Putting two and two…and two, and three, and four together.
7:30 PM: All right, I think I’ve gotten the hang of Polymer. I’ve unlocked all three modes, played each one to death, and made some pretty awesome shapes. I’m really digging this “chess meets LEGO” vibe. I should have all the notes I need to finish this review…unless. Maybe just one more game?
12:30AM: File. New Document.
From the mind of video game composer-turned-first-time-developer Whitaker Trebella, Polymer is a puzzler of deceptive simplicity. There are no intricate rules. No codes to crack. You simply move Polymer‘s globular, DNA-like shapes up, down, left, or right. As soon as two are hinged together, they become one. A strand is formed when no loose ends exist, and you score points for the resulting shape – the bigger and windier the better. To kick things off, your molecular mettle is tested in “Two Minutes” mode; 120 seconds to score the most points possible, however you’d like.
By giving you control over individual squares of the game grid, rows and columns become malleable and Polymer emerges as one big game of “however you’d like.” At first I was dabbling with the notion of full screen molecules, chaining big combos one bit at a time. As I went deeper down the rabbit hole, however, I grew to understand Trebella’s Rubik’s Cube design; saw how pieces jumped from one edge the screen to the other, and how to slot them intricately to my advantage.
That’s the masterstroke here. You learn by playing. And not just in the literal sense of the word, but in the exploration of a true sense of playfulness and creation. In a genre full of titles whose bread and butter is often careful consideration and “stare till’ you get it” mechanics, Polymer‘s lack of constraints teaches by osmosis. By allowing you to take things apart, and put them back together again.
As a result, the whole experience becomes very zen very quickly. I felt no time pressure in “Two Minutes” mode except what I put on myself, and only when I wanted to embrace the frenzy over the calm of finding and crafting the most intricate shapes. So whether it’s Tetris or Trainyard you love, Polymer provides a playground for your synapses.
For those that want to scratch each itch separately, the game offers “One Polymer” and “Bomb” modes. The former is my favourite; a fireside thinker with no time limit, and only one action: make the highest-scoring polymer you can. Besides making the most of a clever Twitter feature, “One Polymer” perfectly captures the game’s dual nature as both training ground and proving ground.
The latter is perhaps the game’s weakest feature. Sound in theory, “Bomb” puts you on a constant clock, with the quest to get rid of four-node squares before their timers run out and their fuses blow. Unfortunately, sealing everything will most often have you rushing to find the shortest nubs and tack them on, undermining the inherent gauntlet of crafting something clever. And once a second square drops in, the usually laissez-faire Polymer begins to feel positively rage-quit-inducing. “Bomb” was the only time during my hands-on with the game where I felt I was retrying out of masochism instead of obsession.
With that said, some have cried frustration at the game for loading up with in-app-purchases, locking alternate color schemes, new pieces, and the game’s second and third modes behind point barriers that tempt you to shell out. And while Trebella certainly gambles on the idea that his game is fun enough to grind through, I’d say he bets the house and wins. Not since Spelltower has a title had me this excited to pick up and play whenever I could.
In some ways, Polymer is just like the molecules inside the game. Colourful, packed with a genuine sense of play, and far more than the sum of the parts; a simple set of building blocks that combine to form something full of nuance and depth.