Launched with Apple Arcade in September 2019, Grindstone made its way to the Nintendo Switch this month. As one of the subscription service’s biggest original titles, the game is finally available to those with no Apple products to speak of, and the Switch could not be any better a fit for the game.
In the latest title from indie studio Capybara Games, you play as Jorj, a burly berserker mowing down waves of Creeps and Jerks and collecting loot via matching puzzle mechanics. The matching game meat and potatoes are all there. The standard primary-color blocks and combo set ups make it a fine addition to the casual puzzle game fan’s library alongside Puyo Puyo and Bejeweled. But there’s also the right amount of something more, letting Grindstone stand apart as one of the best new puzzle games.
Working up Grindstone Mountain unlocks a slew of buffs and equipment. Weapons, armor, potions, map-altering lunches–all offer new problem-solving techniques without undercutting established mechanics or making other abilities useless. Meanwhile, the level design scales the difficulty at just the right pace. New environmental elements like obstacles, enemy types and neutral spaces are added as you progress, each offering their own twist on gameplay. Each piece builds off the last, letting players find their preferred playstyle. Non-lateral thinkers like myself can feel perfectly at home brute forcing their way through whatever Creeps mark their path. The more meticulous puzzler can chart their own course, carefully plotting five moves ahead for massive combo chains.
Despite all the moving parts built on top of the tried-and-true matching premise, Grindstone never overwhelms, easing you into everything. It lets you experiment with available powerups in its main hub area, approaching each level differently with minimal consequence. You can grind through level after level without engaging the game’s other layers. But it always makes sure to let you know you have options if ever you need the lifeline. Pushing forward through the game, the challenges ramp up in good measure with craftables, keeping the difficulty even-keeled. For players looking to test themselves, custom level challenges are available with daily leaderboards that reset each day.
As a castaway on Android Island I can’t speak for how well the touch controls play on Apple devices. I will say though that the analog controls on the Switch make it my preferred platform regardless. While the option for touch controls is still available and works fine, it just felt a little less precise. Using the Joy-Con controllers was natural and fluid, and definitely less accident prone as I traced my course through levels.
If I could have one wish this Christmas season, the only thing I’d ask for would be an undo button. More than once the same butter fingers making touch controls tricky led me down an unintended path. Turning back time would have been a godsend after an overeager button press sent me up a creek. Most trouble I got into while playing was due to a path of greed there was no turning back from. A “one more combo” after “one more combo” a single undo couldn’t save me from no matter what. Having a revert option would be a nice failsafe for my run-of-the-mill ham handedness. Though, it’s a poor craftsman who blames their tools, and a poor Grindstoner who doesn’t own up to their own bloated digits. Given how balanced everything feels, I trust Capybara knows exactly what they’re doing. With all the other mechanics running like clockwork, an undo was probably excluded for damn good balancing reasons.
Based on the quality of previous output from Capybara as a studio, the game feels like a natural progression for the Toronto-based studio. From Might & Magic Clash of Heroes’ puzzle-mechanic combat, to the playful humor and soft-spoken score of their Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP collaboration, the development team had all the right experience to make Grindstone shine. The game knows it’s a matching puzzler first and foremost, but that doesn’t keep Capybara ‘s trademark level of craftsmanship or detail from showing. From establishing a barebones narrative in the game’s fledgling moments, to art that pops like something out of Richard Scarry by way of Gary Baseman, everything serves to elevate the playfulness and humor that pervades the gameplay. Even the music feels right up there with the amazing work done previously with Jim Guthrie for Superbrothers. Partnering with Sam Webster to score Grindstone, Capybara’s game is filled with tracks that wouldn’t feel out of place on ChilledCow’s famous lofi beats to relax/study to playlist.
Every little piece of the game is a treat. In the final coldest and darkest nights of a pretty cold and dark year, Grindstone’s frozen, Nordic mountain tops, hearth-warmed inns, silly art and tight levels playable at your own pace encapsulates that buzzword of Scandanavian coziness “hygge.” I expect sitting by a lit Christmas tree, cat curled up in my lap, Switch in hand and Grindstone on the screen to be a warm holiday memory for some years to come.
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