Disclaimer: hundreds of mice were hurt in this experiment. But don’t worry, their deaths were only virtual, and they were for the advancement of science. Your goal in MouseCraft is to help a desperate cat scientist, aptly named Schrödinger, to power up a mysterious machine by leading three lemming-like mice across water and acid pits through 80 puzzle levels.
From a genetic standpoint, MouseCraft seems to be a healthy cross between Lemmings and Tetris, but the result is a puzzle game that can’t be closely compared to either. Every level has three mice that need to get to a pod. Once launched with a press of a button, the three critters mechanically walk until a wall that’s two blocks high stops them, making them turn around and walk until something else stops or kills them. If done right, by placing variously shaped brick blocks, a safe path saves them from danger and leads the oblivious animals to the end of the course. There are no orders or items to direct the mice. Instead, you indirectly influence them with a specific set of blocks, completing course after course, steadily unlocking new gameplay variants.
MouseCraft throws new variables into the mix at a dizzying pace, but it always takes a round to get you acquainted with how a new toy works. Other than regular bricks, there’s gel ones that prevent death from falling, because any mouse dies from a height greater than three blocks. There are Crumbling Blocks that break after two mice pass, leaving the third behind, which is useful if you want to direct it to an alternate path. There’s water and lethal acid, TNT bricks that detonate three seconds after being touched, and more. While it’s good that there’s always a “tutorial” level for each mechanic, the difficulty often rises sharply after just two or three stages with a new mechanic.
The three mice come out of their starting point in equal distances, so the real skill often comes in separating them. Other than logic, MouseCraft tests the ability to both think ahead and think in the moment. The mechanic of placing starting blocks for moving creatures is an interesting curveball. While you can easily predict their movements and place a good path ahead of time, you often have to engineer solutions in the moment, and place or blow up blocks as the mice blindly march ahead. For the most part, this works out well, but sometimes it’s really hard to figure out what to do just by looking at the level. The game encourages players to send the test subjects out and see how they fare, in order to make observations, revisions, conclusions – all very experiment-like. Thankfully, players have some useful controls to facilitate these close calls: They can freeze time and place blocks, speed the game’s pace, and even undo the last block placed, going back in time. It’s just too bad that you can’t undo right when all three mice die, because the game forces you to start the level completely from scratch. Also, there seems to be some problem with scrolling levels that are longer than the screen, as the arrow keys were either unresponsive, or they scrolled way too fast.
For the most part, all the unlocked mechanics work really well, with some exceptions. There are mechanical “enemy” mice that behave identically to the regular ones, and must be avoided at all costs. Those can be killed by placing a block over them though (just as the good ones can, if you’re not careful), so these little robots can be taken care of with a single block placement that simultaneously gives a good path. The enemies feel like a forced addition and don’t really integrate well with the mechanics, because they either can be taken care of immediately, or require some ungodly timing with your own mice to avoid them. Timing is the hardest, most difficult factor in MouseCraft, and figuring out block placement as well as stopping time to blow up or move other bricks for the experiment mice is already hard enough. The TNT bricks seem somewhat unforgiving, but they’re workable, though as the distance between mice gets varied, it’s harder to utilize. In general principle, the more variation on timings there are, the worse it is, since someone else doing the same actions in the same puzzle game should get the same results. The game manages to reconcile active-time components with placing permanents ones well enough, but sometimes it gets a little unreasonable.
It’s not easy to gauge how difficult puzzles are for individuals, but Crunching Koalas handles variability in its audience pretty well. There are optional crystals to get on the levels, which are graded according to how many were collected, and how many critters made it out alive in one piece. Other than achievements, the crystals are just a gateway to the next set of levels, as collecting a certain number unlocks subsequent stage packs. Only some need to be collected, however, and they never hindered my progress, even though many stages were not completed perfectly. Completing a stage and perfecting a stage are two completely different sciences. While I had moments of frustration, slow and methodical thinking and consideration of all elements resulted in success. But on the whole, I never felt very satisfied after solving a stage. Instead, I felt that the ideal solutions were too “on-the-rails,” and it seemed a little more like guessing what the developer intended, and less like coming up with my own clever solutions. I often questioned, “what do they want me to do here?” There’s also a lack of any genuine sense of accomplishment, because there aren’t really any rewards for going through the game or getting all the crystals in the levels other than achievements.
While MouseCraft starts off with some animated cutscenes, the “story” production values are a letdown. Later on, the same images get recycled, and Schrödinger is an expressionless, empty character. If he had a voice and at least some lines or funny comments during the game, it would play up his science-y personality. Otherwise, he just stares blankly, with his dull eyes, from the background, pantomiming. The music switches up nicely depending on what’s going on, but at the same time didn’t really mesh with the themes of the game, and is rather forgettable. Other than the main mode, there’s an accomplished, easy to use level editor, which should give the game a healthy lifetime extension.
In spite of some shortcomings, however, MouseCraft is a feast for any puzzle enthusiast, and even those less suited for the genre. It teaches thinking ahead as well as thinking in the moment, instilling an appreciation for both careful planning and improvising. The solutions aren’t always obvious, but they are right in front of you. While I didn’t feel as accomplished or satisfied as I went through the levels, I had the most fun with the game when I called over my brother, a more logical mind than mine, to help me perfect some particularly baffling puzzles. Perhaps MouseCraft’s value is more holistic. This is the game I would give to my child and say, “here, get smarter” as its casual wrapping lends to a wider appeal.
Other than being available on Steam, it’s also coming out as a cross-play title for the PlayStation 3, PS4, and Vita, and I can already tell this will be a worthy addition to the Sony library, especially from a mobile viewpoint. MouseCraft didn’t entirely get me into the “crazy scientist” vibe, but nonetheless, it’s a standout puzzler with fast-changing mechanics that keep things interesting. It’s out on Steam now.