I honestly can’t think of any soothing puzzle games. Not serious ones, at least. I mean, there’s Quell Reflect for mobiles, but can you name even one puzzle game for PC that manages to be both tough as nails and blissfully relaxing at the same time? Seriously, if you can, let me know – I’d love to play it. Splice is the first of that kind. A puzzle game this tough could easily become very frustrating very fast, but the beautiful aesthetics help quench that fire before it can even be kindled. Whoa, metaphor.
Splice has you rearranging cells and strands of cells into a specific structure within a set number of moves. That’s about as complex as it gets. Along the way, you’re confronted by new types of cells, including cells that elongate into two and cells that duplicate everything attached to the end of it. Each puzzle has to be solved within a certain number of splices (commonly known as moves), and as a tasty little goal for the perfectionists out there, every puzzle (I think, don’t quote me) can be solved in less splices than you are provided with – this is known as an “angelic” solution. Obviously, as you progress through the sequences (stages), the puzzles get harder, the bacteria get bigger, and the whole game just becomes more confusing.
I touched on this earlier, but it would logically follow that, as the game becomes more confusing, you become more frustrated. In my case, unless it’s ridiculously compelling (I’m looking at you, SpaceChem), then I’ll close the window and never look back. Even in those special cases, I’ll still get frustrated enough to hurl my computer out the window when I think I’ve worked out the solution only to have it fall to pieces at the very last step. That’s where Splice really comes into its own – it totally sidesteps any chance of frustration by ensuring that you’re totally calm and relaxed throughout the entire session. The soothing piano-based soundtrack is absolutely perfect, somehow managing to encapsulate the feeling of poking around in a Petri dish, piecing together microbes in a laboratory while you’re sitting in front of your desk. It’s quiet, peaceful, minimalistic, and haunting, enticing you to push on to that next level and stifling any chance of you becoming daunted by the huge bacterial strand to follow. This is, really, cognitive music design at its best, somehow aiding your brain as your neurons struggle to solve each strand.
If there’s one thing as important as audio design in Splice, it’s visual design. Once again, the chaps at Cipher Prime have pulled it off in spades. Each sequence has its own, distinct, vibrant colour scheme that ties its component strands (levels) together. In keeping with the music, the visuals are very sparse and minimal, adding to the idea that you’re piecing together bacteria in a Petri dish. Backgrounds are made up of, essentially, a solid colour with a couple of particles floating around. Even more so, as you complete a strand (after being greeted with a celebratory ”Strand Completed”), it moves to the left of the screen to make way for the next one, but doesn’t completely disappear. This adds a nice organic touch to the general feel of the game, making it easy to picture the microbes swimming around in a puddle. Everything looks crisp, fresh, and natural. Hey, even the font design is sublime.
Despite my spiel about the aesthetics, the most important thing in any puzzle game is, quite obviously, the puzzles. After all, they’re what drives the game, right? And they’re fantastic. While it starts out easy, after about sequence 3, the difficulty starts to pick up the pace very quickly. Each later strand in the sequences will result in you giving yourself a fresh bald spot. The presence of a beard is highly recommended for stroking purposes. That’s the kind of game that Strand is – it perfectly captures the boundary between poo-flingingly hard and laughably easy, without so much as breaking a sweat.
Splice also offers a gorgeous rewind/fast forward feature, allowing you to move back and forward in your steps in order to work out exactly where you’ve gone wrong in every strand with a simple spin of the mouse wheel. The maximum number of splices forces you to find an elegant solution to every puzzle, blocking the opportunity to just move an endless number of cells around until you reach your goal.
Every now and again, a puzzle game comes along that makes you feel like a genius and stupid at the same time. Even more seldom will a game simultaneously calm you down and get your synapses firing on overtime. The lack of a tutorial may initially give you the feeling of being thrown in the deep end, but in a game as simple as this, the satisfaction from deciphering what the fuck is going on is always superior to a wordy tutorial. As every new cell type is presented to you, you’re expected to perform trial and error in order to determine what each of these new cells actually do.
Maybe Splice wouldn’t work as well without the fantastic aesthetic design, and maybe the aesthetics wouldn’t work without the clever puzzles and concept. It’s the combination of these two factors that pulls Splice together as one of the best puzzlers on the market. It’s very basic and yet still manages to be daunting at times – an extended session will require a large amount of perseverance and might easily see you getting bored. The extreme minimalism can be a bit of a detrimental factor at times, however this will likely appeal to some players. The same ones that really enjoyed Flower. It comes down to whether or not you like puzzlers, bright colours, and little-to-no in-game explanations. I do. At least I think I do.
Select Start Media was provided with a review copy of Splice by Cipher Prime.