Last year’s minimalist megahit, Dots, challenged players to one of the simplest game mechanics ever created: connect dots.  This simplicity, along with its clean design and perfectly timed short-burst play, made it a permanent fixture on millions of smartphones.  Its sequel, TwoDots, utilizes the same basic gameplay but offers more variety through level-based progression and in-game obstacles.  Unfortunately, it’s adopted a more aggressive system of monetization that becomes its own recurring obstacle.

TwoDots is most reminiscent of the “Moves” game type in Dots, whose goal was to collect as many dots as possible in a finite number of moves.  You still collect dots by drawing lines between same-colored circles horizontally or vertically (never diagonally), removing and receiving all points that the line touches.  In TwoDots, however, the goal is not simply to attain the highest score possible: you have objectives that must be completed in order to pass each of its 85 individual levels.

Most levels require you to collect a certain number of dots in different color categories, such as 50 blue and 50 green, within the number of moves provided.  Every 20 levels a new obstacle-dot is introduced that matches the current theme, including anchors, ice blocks, and fire-dots.  These obstacles are a frequent feature of the challenges and require special efforts to remove: anchors must be dropped off the bottom of the board, ice blocks must be collected three times in order to “break,” and fire-dots have to be doused by dropping other dots on top of them.  These unique dots add both variety and difficulty to the standard dot-collecting experience, and are a welcome—if not occasionally frustrating—addition to the Dots formula.

The other big change is in the board layouts themselves, which are no longer confined to the standard 6×6 board found in the original.  Every level in TwoDots features a unique layout that varies in both size and contents.  Some boards contain geometric obstacles that separate rows, preventing direct lines between dots on opposite sides.  Others have ramps that drop dots from the side instead of the top.  And some even separate single columns of mismatched dots that must be collected via non-direct methods.

These methods always come down to the same strategy that prevailed in Dots: make squares.  Squares still remove all dots of the square’s color, creating a fast and efficient way to collect large groups of dots and set up additional chains of squares.  This is also the only way to collect distant, single-column dots or remove isolated dots that are blocking anchors, making squares even more crucial in TwoDots.  It’s disappointing that even with new and interesting dot types to manipulate, the game still retains a single-minded strategy that we already exhausted in its predecessor.

Although there is an even greater emphasis on creating squares, actually doing so has been severely hindered by the board layouts and restart-restrictions placed on levels.  The smaller, cramped boards do not lend themselves to squares, and yet rarely do these levels provide more than the bare minimum number of moves possible to meet their goals.  Also, the standard tactic of restarting a level until you get a good beginning board—usually one with a square—has been obstructed by the newly implemented “lives” system, which will dock you one life each time you restart.

Those lives are the energy system of TwoDots, and its least appealing addition.  Players are given a maximum of five lives, and lost lives regenerate one every 20 minutes.  Failing to complete an objective—losing a level—costs a life, as does restarting a level or exiting once you’ve started.  If you run out of lives, you can buy a five-life refill for $0.99, or wait for their return.  The other items on offer are a bomb for $0.99 or five additional moves for $0.99, both of which are single-use and available only once you’ve lost a level.  There is no in-game currency as in Dots, no purchasable power-ups prior to losing, and no way to buy out the life system.

The most frustrating aspect of this monetization system—besides the fact that everything is premium and shoved in your face after you’ve failed—is that TwoDots is a highly luck-based game.  There is a skill to anticipating dot-drops and seeing squares ahead of time, but much of each objective’s success hinges on the game itself wanting you to win.  It’s not uncommon to need a certain type of dot—typically the anchor—and not see even one appear for multiple turns.  You may set up the best potential set of squares possible, but the next layer of dots is always invisible and rarely matches what you need.

A small, anti-square level with high requirements—level 25 is a monstrous example—may take a dozen tries before you even come close to succeeding.  That’s nearly two and a half series of lives wasted, or four hours of waiting for lives to refill.  And with even past levels requiring lives, there’s little incentive to replay previous stages for three stars since you may end up losing lives on them.

All of this is a shame because even with its overly simplistic strategy, TwoDots is a truly gorgeous and compelling experience.  The entire app, from menu to music, is an aesthetic work of art that blends seamlessly together.  The dancing squid on the level map, the flickering fire-dots in the Fire Forest levels, and even the two traveler dots—who are the stars of the extremely basic “story” that isn’t really necessary, but a charming addition—are all bursting with character.  TwoDots would be a wonderful experience to lose yourself within, if the game would only let you in.