Typical conversation I have had at my home with people passing by as I was playing Slam Bolt Scrappers for review:
Random Person: What is that?
Me: A puzzle game…
Random Person: Like Tetris?
Me: Kind of…
Random Person: Why are there things flying around?
Me: Because you have to kill them to get pieces and turn them into blocks that become weapons that try to blow up the blocks of my enemy.
Random Person: You mean you have enemies in there?
Me: Yeah, I’m actually that guy in the black jump suit with the Swedish Chef hat.
Random Person: Why are your blocks moving around?
Me: It keeps me on my toes.
Random Person: Huh….
Random Person: Well, alright then. Good night…
I can’t even begin to imagine what the meetings were like when Fire Hose Games started development on Slam Bolt Scrappers, the Playstation Network-exclusive puzzle game that came out last week. There had to have been three distinct camps: one group wanted to build a puzzle game, another wanted to go with a brawler, and the last bunch had tower defense on their mind. But instead of building off one of those ideas, they managed to create a playable high-concept game that feels like nothing else you’ve ever played before. If only the game didn’t get bogged down by its own cleverness to shoehorn all three genres and focused more on refining the things that do work.
The core goals of Slam Bolt are not that hard to pick up on: you control a floating avatar that has to create blocks out of Tetris pieces of a similar color. When the blocks are formed, they become weapons that try to chip away at the blocks of your opponent (or in the case of boss battles, their health bar), who is also busy forming blocks of their own to do the same to you. Each colored block comes with a unique attack and/or support property, and the strategy comes in how you prioritize what weapons you want to build first. Purple lasers are your generic automated blaster weapons and require little thought in building them, and then blocks like the black missle that needs to be "fed" other blocks in order to function. Wins come when either you or your opponent has had their blocks whittled away to nothing.
But how do you get blocks? You kill little buggers flying around the screen, of course. This is the time when the people I’ve played with just lose their minds trying to figure out what to do.
When you beat up on the poor pests, they become a block that you can then use on your board. Killing multiple enemies puts the blocks in a queue that you can cycle through. The queue takes some time to get used to because they float around alongside you and it can be hard to tell which block goes where since you’re always obscuring the visibility of your board as you try to find the right fit. As if flying around to get puzzle pieces wasn’t enough to mess with you, your rival can come at you to fight to knock you temporarily out of the game. When they succeed, you are in a dead zone watching your rival work without friction for a few seconds (which can be sped up with a timed button press mini-game). The mindless brawling is the weakest part of Slam Bolt the button mashing has very little strategy or sense involved other than making sure you block at the right time. Most of the time, it’s easier to just avoid your rival altogether and instead focusing on the bugs that yield puzzle bits.
Slam Bolt does a good job of building you up slowly through the tutorial mode (which is a must-play) and in the first wave of levels in order to get a hang of the mechanics. It’s when the gloves are taken off is when the game takes off or loses all manner of sanity depending on your patience to see things through.
As you progress further into the game, the levels throw new tricks at you to add to the complexity. One level places your blocks in two different boards similar to a scale. The less balanced the weight of the boards are, the more likely one of the boards falls into a pit of lava (yes, there’s fire and ice levels in this game) and become unusable. You’re then left scrambling to use your blocks on the other board sometimes to your detriment just to get bring the scale back to normal. But as all of this is happening, your rival is trying to knock you out of the game, their weapons are chipping away at your blocks, the enemies you have to kill to get blocks are trying to kill you as well, and when you do get the blocks, the queue is often unreadable because of all the ongoing chaos. I swear this all made sense in my head when as I was writing this paragraph. And then there are the boss battles where your play area is limited and you have to try to jam blocks that don’t make sense while getting punched in the grill.
Slam Bolt plays best with friends in the multiplayer mode. Unfortunately, there was no online infrastructure in place so I was unable to really play the game with someone else who truly understood everything that was going on. Especially with three people on board, it became an exercise just to see how patient they would be with me as I tried to review this game. The puzzle aspect was the easiest to explain since its analogue is the most popular game of all time. It’s when you compound that with mindless brawling that you being to lose them.
That a game like Slam Bolt Scrappers can exist and somehow make sense (to me, at least) amidst the cacophony is an achievement that Fire Hose Games should be proud of. It needs time to develop in your mind and process all of the information that’s happening all at once. But when that moment of clarity hits, the game then leaves you (quite literally because it’s a short game) thinking of how to make it better.
This review is based on code sent to us by Sony Online Entertainment.