One of the things I love about indies tackling free-to-play is that they often ‘screw up’ in making them – they take to heart the idea that free-to-play games should be free to enjoy, whereas these games are all too often about tightening the screws to make money from players as much as possible. Granted, some games can encourage money spending while also providing plenty of free fun, but it’s a very tough balance. And indies often manage to make games that use free-to-play trappings, but in ways that are probably sub-optimal for monetization, but optimal for the player experience.

What we’ve seen in particular with puzzle games is the Candy Crush Saga formula – make puzzle games that have set scenarios that use randomness and the availability of boosts to challenge players and make money off of them respectively. I believe casual players want their games to be accessible yet challenging. It’s that accessible part that often throws off the more dedicated player, versed in years of gaming tropes and traditions. And what Foursaken Media has done with Puzzle to the Center of the Earth is make a Candy Crush style of free-to-play puzzle game that’s accessible to the dedicated player – one who wants to be tested and challenged – while also trying to monetize to them. It has no shame about how it wants to make money, but it does so in a way that is ultimately friendlier to an audience hostile to any kind of consumable IAP.

Essentially, it’s the Spelunky of Candy Crush – and it’s more than just because this game is about mining.

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The ultimate goal of any level in Puzzle to the Center of the Earth is to get the miner from the top to the bottom of the level by removing the blocks that are blocking their way. These are matched in Dungeon Raid fashion, adjacent horizontally, diagonally, or vertical. Each match spends one unit of energy, which can be collected from blocks or through creating recipes of certain block combinations. These recipes, unlocked by spending in-game currency, can do a number of things – but require catalysts to set off. Catalysts, in turn,  have to be collected by making matches of six blocks or more. So, it’s not just possible to just make every possible match, and drop blocks when necessary – that pesky energy will always get in the way. Then things like TNT blocks and enemies get in the way of survival, along with the resource management!

It’s a game that uses very accessible mechanics, and then tests players all the time – and that’s before trying to collect the optional items.

The nature of Puzzle to the Center of the Earth’s monetization is either going to be considered fair or bothersome to depending on one’s perspective. There are a lot of little boosts that can be bought: it’s possible to buy helpful items mid-game like bombs, star detectors, platforms, and pickaxes for $0.99 a piece. Die and want to respawn? Toss the game $0.99 and come back right away. Run out of energy? More energy is just a dollar away. But the thing is, all of these things truly are optional. This game is brutally challenging with or without them, and they’re really only there as the occasional emergency help…unless the plan is to spend hundreds of dollars to progress through this game.

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There’s a lives system in place, similar to the aforementioned Candy Crush Saga, where only dying takes a life away. The lives refill pretty quickly, and it’s possible to buy out of the system entirely for $4.99. With no energy system, the game allows for the grinding of money and exploring earlier levels. I recommend serious players buy in to the $4.99 unlimited lives as soon as possible: it makes the experience a lot more enjoyable when you can keep playing death after death.

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What Puzzle to the Center of the Earth succeeds at is that it really follows through on being this ultra-challenging and strategic puzzle game that uses the elements of free-to-play puzzle games, but not just using them to make money off of gamers who appreciate casual experiences. This is the puzzle game for the dyed-in-the-wool gamer who has an appreciation for challenging, traditional game design – e.g. someone who enjoys Spelunky. It’s possible for a game to feel tilted against the player when it sells boosts and randomizes things. Not this one: Puzzle to the Center of the Earth genuinely feels like it’s just setting forth a difficult challenge that can be conquered. It requires being careful with moves, finding the smart six-block matches in order to form catalysts, and clearing just the right path. When enemies get involved, learning how to take them out or to properly avoid them is a strategy that has to be learned. It’s not possible to buy one’s way through this game: it takes experience and patience to master.

When the comparisons to Spelunky were made by Foursaken Media and I initially played the game, I thought that they were a bit silly because of the fact that the game isn’t really roguelike – the levels appear to have the same basic layout each time, but with randomized block formations, so it was just about mining. But I see now why the comparison is more than skin deep. That game requires a thoughtful embrace of one’s surroundings, and deliberate play – it’s not possible to play Spelunky well without care and focus. And this game is much the same. There are the resources to constantly manage; the constant risk of death due to small amounts of health. The playable character is also not very agile, so going upward in particular requires a careful plan.

While Spelunky and Puzzle to the Center of the Earth are far from the same game, they shared a lot more than I expected.

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The specter of those in-app purchases tempting players to buy some breathing room won’t go away, but if you can look past it, what you’ll find here is a puzzle game that’s truly meant to test the player. It’s a brutally-hard game, and while cash can mitigate the difficulty somewhat, this is a game for the player who wants to be tested.

Puzzle to the Center of the Earth co-opts match-3 to make a brutal puzzle-platformer in the most literal sense. It’s utterly fascinating, and rewarding in a way few games are.