Review – Async Corp.

Async Corp is the latest, and probably last release from indie developer house Powerhead Games.  There are many reasons to mourn Powerhead’s departure, the biggest of which is that Async Corp. is a marked improvement over Glow Artisan, its award winning predecessor.  While Glow was a wonderful concept, Async demonstrates some of the fundamental qualities of the all time classic puzzle games.

In Async Corp, players are given two wells filled with squares of three different colors. Players select one square on each side to swap with each other in order to form a packet.  Packets are generated whenever some number of same-colored squares are arranged in the shape of a rectangle (squares being rectangles too, of course).  The rules of the game state that a swap can only occur if it will create at least one packet, and packets themselves can be cleared off the screen by touching them (clearing packets becomes, ultimately, the point of the game).

The most important similarity between Async Corp and other good puzzle games (and some traditional board games, too) is that it embraces the rule of “easy to learn, challenging to master”.  You can pick up the rules in an instant, and once you know how to form packets, you can make genuine progress in any of the three available modes.  There are still strategies and advanced moves to uncover, for instance the titular Async, in which a move creates two packets, one in each well of blocks.  But what makes Async so effective is that cranking out basic, 2×2 packets can get you surprisingly far at first, and even as you improve, this technique doesn’t go away.  It understands that exposure can be as important as innate skill or intelligence in regards to improving at a game. The longer you play, the more likely you are to pick up on new patterns and strategies.  And the only way you’re going to play that long is if you continue to find the mechanics interesting. Async Corp’s base design is simple in that way that generates a primal, powerful feeling of fun.  It keeps you going for hours, then days and even months.

It also helps that Async Corp’s design doesn’t try and obfuscate the secrets to better play.  For example, one of the first things newbies can do to improve their chances is to start with a small packet and make it bigger, by gradually surrounding it with like colors until it starts to grow.  Since packets don’t leave the screen until the player taps them, the “building block” to this technique is quite literal, sitting there staring at you (again, literally) as you play.  As for getting an Async, the nature of the move is such that most players will probably create one randomly within their first thirty minutes. Players won’t go too long without seeing something which will turn out to be very important later on (Miyamoto would be proud).  We have enough puzzle games in which pieces vanish instantly, where chain reactions occur without understanding why, and walls of text bombard you with information on combos you may never have planned.  I appreciate Async’s willingness to allow players to focus on real, genuine strategy, rather than forcing them to comprehend every item on a checklist of features.

Async Corp. offers three main modes of play, each one having a different focus.  Async mode asks you to create a giant, well-sized packet for each colored block.  You have a limited (though generous) amount of moves, but otherwise you can take as much time as you want to plan things out and think through bad situations.  Quota mode has a growing meter, which will result in a game over if it reaches the top of the screen.  Players can decrease its size by shipping packets; the larger the packet, the more you push the meter back.  Here, quick thinking is of the essence, as the meter itself will grow at an ever increasing speed.

The third mode, Zoning, is in a way a combination of the previous two.  In a reverse of Quota, shipping packets increases the size of a meter, and getting it to the top advances you to the next level.  However, every second spent not shipping a packet will cause the meter to wane.  You have to plan out your initial moves, execute them with precision, and then think on your feet to come up with enough moves to finish the job.  It is the most exciting mode of the three, though it is also the one I’m always most afraid to attempt.  I admit this is a bit silly, considering the mode has no failure state. If the meter resets to zero, you simply try again, as much as you want.

Aesthetically, Async Corp. is simple and colorful.  Lumines is a clear influence, as evidenced by the shape of the playing field, and the various colored “skins” you unlock as you play. The theme song is catchy and calm, and is a good example of how to compose a game jingle that doesn’t lose its catchiness after extended exposure.  Ironically, one of the game’s “defects” turned out to be one of my favorite features.  Due to time constraints, Async Corp. was unable to ship with Game Center integration and other social networking features.  I think this ends up being a benefit in the long run.  Over time, the game has received strong reviews and plenty of praise over Twitter.  Without achievements and the like, we can be sure that people were driven to play by Async’s sheer entertainment value, rather than because it dangled a carrot on a stick in front of them.  Furthermore, the lack of bells and whistles means the game boots up quick and keeps from distracting you.  It feels like a game, plain and simple.

Async Corp. is, without a doubt, my favorite game on iOS, and an absolute gem of a puzzler.  It is also the rare example of a modern puzzle game that takes inspiration from Tetris and the other greats, rather than trying to beat them.  By implementing a small, simple set of rules, and allowing them to build naturally into more complex situations, it winds up becoming a addictive, user-friendly, genuine puzzle game.  Not a game with an arbitrary learning curve to try and get over.  And not an IQ test either.

In other words, by learning from, not trying to outdo the greats, Async Corp. knocks on their door.  Will it be let in?  That all depends on how many people give it a chance.

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