Above: image courtesy of Nintendo
Last week, a game I've been dying to play for years was finally released in Europe. No, I'm not talking about Final Fantasy XV (although the headline sort of spoiled that traditional "twist" intro, already). I mean Picross 3D: Round 2, the latest in Nintendo's 21-year-old puzzle series.
For the uninitiated, Picross is a logic-based puzzler in which you use numerical clues to fill in squares on a grid. Once you've filled in all the squares correctly, they form a picture and you suddenly feel like some sort of artistic genius. Think of it as a cross between Sudoku and Dot-to-Dot puzzles.
Picross 3D, released back in 2009 for the DS, built on this idea by simply adding an axis. Now, instead of filling in a 2D grid to make a picture, you were chipping away at a big rectangular prism made out of smaller cubes to make a 3D model. I was obsessed with it and prayed for a sequel. Seven years later, here we are with Round 2, which builds on the formula by making you color the remaining blocks either blue or orange, which determine their ultimate shape come the solution.
I am not exaggerating when I say that Picross 3D: Round 2 might just be the best puzzle game in the last 30 years. Not since Tetris on the Game Boy (at which I'm currently 12th in the world) has a puzzler wrapped its invisible arms around my head and jammed my face into the screen, refusing to let it go until my battery dies or my wife demands I stop playing it in bed because it's 3am and my stylus-tapping is keeping her awake.
There are numerous ways to reach the solution. You can choose to methodically use the strategies you've learned from the in-depth tutorials, and slowly use a process of elimination to figure out which cubes to remove, or instead take risks and make educated guesses to add a bit of excitement to the proceedings.
Above: 'Picross 3D: Round 2', overview trailer (UK)
The latter's made possible by the fact that you aren't just filling in a crossword or dropping blocks down a well here—you're "sculpting" an actual object. As you remove more cubes, the object's features begin to form, and you start thinking. That sloped section might continue a bit further down. That cylinder might go all the way along. I've got a little turret on the left side, maybe it's the same on the right.
It creates an inner conflict as you play. Your head tells you to stick to the number clues, take your time and logically figure out your next steps. Your heart flicks a cheeky middle finger in that direction and tempts your inner builder to try to second-guess which sections to cut—and which to keep—based on the partially completed solution facing you.
Meanwhile, as you endure this internal struggle, the game pummels you with a charm offensive. Surprisingly catchy music has you tapping your toes as often as your stylus, while little messages of "halfway there!" and "nearly there!" float into your periphery as you make progress.
Finish a puzzle and you'll get an adorable little description of the object you just uncovered. Take puzzle number 91 (of over 370), which reveals a little chap standing on a scale in his underwear. "This man prefers not to disclose his weight in public," the game tells us. "And rightly so—it's none of our business, so let's give him some peace and quiet."
I bought Pokémon Sun, but since I got my hands on Round 2 I haven't touched it.
Picross 3D: Round 2 has only been out for a matter of days in the UK (the US got it earlier in 2016) and I've already put 20 hours into it. I bought Pokémon Sun a week prior, but since I got my hands on Round 2 I haven't touched it.
That Picross hasn't gotten the coverage it deserves is an enormous shame: there's something very special here, among the blocks and numbers and cute sculptures.
This latest entry in the series doesn't just make you feel like a sculptor making an object; it makes you feel like an archaeologist excavating something hidden from a block of rock. When you play on the hardest difficulty, and a single mistake can mean instant failure to get its equivalent of an S-Rank, you also feel like a bomb disposal specialist. You sweat: it could all go wrong with one false move. It's exciting, nerve-wracking and hugely rewarding all at the same time.
If you're new to Picross, give Picross 3D: Round 2 a shot—there's a free demo on the 3DS eShop—and see why almost everyone who plays it falls in love with it. In the meantime, I'm going to get back to it: the sooner I can get through every puzzle, the sooner my wife can get a decent night's sleep.