The rather wonderful Because We May sale made a lot of good indie games very cheap for a little while, and I decided to pick up RUSH after having a shot at the demo. Developed by Two Tribes (the folks behind Toki Tori and EDGE), RUSH is a puzzle game involving placing special directional tiles to relocate and redirect cubes from start points to end points. It’s a pretty simple concept with some rather fiendish execution.
The tiles you have access to include directional arrows, conveyor belts, the ‘split’ (which alternately sends cubes one way and then the other) and the stop sign (which causes a cube to momentarily wait). It’s a small, efficient toolset, and you’re given access to very specific amounts of them in each level. Many a time will you grind your teeth wishing you had an extra left-direction arrow or access to a couple of conveyors. At any point during the level, you can press a button that prevents you being able to place tiles and starts the cubes rolling. If at any point, two cubes collide or one falls off the level, the solution is invalid; otherwise, provided they all reach the exit points, you win.
There are some incredibly difficult puzzles in RUSH, and for this the developers kindly included a hint functionality that gives some indication as to what their desired solution is. This is every bit as useful if you’re half way through solving a big, complicated level and want to know if you’re on the right track as it is for when you get truly stuck and need some clues. The puzzles are very tightly designed; some of them are lip-bitingly frustrating (in a good way) as you struggle to figure out the solution that fits within the constraints of your limited resources. It’s quite evident that a long time was spent on iteratively paring down the tiles you get in each puzzle and tweaking the levels themselves in order to strip out additional, easier solutions. I believe I did solve one or two of them with tiles to spare, but no more than that. RUSH is far less forgiving than the likes of Portal or World of Goo, which go for the (arguably more pleasant) approach of allowing the easier solutions for people who want to experience the game as much as anything else, but pushing inquisitive players to find the more difficult ones by the addition of optional extra goals or more challenging versions of existing levels.
It’s clear that the developers were angling for an ‘easy to learn, hard to master’ approach, although I’m not sure to what extent they actually succeeded. While the tiles themselves are extremely easy to understand, along with the rule that when a cube hits a wall it turns right, RUSH has a lot of fiddly idiosyncrasies that will catch you out time and again. Most of these are to do with timing. Turning corners and hitting walls causes cubes to slow down by varying, not-always-well-defined amounts, and it often feels completely out of your hands as to whether a solution will or won’t actually work. I found myself trying permutations of several of my solutions, attempting to find the one that would avoid collisions and let me complete the level. While some of the ‘collision avoidance’ puzzles are remarkably intelligent, some of them just involve you causing cubes to travel some lengthy path in order to waste time, waiting for another spawn point to stop producing cubes, which is patently unsatisfying. There’s no indication of how long a spawn point will spawn for, or how many cubes it will spawn, so you often don’t find out you’re in a ‘delaying tactic’ level until you sigh in frustration and reach for the hint button.
These idiosyncrasies mean that RUSH has a wildly bucking difficulty curve. There’s a definite progression from easy to medium to hard, but it’s unpredictable as to whether a puzzle will be a work of absolute genius (and there are some fantastically thorny pieces of design in this game, make no mistake) or one where you have to solve it time and time again until you hit upon the one solution the developers were thinking of. Then there are puzzles which are really easy except that you can’t properly see into some parts of the level, puzzles with misleading elements you have to ignore (which can be both a good and a bad thing depending on how you look at it), and puzzles where things that would normally work don’t because the cubes are moving more quickly than usual. The game loves to toy with your expectations, which is great in principle, but isn’t always done that well.
Despite my criticisms, I did complete RUSH, and I enjoyed the process. It’s addictive, has an appealing visual style, and has an excellent variety of challenges for you to take on. Two Tribes have done a good job of making a unique puzzle game that steps well outside the usual ‘quirky platformer’ archetype to create something more cerebral. It requires no reflexes or precise placement of items, only persistence and thinking. Its puzzles have clearly had lots and lots of time spent honing and polishing them, and given its extremely low price, it’s worth picking up just to have your brain stretched and your knowledge of game design deepened.