile and make you feel like the developers are gently poking fun at you and at themselves.
Bearing in mind the repeated issues that have been noted with the PlayStation Network’s multiplayer capabilities I have to say that I was not too surprised that the Multiplayer wasn’t perfect. When I hosted a game it ran perfectly smoothly (as you would expect) but playing the co-op mode (there is a competitive mode too) in a game I wasn’t hosting resulted in some significant lag which made the game difficult to play. Of course, these things are reliant on the individual connections so it is possible that it would work smoothly for anyone else. There is an offline multiplayer mode which allows the same cooperative or competitive play. It really is impressive how much tension can be created by such a simple concept in a competitive game against someone sitting next to you.
Critter Crunch is a charming, funny and extremely well-presented game with solid and engaging gameplay mechanics. There are issues with the multiplayer but for fans of puzzle games this is a must-have which will amuse and entertain you without ever becoming frustrating.
Graphics: Crisp and clean, well matched and full of charm. Great character design which has potential to become iconic: 9/10
Sound: Standard effects and unobtrusive music, nothing to write home about but what is there is done well: 8/10
Gameplay: Initially complicated but well presented and inuitive with a shallow learning curve. Easy to pick up but difficult to master: 10/10