What a great year it's been for innovative new puzzle games. First we had the amazing Puzzle Quest, the game that combined the role-playing genre with Bejeweled, and not we're introduced to Crush, a wacky new puzzle game from Sega. Although it shares some similarities to other popular games this year (such as Nintendo's own Super Paper Mario), Crush proves to be a completely original idea that is unlike anything you've ever seen before. It's exciting not just because it's a solid puzzle game, but because it's great to see such an original product come to the Sony PSP.
Crush tells the story of a long-haired twenty-something named Danny. You see, Danny is suffering from some a bad case of insomnia, he lays awake all night thinking about his past and all of the unresolved issues he hasn't dealt with yet. Convinced that he needs some professional help, Danny decides to take part in an experimental procedure conducted by a mad scientist, Dr. Reubens. This Doc Brown-style scientist has this brand new contraption that will get to the bottom of Danny's problems and propel his career to the next level.
Unfortunately Dr. Reuben's miracle cure requires Danny to do more than just take sleeping pills. The machine that the scientist has created is known as C.R.U.S.H. (the Cognitive Regression Utilizing pSychiatric Heuristics) and allows Danny to literally jump inside of his head and get to the bottom of his troubles. Of course, all this is easier said than done. In order for Danny to get a good night sleep he's going to first have to solve dozens of puzzles and learn a thing or two about himself in the process.
This crazy story is only the set-up for what proves to be an even crazier puzzle game. While the object of Crush is simple and generic (it's your job to collect enough orbs and find the exit to the level), the way you go about completing each task will make you use parts of your brain that you didn't even know you had. Through 40 different levels you will have to figure out how to guide Danny from the beginning to the end without making him wake up ... a task that is a whole lot harder than it sounds.
So what's so original about moving your character from the start of a level to end, you may ask? Well, the trick is in HOW you move your character from the beginning to the end. The gimmick that sets Crush apart from every other game on the planet is that in order to solve the puzzles you are going to have to "crush" the levels by turning them from 3D to 2D. When you first enter a level you are able to run around a full 3D environment. However, if you're going to collect all of the orbs and make your way out of the level then you're going to have to hit the left shoulder button and turn this 3D area into 2D.
While that may sound complicated, this "crush" mechanic is actually very simple and you'll understand how it works almost immediately. You control Danny by using the analog nub; this allows you to run around the 3D world much like you would any other modern third-person action game. However, the camera is controlled by the D-Pad, so you can look at the level from a number of different perspectives. If you want to switch from 3D to 2D all you need to do is push the "crush" button and depending on what camera perspective you have the world will change right in front of your eyes. It's important to note that your "crush" effect will change depending on how you're looking at the level, so if one angle doesn't help you it might be useful to try one of the other camera positions.
All this 3D to 2D stuff works because the game lays down the rules about how each of the objects work. For example, there are some objects you won't be able to walk through when you're in the 2D perspective. Also, you will only be able to "crush" on certain types of panels, something that ultimately restricts how you go about solving the puzzles. Once you've mastered the rules (which are introduced within the first few minutes of play) you'll find that it's easy to manipulate the levels and get around. But don't confuse the game's simple rules with the difficulty of Crush, because this is one title that will put your brain to the test.
The key to Crush is that it's more than just switching the world from 3D to 2D, you will also need to use objects found in the levels in order to jump to high up areas, kill giant bugs and trigger weight-sensitive panels. As you progress through the game you will be introduced to more objects and have to figure out increasingly difficult puzzles, some of which will feel like there's no possible solution. But once you do figure out how to get from point A to point B you'll feel an amazing sense of accomplishment that you rarely get in video games these days. Even the early levels offer this sense of accomplishment, a feeling that is so addictive that it will keep you playing from start to finish.
But make no mistake about it; Crush is a devilishly difficult game. Part of the reason the game is so difficult is because it comes from a whole new perspective. I've never seen a game like this before, so retraining my mind to think about solving these puzzles takes a little work. It's also difficult because of the way the levels are laid out; the developers at Zoe Mode (which used to be part of Kuju Entertainment) have created levels that are both tricky and simple at the same time. Considering that each level has to work from several different angles (including an overhead perspective) it's absolutely mind boggling what these talented designers were able to accomplish. Simple screenshots don't do this game justice, you really have to see the game in action before you can understand how complicated the level designs are.
The game is split up into four different locations, each with their own special style and challenges. The first set of levels are all in the city, which is dark and gloomy. Once you get through those ten challenges you'll be swept away to the seaside, then the funfair and finally to the nursery. Each of these level groupings introduces a new concept, such as the infinitely thin blocks that appear invisible from certain angles, an alarm clock that will wake Danny up, and giant gears that you can use to move parts of the level around. Better yet, each of these areas represent some tragic element that happened to Danny in the past, ultimately unraveling an interesting story of sadness and regret. Complete all of these missions and you'll figure out just why Danny can't sleep and help him get some much-needed rest.
The nice thing about Crush is that you can take it at the speed you are comfortable with. While you're graded on how quickly you complete the levels, there's really no reason for you to rush. Take your time to take in your surroundings and figure out just how to collect all the orbs and get Danny to the exit. And best of all, you don't even have to worry too much about dying (or waking up, since Danny is solving these puzzles in his sleep). If you fall off a ledge or get hit by a giant bug you'll simply start the level over again, which is generally not a big deal. Most levels even have checkpoints scattered around, so having to start again isn't all that tragic. Of course, if you take too much time and wake up more than a few times you will get a lower grade, but you'll still get the satisfaction of beating the level. If you're one of those people who is a stickler for the high scores then you can always replay any and all of the levels and improve your grade.
While all of the puzzles can be beaten in a matter of minutes, a lot of the levels will take quite awhile to figure out. And even if you do figure out how to get Danny to the exit, you will still want to go back through the level and find the various hidden items. Each of the 40 levels offers a trophy to collect and a puzzle piece, both of which unlock extra features in the game's main menu. Of course, like any true puzzle game, figuring out how to collect these items is easier said than done.
If Crush has any problem it's that the game isn't nearly long enough. The 40 levels will definitely take you a few hours to figure out, but after you're done you'll be left wanting more. Perhaps that's a good sign, since not every puzzle game leaves you wanting another 40 levels to complete. Still, at $30 the game comes with more than enough levels to warrant the full price purchase. And even after you've beaten all of the levels you'll probably want to go back and get 100% on each level, while also finding the puzzle pieces and trophies.
The graphics in Crush aren't nearly as cool as the concept, but they do have a certain amount of charm to them. Instead of going for a happy-go-lucky look, most of the levels you solve puzzles in are full of gloomy locales. Even something that sounds bright and colorful, like the Seaside levels, is plagued by an uneasy feeling that not everything is right. The character of Danny is actually really cool; he sleepwalks through these puzzles with his head sagging and his arms lifeless. I actually really like this effect and feel that the graphics do a great job of conveying the dream state that Danny finds himself in. I suspect that this art style is not for everybody, especially people that feel that this game should be a little more lighthearted than it actually is. Either way, the graphics are crisp and the game looks good on the PSP's screen.
It's hard to find too many faults with a game like Crush; the concept is original and the whole game is expertly done. Even with an interesting story and some cool graphics, it's the levels that steal the show. Each and every level is awe-inspiring, and the game proves to be challenging without being too frustrating. Best of all, Crush is a perfect handheld experience. Even if you only have a few minutes to play you can come away from Crush feeling like you've accomplished something. It may not be the biggest name of the year, but if you own a PSP and want to try out something truly original (and mind boggling) then Crush is your game!