Review: Picross 3D
Picross is a long-running Nintendo games series that revolves around solving Nonograms, a popular Japanese logic puzzle. The series has been so influential in the popularisation of Nonograms that many people only know them by that name. The puzzle requires filling a grid according to sequences of numbers on the side. Each row and column on the grid has such a number sequence. Following the rules, a cell in the grid is either filled or left empty. Once done, they form a picture.
It’s somewhat similar to another popular Japanese logic puzzle, Sudoku, in that it offers practically infinite puzzle variations and a simple set of rules to complete a puzzle. But contrary to Sudoku, where you have to choose a number ranging from one to nine to fill a cell, for Nonograms, the choice is binary. It is a much simpler type of puzzle in comparison. But in turn, it gains some flexibility. For Sudoku, the grid is fixed in size, whereas Nonograms have arbitrary width and height.
The way I play these two puzzle games totally differs, however. A Sudoku puzzle can be hard to crack, and it is fun spending minutes eliminating possibilities until you’ve found a progression path. With Nonograms, it is the most fun trying to solve them as fast as possible. The significantly easier ruleset allows for this. And with filling a grid cell being a binary choice, it is much easier digitised to a simple button press than Sudoku is. Everything about Picross lends itself to this fast playstyle, and it is a tonne of fun.
With this introduction out of the way, let’s talk about the actual game this review is about.
The actual game
Picross 3D is HAL Laboratory’s attempt at extending this two-dimensional puzzle classic by another dimension. Instead of a grid of cells, you start with a cube that subdivides into many smaller cubes. And instead of constructing a pixel image, you form a voxel sculpture out of the cube.
With this, you can’t really have sequences of numbers on the side. So for this game, it is simplified to one number per line. Although, it’s not quite that simple. Sometimes a number has a modifier, indicated by having the number painted within a square or circle. The number tells you how many consecutive blocks in the line remain part of the final sculpture, and the modifiers tell you how many gaps are allowed in the sequence of blocks.
The game primarily uses the Nintendo DS’s touchscreen for controls. Whereas with other Picross games on the platform, touchscreen controls were optional, here they are mandatory. With the stylus, you rotate the puzzle to look at it from all directions. It works the same with marking cubes to be kept or destroying them.
One nice thing, that differs from how Picross usually works, is that cubes that are marked to be kept cannot be destroyed without unmarking them first. This is great, as the risk of misclicking is high, especially on larger puzzles. It shows that a lot of consideration went into how this game differs from the rest of the series and how its unique qualities necessitate certain things to be different.
Since the puzzle is in 3D, you also have to have the ability to look inside the puzzle, to see things that would be otherwise obscured by other cubes. For this, you can slice the puzzle along the three axes to get a cross-section.
Another unique thing about this game is that it features a rating system. On completion, you can earn up to three stars. One star is always guaranteed. You get another if you solve the puzzle under a certain time threshold. And the final one is earned for not making any mistakes.
The game is broken down into levels that contain a collection of puzzles, and you can advance to the next level after collecting a certain amount of stars.
The other major distinguishing factor of the game is its aesthetics. Picross games are usually quite stylistically plain. This game has a much more distinct visual identity. It features a mascot that is a cube with a face on it that makes celebratory dances as you solve puzzles.
A newly started puzzle with the game’s mascot in the bottom-left. (Credit: HAL Laboratory. Fair use.)
What it feels like
The addition of another dimension to a 2D puzzle game sounds simple enough, but here, it significantly shifts the overall game feel. What was added in terms of complexity was trimmed elsewhere in turn. For example, there might be lines going into three different directions now, but each can only feature one number, instead of multiple, like in classical Picross. The overall logical complexity is similar but achieved through different means. These differences have further side effects on the gameplay beyond just the new controls.
Picross 3D plays very differently from classical Picross, in that the act of solving is much more slow and deliberate. The three-dimensional nature of the puzzles results in you never seeing the whole puzzle at once. Realistically, you can only look at two dimensions at once while solving. In practice, this results in a constant shifting between the three dimensions.
The controls also foster a more deliberate playstyle. Because of the 3D perspective, the cubes heavily vary in size and shape due to their projection onto a 2D screen. This makes misclicking very easy, and thus you have to go slow to avoid mistakes.
The game further incentivises methodical play with its rating system. Making mistakes in this game is easier than ever, and if you make one, a star will be subtracted from your three-star rating.
With all that said, you can probably see that my usual way of playing Picross is on a collision course with this game.
What I don’t like
The required deliberateness during puzzle solving results in a lot of downtime, where you aren’t as much solving a puzzle as you are searching for the next line to advance on. Standard Picross has this too, to an extent. But since you have a full view of the puzzle at all times, downtime due to searching is much smaller. This is especially true once you realise the locality principle to solving standard Picross. When you progress on a line, the corresponding row or column orthogonal to it is also affected, and most of the time, you can directly progress from there. Thus it forms a chain of actions with minimal downtime. As a result, this lends itself to playing the game quickly and is a tonne of fun. And this is the problem with Picross 3D. The puzzles aren’t more challenging, but, due to their 3D nature, are slower to solve. Thus it removes the integral fun component for solving Picross for me and, unfortunately, doesn’t add anything to replace it. The greater emphasis on visual style was enough to keep me playing initially, but after several hours that wore off. After that, the game was just a slog to play.
Furthermore, I have several technical complaints. Once you get into the later stages of the game, the puzzles get big and quite unwieldy. The puzzles take up the entire screen, and looking at multiple dimensions simultaneously, requires you to shift your view around constantly to see what goes over the edges of the screen. The puzzle slicing is even worse. Slicing the puzzle to see only parts of it resizes it on screen accordingly. This produces the problem that when you slice in, the game zooms in, but once you want to slice out, due to the zoom, the point you would have to reach to slice out fully is out of the frame. You have to slice out as far as the screen allows for and redo the motion until you are done. And because of the size of the puzzles, you have to do slicing like this constantly. It’s very annoying.
And again, on larger puzzles, there are severe issues with aliasing, which makes numbers hard to read at certain angles.
Picross 3D seems like a natural and simple extension of standard Picross, but that assumption would be wrong. Bringing Picross to the third dimension significantly alters the gameplay. So much so that it removes why I play Picross in the first place.
The larger puzzles are especially problematic. Not only are the base problems further exacerbated by them, but the game doesn’t even appear to be built to deal with the sheer volume of cubes that make up those puzzles. They make the case that bigger isn’t necessarily better — sometimes it’s just bigger.