In a perfect world, Lumines wouldn't have been sold separately from Sony's slick, new portable gaming system. But the world is still better off now that Lumines is in it. This ingeniously designed, addictive, mesmerizing puzzle game from the creator of cult classics like Rez and Space Channel 5 may not seem as out-and-out impressive as some other PSP launch titles, but it's liable to be the one you keep coming back to. In fact, between the beautiful presentation, the innovative gameplay, and the excellent single-player and multiplayer modes, Lumines may very well be the greatest Tetris-style puzzle game since Tetris itself.
Lumines is pretty abstract, but its depth and quality couldn't be more concrete.
Lumines resembles Tetris on first impression, and it's similarly intuitive to pick up and play--though, the simple design belies tremendous depth. Squares comprising four smaller blocks, which can be one of two colors, fall from the top of the screen. The object is to form solid-colored rectangles of at least two-by-two blocks by rotating and arranging the falling squares properly. Solid rectangles instantly light up and get cleared away as a line (called the "timeline") intermittently passes from left to right across the screen, kind of like a windshield wiper and just like a timeline in a music sequencer program. Clearing blocks in this fashion is how you earn points and also how you prevent blocks from stacking all the way up to the top of the screen; your game ends if the blocks stack too high. Meanwhile, any blocks above the blocks you just cleared automatically drop down until they hit other blocks or the bottom of the screen, and this creates the potential for some big combos. Controls are tight and responsive. Despite having so much horizontal space to work with thanks to the PSP's landscape-style screen, you can just as easily fling a square all the way from one side of the playing field to the other as you can nudge it just a hair's breadth into the perfect spot.
This is all quite simple and basically fun like most Tetris-style puzzle games are fun--especially since Lumines looks and sounds wonderful. Its colorful, swirling backgrounds are clear and clutter-free, the audio cues are noticeable and appealing, and the soundtrack, featuring tracks by Japanese club music pioneer Mondo Grosso, is fun and vibrant. You'll surely notice a great little touch early on, which is that the music dynamically adjusts to fit how you're playing, so the more squares you're clearing in rapid succession, the more the music will swell. The visuals glow and respond to your actions, too. Still images certainly don't do this game's pulsating, dynamic presentation justice. For that matter, the PSP's stereo speakers don't do full justice to the audio, either. Listen to this game with headphones on for an audio experience that, in a way, rivals the surround-sound explosions and screams you might be enjoying with your video game consoles and your fancy home-theater system.
The game's depth doesn't take long to emerge. The main twist is that you'll occasionally get special blocks, which, when formed into a solid rectangle, cause any and all consecutive matching blocks to light up. This means you can sometimes clear a whole bunch of blocks at once, and since you're always given a preview of the next three squares that are going to fall, you'll learn to plan for these important occasions. With enough practice, not to mention a lot of forethought, a steady hand, and a little bit of luck, it's essentially possible to clear the entire screen in one fell swoop--something that's incredibly satisfying and drives your score through the roof.
It's not often anymore that high scores are something you care about in gaming, but this is one of those cases in which you probably will. Lumines has a well-designed scoring system that rewards risk-taking and tenacity, so you'll use your score as a measure of just how good you are at the game's single-player challenge mode. One minor issue with scoring is that you get a big bonus for completely clearing the board of any blocks, yet you'll sometimes get a single-colored square as your very first piece in challenge mode, which then gets wiped out right away, resulting in a freebie boost to your score. Still, unpredictable circumstances like this only add to the game's addictive charm.
The timeline washes away your handiwork while everything else falls into place.
Lumines' depth also comes from how its challenge escalates. In most Tetris-style puzzle games, increased challenge is directly proportional to increased speed. Sure enough, in Lumines, squares start falling faster and faster the longer you play, giving you less time to move them around and rotate them into proper position. However, a much more interesting and inventive layer to the challenge has to do with the variable rate at which the timeline washes across the screen. Even as the speed of falling squares increases from level to level, the timeline will often noticeably slow down. On the one hand, this enables you to rack up points faster and faster, because the more blocks you can clean out in a single wipe, the more points you'll get. On the other hand, this means you'll need to be able to hold out for longer and longer as the blocks start to stack perilously high...only to then get cleared out in bigger and bigger chunks. Then again, some levels have the timeline moving very rapidly, which brings about its own set of challenging considerations, since this forces you to act that much more quickly yourself.