A few weeks ago, your Mid-week Mission was a review of a new indie puzzle game centering on triangles. This week, your Mid-week Mission is a review of a new indie puzzle game centering on triangles. Superficial similarities and kidding aside, Tricone Lab by Partickhill Games offers a totally unique and enjoyable tour through an alternate-dimension chemistry and biology. It is a logic-based puzzle game that I enjoyed enough that I finished its suite of 100 included levels in just three sessions.
Still, with the game in early access at present—and not having scratched the surface of the community-made levels on offer—I am by no means finished fabricating Tricones as of yet. And don’t be fooled by the screenshots in this article looking grey and lifeless, by the way; the levels are in constant motion, and the constituent elements feel lively and organic when playing. It’s not all peaches and cream, as you’ll find below, but overall I want to spend this article convincing you that playing Tricone Lab is a relaxing and fun use of your time.
Tricone Lab‘s Innovative Design:
Despite the fluid visuals, each of the 100 developer-made levels in Tricone Lab is highly controlled, with most of the primary campaign levels being solvable in just one way (or, rarely, two). Finding each level’s solution is very much a matter of taking stock of one’s resources and deciding on the necessary order of operations, like picking an intricate lock. Indeed, there were times when I was playing levels with negatively charged sections and/or anti-catalysts (which both oppose the player’s ability to synthesize Tricones) and felt like I was playing a heist-based puzzle game with twitchy guards (e.g. Gunpoint).
Despite the relative rigidity of most of the stock levels’ designs, however, there is some serious potential for depth and creativity in the interactions among exploders, carriers, cloning elements, and negative charges. This potential definitely comes into play in some of the last few batches of challenge levels. The game also offers a level editor, and developer Josh Singer is curating high-quality community levels; I would not be surprised to find further exploration of these combinations and techniques in the players’ creations.
There are many nice touches to the way Tricone Lab plays. For one, although its design is turn-based (such that moves can be undone one at a time), new actions can be input immediately (with no animation delay), and the actions and animations can overlap. The result is that the controls feel fluid and avoid the stilted feeling of stricter turn-based puzzle designs.
Also, allowing the player to drag a connecting line equivalently from either the catalyst or the element is a small convenience, but one which I was delighted to see already integrated. I have certainly played full-release puzzle games that did not go the extra mile to make little adjustments like this in the interest of making the game feel good to play.
Furthermore, Tricone Lab records and displays aggregate statistics for each level. I love game stats, and these will be pretty interesting to check out after the game has been out for more than a few months. Anything that evokes Spacechem‘s histograms, even by just making some statistics public, is doing something right.
Tricone Lab‘s Difficulty Level:
Redundancy in early levels makes the game very forgiving for beginners. And I feel that this was a smart decision, because of Tricone Lab‘s increasingly complicated visual language, which is involved in knowing what you are looking at—when confronted, for instance, with a screen like that shown above. Its difficulty curve does slope up, but has a shallow slope and is fairly linear; further, I could not help but notice that some of the levels seem misplaced on the curve. QuadClone in the map Outcloned, for instance, comes relatively late into the game at present, but feels like a tutorial for a splitting mechanic that had by then been integral to a more complicated prior solution.
The longest I spent in one level was in BalanceMix from the ConstructConfuse map, whose solution required using a mechanic which I had previously thought was a bug (being able to move an element into an area after it has exhausted its mobility markers). As this mechanic became integral to the carrier puzzles in the maps that followed, this too seemed a bit out-of-place.
Even taking into account the complex visual language mentioned above, however, I must admit that I found Tricone Lab a bit on the easy side for my battle-hardened taste in puzzles. Its 100 campaign levels took me just under four hours to complete altogether, coming out to less than two and a half minutes per level—and that’s including the time I spent gathering screenshots and info for this article.
Still, the shrewd inclusion of community map-making pairs well with the enjoyable core gameplay in ensuring that there will be infuriatingly brutal levels soon enough. In the meantime, the vast majority of players are likely to find the game’s existing difficulty curve totally satisfying. And do not mistake what I am saying: I have absolutely no problem with the game’s duration. The game is inexpensive and entirely without worthless padding; last year I wrote an entire article about how much I love the prospect of short, tough, well-designed games sharing the marketplace with the more typical 30-hour-minimum monsters.
Tricone Lab‘s Aesthetics and Theming:
Puzzle game aesthetics are often either organic or mechanical, but Tricone Lab has a little of each. The jiggling organ-like structures and tendril-based controls (and this is particularly the case with the anti-catalysts) feel animal, whereas the arcane chemical symbols, subdued color palette, and electrical sounds feel robotic. The result is an atmosphere that seems uncanny and alien; I found these choices to match the gameplay perfectly, and all puzzle games that opt for a scientific aesthetic ought to strive for this sense of being on the outer fringe of human knowledge.
The one aspect of the aesthetics which could stand to see bolstering before the full release is the music, which is spare at present. While the menus have wonderful music, the levels lack music completely. I know that this may be a conscious design choice, but I feel that a calmer track along the lines of the menu music could serve the game well here. In fact, the levels lacking ambient music entirely makes the otherwise brilliant sound effects become somewhat grating after a couple hours of play.
The area I would most like to see changed in the final release of this game is its entirely absent theming. There is no goal, objective, or story structure beyond the making of multi-colored triangles. As a player, I have no motivation beyond the bare striving for completion (and my ludological interest).
The store page refers to the levels as microorganisms, and each level’s triangular Tricone goal as a “mysterious substance.” But the game’s collectibles are called ‘keys,’ the game’s menus connect the levels via a grid of sparking electrical wires, and the Tricones often appear outside of the ‘organisms,’ as shown above. Is this a game that casts the player in a creative laboratory role—now engineering genetic material—or are the organisms somehow powering a machine? As far as I know, the Tricones could be anything from a metaphor for sentience to a bit of food.
To be sure, many players (especially puzzle game fans) will not mind the omission of theming. But there’s huge potential for increasing how memorable a game is, how unique its offerings are, and how satisfying it is to beat by just employing some basic narrative or structural techniques. Sometimes relatively unremarkable design can be saved by a clever narrative strategy—just ask Thomas Was Alone. In a game like Tricone Lab that already has strong, unique gameplay, not much is required to satisfy me on this front. Hell, a few sentences before the first level establishing a driving force for creating Tricones would probably go a long way. But you’re reading an article written by a person who praised the effects of the long-winded prose story elements in Spacechem . . . so take this with a grain of salt.
In its present state (beta 0.19 at the time of this article’s posting), and even taking into account my penchant for games that punish, I nevertheless feel very comfortable giving Tricone Lab a hearty recommendation. Much like similarly breezy puzzle game Offspring Fling! (though without, obviously, Offspring Fling!‘s further platforming challenges), Tricone Lab is both fun and charming throughout its entire campaign and bonus levels; I really enjoyed my time with it. Tricone Lab is a clean design that is well-executed, and it looks, feels, and sounds great to play.
My distinct thought when I beat the last level was that I had had a great deal of fun playing the game. In fact, it was so unique and smooth that it made me nostalgic for the time I spent way back in high school playing puzzle games made by Nitrome (though Tricone Lab is certainly much more fleshed out than most of Nitrome’s humble offerings ever were). Needless to say, I’ll definitely be checking back in with Partickhill Games’ Tricone Lab as it approaches its full release and as more community levels become available, and so should you.