Three is definitely not a crowd
Over the past two years, the three-man team of Sirvo LLC has been narrowing in on mobile gaming gold. Although their only title as a trio was the brilliant Tetris-meets-SpellTower mash-up Puzzlejuice, their Midas Touch spread through the App Store via individual roles on critically-acclaimed games such as Hundreds and Ridiculous Fishing. After regrouping from their award-winning walkabouts, Sirvo’s sophomore offering is another puzzler, and one that sets the bar even higher than it was already stratospherically placed.
Threes! is the definition of deceptively simple. Its one-touch gameplay requires seemingly nothing more from players than the ability to swipe up, down, left, or right. Doing so will slide all tiles on its 4×4 game board in that same direction, with one of two results: either the tiles will simply move, or they will combine with other tiles. This is all you have to do to play Threes!, but it’s only the beginning of its strategy and depth.
Your overarching goal in Threes! is to create larger and larger numbers by combining like-numbered tiles. While Threes! appears mathematical at first glance, it’s strictly a matching game. When two tiles with the same number cross, they will merge into one new tile featuring their sum. So, two “3″ tiles become one “6″ tile, two “12″ tiles become one “24″ tile, etc. The only exception to this rule are “1″ and “2″ tiles, which must combine together to create a “3″ tile. The purpose of these numerical Voltrons is twofold: first, larger numbers are worth more points towards your final score and second, merging tiles clears space on the board. Since the game ends when the board fills up (and no other matches are available), this is a key component to progress.
These core aspects are vaguely similar to Triple Town, but Threes! is only lightly reminiscent of the anti-bear match-3 game. Combos in Threes! can only be made within rows or columns that are butted up against the walls of the grid; otherwise, the tiles will simply shift to fill open spaces. This allows freedom to rearrange the grid when needed, but while creating the added demand of filling a row before you can merge tiles.
Also, while one new tile is added to the grid on every “turn” (swipe), you do not add it directly. A preview box warns you whether a “1,” “2,” or higher numbered tile is going to appear next. That tile will always slot into the end of a row or column that has just been moved, opposite the direction swiped. This means if you swiped right and only one row was able to move, the new tile will appear on the leftmost column of that row. However, if you swipe and more than one row moves, the new tile will randomly appear in one of those rows.
This, along with the randomization of which tile will appear next—you could get an unhelpful flurry of “2″s all at once—adds a dash of luck to Threes! and prevents excessive preplanning. You can really only prepare a few moves in advance, which keeps the game flowing and exciting. It also allows a variety of different strategic options, ranging from focusing on immediately combining “1″s and “2″s to limiting how many rows you move each turn in order to control where the next tile will appear.
All of its mechanical elements are perfectly implemented to create a highly strategic yet occasionally surprising puzzler. Even if Threes! were barebones text on a muted background, these matching mechanics would hold up. But it’s not: Sirvo has wrapped its already graceful gameplay in a gorgeously polished and charming package that advances Threes! from a great game to a mobile masterpiece. Each of the tiles higher than “2″ are represented as characters that have their own personalities and even voices, making comments to the player and each other as play progresses.
Same-numbered tiles get excited when they’re near each other, tiles get bored and yawn when you don’t make a move, and each announces their arrival with a friendly greeting. While their personalities get bigger along with the numbers—”192, aka ThreeJay” is a baritone disc jockey who beatboxes occasionally, while “3, aka Trin” is soft-spoken and rarely speaks—the characters are never distracting. When coupled with the relaxing music punctuated by whimsical humming, the result is an upbeat and charismatic backdrop perfect for spending minutes or hours within.
The only feature of Threes! that is not top-shelf, bang-on spotless is the scoring system. It’s difficult to tell—especially when starting out—if you’ve actually done “well” or not. This lessens as you complete rounds and aim to beat your own high score (or any other score you’ve managed, since every one of them is recorded), but even then it’s tough to know where you rank outside of Game Center or friends’ scores. Besides unlocking character profiles the first time you create a number, there are no defined challenges or hurdles to pass that help indicate progress.
Considering that this hasn’t stopped me from inadvertently playing for hours straight numerous times, it’s hardly a barrier to enjoying Threes! The simple mechanics, deep strategy, and stacks of charm are balanced so perfectly together that it’s impossible to imagine a single change that could really improve upon what Sirvo has created. It is, as Karate Kid-inspired ThreeJay would say, “the best around.”