Apply the minutiae of your daily tasks to the mechanics of Grindstone, and you’ve got a recipe for a satisfying lifestyle as far as we’re concerned. This methodical puzzle game has a delightful focus on the excitement of building momentum and a beautifully balanced sense of risk and reward. It’s also about killing monsters, which is an element that mostly does not directly translate to your real life, but they could be a metaphor, if you like.
Basically, you’ll be presented with an all-too-familiar grid of colourful monsters called “creeps”, and must trace a path through similar-toned beasties in order to build up a combo and move around the screen. You can go in the cardinal directions as well as diagonally and it’s often possible to trace much longer paths of monsters than it initially appears, thanks to elements such as the introduction of larger, stronger creatures as well as other modifiers such as path-blocking boulders.
The effortlessness of building chains and the way the game flows mean that even as an essentially turn-based title, the action constantly feels dynamic, punchy and exciting. Strong art and animation contribute to this, but while it’s well-drawn and a good fit, we couldn’t help but find its character designs a touch familiar – a very en vogue sort of cartoon style, like you’d see on Cartoon Network. We’re not wild about some of the music, either – one track called to mind the appalling PS2 title Crash of the Titans, which is never fun to be reminded of. Still, it all works, it’s contemporary and it’s never anything other than perfectly clear what you’re doing.
Ending a turn next to a monster in a… let’s say irate mindset will see you taking damage, and as each level goes on you’ll find more and more creeps taking (frankly, understandable) umbrage to your slaughter of their kin. As the screens get increasingly dangerous, you’re incentivised to stick around and take out more and more monsters in order to acquire special items, such as keys to open chests or crowns worn by powerful, kingly opponents. It’s a smart application of risk and reward, as once you’ve achieved each level’s completion goal – defeating a certain number or certain type of enemy, for example – the most expedient move is simply to leave via the now-open exit. But that won’t net you those bonuses, which you’ll be using between stages to produce items from blueprints, craft useful bonuses and refill your waning health, which doesn’t restore automatically.
As you can likely tell, then, there’s much more going on here than it will appear at first. Never wavering from its appealing simplicity, Grindstone’s introduction of new elements drastically changes your approach to its challenges, and eventually, you’ll need to make more and more use of the advantages offered to you. There are alternate outfits to be unlocked, which confer in-game bonuses, but most crucial are the aforementioned items. The ability to teleport to any space or execute a powerful spin attack can change the tide of a battle, but these boons won’t recharge until the stage ends – some of them will even require you to expend resources in order to regain them.
These resources are the, er, source of the only real issue that we had with Grindstone; there are a fair number of them and they can feel a little redundant – a firm reminder of the mobile origins of the game. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with mobile games, but it’s generally pleasant when the seams are a little less visible. We’re not wildly keen on the gating of progress behind collecting certain items, either; while the requirements are extremely far from unreasonably demanding, it still feels like it runs against the otherwise freewheeling and friendly nature of the proceedings to suddenly drop a gate in the player’s way and state “by the way, those optional objectives? They weren’t entirely optional after all”.
It’s a very minor issue, though, as Grindstone absolutely nails the most important thing about any game of this nature – the central mechanic of chaining enemies never, ever stops being fun. Factoring in the titular grindstones that allow you to switch colours mid-combo, there’s so much to consider that no single turn is a no-brainer. Yes, occasionally there’ll be situations where very few meaningful moves are possible, but you’ll spend these planning ahead as you become more familiar with your arsenal and get better and more efficient at laying waste to wave after wave of creeps.
There are plenty of levels, each with side objectives for additional replay value. The inclusion of boss battles which change up the gameplay further are also very welcome, but even without this well-tuned variety, Grindstone would still be an outstanding effort. It’s such an accessible game; simultaneously challenging and incredibly friendly – booting the game lets you jump straight back into your last session, even mid-level, for example.
Compelling to a fault, with a hypnotic and exhilarating central conceit, Grindstone is a tiny bit special. Hopefully, it won’t be dismissed by players for being a mobile port, or being mistaken for a “match-three” game akin to Candy Crush – it’s not. A full-featured, elegantly designed experience, Capybara’s action-puzzle-tactics game is a tiny marvel and we’d strongly recommend it to any and all Switch owners. Ever-so-slight resource exhaustion is the only thing letting it down, but it’s easily forgiven when smashing seven shades of shawarma out of creeps is so flipping fun. We say it’s time to reverse that well-worn idiom and put your yes to the Grindstone.