While Minna No Golf, Ridge Racers, and Metal Gear Acid! may be getting most of the attention during the PSP's launch, one game has already become a cult hit, especially for those that imported the handheld. That game is Lumines, a puzzle game from the mind of, Tetsuya Mizuguchi, who's known for other cult favorites like Rez and Space Channel 5. There's no word yet on whether Lumines will be released here in North America, but it would be difficult to envision Bandai passing up the opportunity to release such a fun and addictive game that would no doubt sell well with the limited selection of games available during a system's launch.
At its core, Lumines is a simple game. A 2x2 block, composed of one or two colors falls from the top of the screen, and you slide it laterally where you want it, and then drop it into place. To make blocks disappear you must create a 2x2 area of the same color, and smaller chains of 1x1 blocks can be added on, as long as they are the same color and attached to the 2x2 block that is getting ready to disappear. Occasionally a block will have a small flashing center, and if that piece is contained in a section of blocks that is set to be erased, it will erase all other blocks of the same color that are in contact with the chain. This doesn't get you a ton of points, but it can clear huge sections of the screen in a hurry. As you progress from one level to the next the colors of the blocks will change, as will the background, but there will only ever be two different colored blocks on screen at a time.
Other than pieces dropping faster, and the clear bar moving at a different speed, the level changes are mostly cosmetic The first level has orange and white blocks, the second level has green and white, and look a bit like jewels, and eventually the blocks are blue and white and are textured to resemble ice. At one point the blocks become red and white circles, but they retain the properties of blocks.
In the challenge mode, which is the section where you unlock skins (basically the skins are levels) there's no time limit, but there is a bar that travels across the screen from left to right that adds a sense of urgency to the game. The bar erases the blocks as it hits them, which means you have to hurry up if you want to add to your combo. If you drop blocks, trying to add them to a combo and the bar is in the process of erasing the area in which you are dropping, some of the blocks won't be erased, and you'll be left with some unwelcome blocks.
If you don't have time to play the challenge mode, you can play a shorter, timed game that lets you see how many pieces you can clear in a minute, three minutes, or even longer if you choose. Since this mode places an emphasis on speed, it's a good way to get in a quick game, or practice for the vs. mode.
The other style of play is a vs. mode, where you can play against another person, or the computer. The game begins with the screen split in half, but as one person clears blocks, they gain more of their opponent's screen, which not only gives them more room to drop blocks, but stacks the other person's blocks higher and higher.
The game supports wireless multi-player, but we were unable to test this feature since we only have one PSP. The premise is exactly the same as playing vs. mode against the computer, so you'll have to spend some time practicing your speed to be successful.
In addition to the standard modes of play, Lumines has a puzzle mode that can also prove quite addicting. The game shows you a simple design, like a cross, and you have to make the same design in a set period of time. The blocks that compose the design must all be the same color, which is tougher than it sounds, especially when the game starts giving tougher shapes to match. Puzzle mode isn't quite as engrossing as the challenge mode, but it is a good way to learn how pieces fit together, and it breaks up the monotony of playing hour long games as well.
It's pretty easy to get the basic concept of the game, but to really achieve high scores, you have to rid yourself of the Tetris mentality of stacking blocks vertically, as 4 blocks stacked on top of each other does you very little good, even if they are the same color. As you progress you start to see chains easier, and the blocks that are checkered, which are so tough to deal with at first, can eventually be helpful.
The game's biggest fault is that the challenge mode is far too time consuming. When scores are below 50,000 the games don't take too long, but when you break 150,000 the games can last around an hour. My highest score thus far is 234,000 and that game took 1 hour and 27 minutes to complete. You can put the PSP in sleep mode during a game, but you can't save your progress, which means you can't play another game on your PSP until you finish your current game. The game's final unlockable bonus is earned at 999,999 which could take four or five hours if my current pace continued, and that's just too long for a portable puzzle game.
Lumines certainly isn't a game that shows off the PSP's graphics abilities, but it does have a unique look. The blocks change from level to level, as do the backgrounds, though this isn't always a good thing. Occasionally the background is used to make the game more difficult, like when there's a moving mouth with words flying out of it, or it'll flash different colors in an effort to distract you. On one level in particular, the blocks fade in and out, making it hard to discern them from the background - it's a rather cheap way of making the game challenging.
The PSP's widescreen display allows for a large play field, which takes a little getting used to. Many people tend to focus their efforts on one area of the screen, piling blocks high, while the other side of the screen remains completely empty. As the game progresses, a similar problem arises as you focus on clearing out one section, while neglecting the other side, even when a piece would be better suited there. Eventually you learn to utilize the entire screen, which immediately results in higher scores.
Lumine's soundtrack is receiving praise not only because it indirectly affects the gameplay, but because it's composed by Mondo Grosso and Eri Nobuchika, two popular Japanese "electronica" artists. The soundtrack is an acquired taste, as some people will absolutely adore it, while others will learn to enjoy it over time, and many will simply detest it. The list of songs is impressive, but each song plays during the same level every time you play, and it loops endlessly until you beat the level. Needless to say, the tune that plays during the first level gets old rather quickly.
The music is tied into the gameplay because the clear bar acts as a metronome of sorts, as its speed directly correlates to the tempo of the music playing in the background. Having the music turned down doesn't make the game more difficult, because you can see the bar at all times, but tying the music and the clear bar together does add to the game. The pieces also have sound samples attached to them, so when you rotate them, it adds a voice, or a quick note to the song. The sounds don't affect the gameplay, and some of them are a bit annoying, but for the most part they're cool.
In the end, Lumines is a solid puzzle game, but it really stands out from others in the genre due to its distinctive style. The fact that you have to devote so much time achieving a new high score to unlock things is one of its few faults, and when you wake up bleary-eyed in the morning because you wanted to finish your game before you went to bed, you'll be cursing this fault. It's anybody's guess as to whether or not the game will be released here, but it seems unlikely that it will have the same eclectic soundtrack should it see release in North America. If that's important to you, it might be worth an import, since the game features no region coding.