It’s weird to think how much of a big deal Apple once made about its Apple Arcade service, the level of buzz and excitement having now quietening down to a small whimper. I’ll admit though, as a Samsung phone owner, I was a little jealous to miss out on a couple of its titles one of those being Grindstone – the other being Chu Chu Rocket Universe which I’m still secretly crossing my fingers we’ll see on Switch one day. Usually, I’m not one to get too excited about what rarely amounts to more than a quick and cheap port job from smartphone to console, but I’m pleased to report that Grindstone is far from that.
Grindstone is a colour-matching puzzler that sees you taking control of a chunky barbarian called Jorj as he sets off up Grindstone Mountain to slay colourful little monsters called ‘creeps’ and ‘jerks’ and earn some coin for his family. Broken down into single-screen levels, the action takes place on grids filled with enemies with players able to direct Jorj vertically, horizontally and diagonally space by space so long as the creeps you’re drawing a path through match in colour. That’s essentially the core of the game as you’re constantly seeking out the longest slaughter-filled path whilst avoiding standing too close to aggravated enemies primed for an attack. Should you manage to create a path of at least ten spaces, then a grindstone will randomly drop on the grid, a gem not only required for purchases (more on that in a moment), but also allowing Jorj to switch colour mid-path allowing for even longer ones to be created.
To successfully beat a level and pass through its doors onward, you’ll need to defeat a certain number of baddies in order to break its lock. Doing so will allow you to continue on your journey, but won’t offer much in the way of reward. For that, you’ll want to stick around for a shot at breaking open randomly dropping chests and taking out cowering king jerks whose crown will help unlock new sections of the mountain. There’s an excellent risk versus reward hook here where the threat of losing all your gathered goodies should you take too much damage definitely adds further tension the longer you stick around. The fact the creeps grow more aggressive as the round goes on also makes taking the brave route far from a walk in the park.
The further up to the mountain you progress, the more difficult the layouts of stages become as well as the enemies themselves. While standard creeps can be taken out by simply directing Jorj toward them, tougher jerks will require you to have already built up a path of a certain length beforehand. You’ll also find yourself having to deal with environmental obstacles like rocks and small bat-filled caves that again can be smashed down so long as you’ve built a big enough path. With two hundred levels to work through the game does a great job of sprinkling in new ideas to keep things interesting and engaging – boss battles, in particular, are a highlight offering some of the more challenging moments.
As you slash and chop your way through enemies and other pieces of scenery, you’ll pick up blueprints and materials that can be used to build weapons, armour and potions at the local inn. With players able to equip three and take into levels, these are helpful at getting you out of a pinch whether it’s blocking attacks for a turn or being able to take out an entire line of creeps with one slash. Timing when to use these perks is key especially in some of the tougher stages and with the more powerful equipment requiring further materials to repair, you’ll always want to keep an eye on your supplies before donning gear that will keep costing you to use.
Unlike most puzzle games where the pacing and atmosphere can fall under the category of chilled, Grindstone is constantly exciting from the very first path you trace to the final smashing of the exit doors. Furthermore, the level of satisfaction felt when managing to figure out a long creep-dispatching route never lessens and is something I’d perhaps compare to the likes of nailing a five-chain combo in Puyo Puyo or finally revealing a 20 by 20 puzzle in Picross. It’s this compelling loop of seeking out and then watching Jorj quickly empty a room of creeps that keeps driving your forward.
Visually Grindstone is surprisingly silly and colourful in spite it being a game about slaughtering endless waves of little monsters. The soundtrack too is another highlight and only goes to further strengthen the presentation and overall package of the game.
Grindstone is a fantastic puzzler that has well and truly gotten its hooks in me. What usually starts out as plans for a quick five-minute session soon unravels into hours. The wait from Apple Arcade to Nintendo Switch has been worth it, and Grindstone ends 2020 with a bang.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Capybara Games