I have a new love, and its name is Grindstone. We spend time together every night before we go to sleep.
I do love a reliable indie developer. Capybara Games certainly meet that remit, having broken away from franchise work in 2011 with their astounding Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP. Then came Super Time Force in 2014, the Shipwrecked expansion for Don’t Starve in 2015, 2018’s Below, and most recently 2019’s iOS release, Grindstone. Not knowing what an “iOS” is, nor how you fit it inside a proper Android telephone, I missed that one entirely. Until its Switch release in December last year. After which I have played it every single day.
This happens to me occasionally. A particular game, almost always a puzzle game, will click so hard that it becomes a daily pursuit. Most recently it was Gems Of War. For a good while it was Alpha Bear. I racked up a concerning 365 day run on Flow Free once, although I’m certain that became more because it was counting, rather than because I always wanted to. At the moment, it is Grindstone, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t missed a day since its release on December 15th.
In the game, if you’ve taken leave of your senses and not yet played, you move your wild-eyed blue guy around a 7×7 grid of variously coloured monsters, Creeps, chaining together matching colours into runs that can then be “spent” attacking enemies which have number limits. If the beastie has a five, you’ll need at least five Creeps chained first. The titular Grindstones’ first use is letting you switch the colour of a Creep as you move around the grid, but they’re also a resource you need to gather to heal your character, buy new equipment, open up bonus levels, and restore your special items between games. Alongside so very many other collectibles. Which of course makes the game so very ripe for the most gruesome of monetisation: $US9.99 ($13) for 100 Grindstones, $US99.99 ($129) for 150… So it is with such relief and delight that I report no such thing exists! In a tribute to the Ancient Days Of Lore, this is the sort of video game one can pay for, and then… just own! I know, it sounds like madness, but I swear it’s true.
Grindstone is built with such an extraordinary degree of refinement, and I think it’s this precision balancing that has me so very engaged. It’s generally pretty easy to complete a new level and open the next, but it’s almost never easy to tick off all the targets on a level. So I am of course obliged to tick off the targets on every single level before I’ll let myself move much further on. Anything else would be disgraceful cheating, leaving strings of levels behind me with the treasure chest unopened, or the, er, royal Creep with its crown. I’d not stoop so low. I mean, I’ll let myself get a bit ahead if something is particularly tricky (or, in the game’s only weakness, relies too much on the luck of the fall of Creeps to be achievable — something that only happens in extremely few levels). But then once it’s disappearing off the bottom of the puzzle select screen, I can’t take it, I can’t leave it like that, I have to go back and 100% it.
There’s something of the Puzzle Quest about it, which you will correctly recognise as the ultimate form of the “I need to play this every day forever” school of gaming. That is, it has a lot of depth to it that ascends it beyond its core puzzle mechanic. In Grindstone there are the bonus items that can be unlocked and judiciously selected from them when tackling a particular level’s nuances, like swords with special abilities, shield types, potions and arrows. Weighing up which to choose is not only decided by how much their unique attributes might apply to a situation, but also how much they cost in resources to recharge. Some are basic but recharge themselves between levels, others require a huge cost in Grindstones and other collectibles such that you can’t just cheese your way through levels with them.
It’s also important to note that this is one of far, far few games to recognise the Switch’s potential as a touchscreen gaming device. While Nintendo of course always does its best to ignore their own device’s abilities (remember all those first-party DS games that were played entirely on the face buttons?), it seems crazy to me that more third-party devs don’t realise what they’re missing. Grindstone can be played entirely on the touchscreen, and frankly, should be, even though for some odd reason all its in-game prompts are only for the buttons.
All this has made it my perfect bedtime game. A way to wind down at the end of the extraordinarily long days of the latest UK lockdown, as I attempt to fit homeschooling a six-year-old into my actually-already-full-thank-you-very-much days. Plough through a few dungeons, go back and get the treasure chest on that one that was previously bugging me, perhaps take a run at the daily challenges and wonder in bemusement at how people get three times my amazing scores, then sleep. I’m on level 145 at the moment, and the knowledge that there are “only” 200 levels is hanging over me like the Sword of Damocles. (Although I don’t think that includes the bonus levels, so it could be closer to 250?)
Capy have created such a sublimely well balanced game, often difficult but never unfair. It’s perfect for playing in occasional moments, and is so damn well crafted that even switching off the Switch mid-battle, no save (as my son is wont to do) has no consequences — it just asks me if I want to pick up where I was, and does. God bless them for that, let alone the rest of the game.
37 days and counting of play. It seems unlikely to be ending any time soon.