I consider puzzle games an incredibly hard genre to make: the basic premise must be easy to pick up but have enough depth to keep players coming back for more; luck must be kept at bay as much as possible, and the mechanics must allow for some flexibility to create different game modes.
Enter Aenigma OS for the WiiU, a puzzle game by Akies Games. All you have to do is to match three or more symbols of the same shape in vertical or horizontal lines by tapping the first and last symbols you want to match; the more symbols matched, the higher the score. As symbols are matched they disappear, revealing new ones. Simple enough, no?
And here's an other set of rules: matches can have up to two other different symbols between them, but doing so will decrease the score. New symbols won't simply replace the matched set, instead sliding in from one of the four cardinal directions, depending on the position of the first and last symbol tapped: tap a green triangle on the extreme left and then one toward the center of the grid and new symbols will slide in from the left; do the opposite and old symbols left will slide to the right, followed by new shapes. Same happens for up and down. These are the basic rules of Aenigma OS: simple, elegant, fun, addictive, and deep.
Say you have a row with a yellow sphere, a purple triangle, a second sphere, a red square, a third sphere, and two more squares: match the yellow spheres will get you a low score as all of them have other shapes in between; match the red squares will be more profitable, and will also move the spheres into a complete line of three for a higher score still. Add in that you can manipulate how many new pieces will appear based on a match position within the grid and which shape you tap first, and you'll easily realize that Aenigma OS allows for a lot of opportunities and strategic thinking with its rules.
Aenigma OS makes a great use of its system to create several game modes: High Score, which should be self-explanatory; Time Trial: reach a certain score in the least amount of time possible; Coverage, where you have to move shapes within a section of the board; Targets, where you have to match a certain amount of shapes; and Colour, in which you have to create lines that intersect and match the colour of a space; and. All these modes are grouped into a Campaign section that will bring you across a small island and its many backgrounds, free play, or internet leaderboards. Hot seat multiplayer rounds off the available game modes.
As much I'm enamoured with the system, I'm unimpressed by the presentation. Grids and symbols are easily read and there's even a handy hint system (that can be disabled) if you take too much time in finding a possible match, but the rest of the graphics aren't particularly impressive. I've found that the interface in campaign mode isn't as friendly as it should be on first approach, with no clear indication on what red and yellow dots mean, nor what the various choices upon selecting a location do. I'm not one for dance/techno music, and Aenigma OS goes for that soundtrack. Granted, most of the times I was too busy thinking about the puzzles to really care about the music, but one particular track with small spoken insets always detracts some attention.
What I thought would have been short sessions to stave off boredom turned out to be hours-long sessions trying to beat my own high score or one of the other various game modes offered. All game modes have a time limit, which at first might sound counterproductive, but instead it keeps the game flowing and forces players to make the best of their available resources. And if you are wondering, yes, luck does play a small factor. But not getting the symbol you wanted might open one or more possibilities somewhere else in the grid: once again, a choice that keeps the whole gaming area fluid and encourages players not to fixate on only one possible match.
Aenigma OS strikes all the points that make a great puzzle game: easy to learn, hard to master, equally satisfying in short or long sessions, and with a good variety of game modes. Highly recommended.
Disclosure: the developer provided a download code for a full version of the game to the reviewer