If you want to boost my score, it matters if you’re black or white.
When I say that Polarium is one of the simplest games I’ve ever played, I mean that as both a compliment and a criticism. As puzzle games go, simple is usually the way to go, and Polarium’s gameplay is definitely easy to get into. The game’s incredibly simple presentation can be distracting though, especially on the audio front.
The basic idea of Polarium is that black and white blocks are all mixed up, and you need to draw a line over them to reverse their polarity to the opposite color. When a whole horizontal row is the same color, it is cleared off the screen. You can earn extra points by clearing multiple rows with one continuous line, wherein lies most of the strategy. Adding even more depth is the outer frame, which lets you draw the line around blocks and come back into the playing field at a different location.
Polarium’s two main modes take very different approaches to the basic play mechanics. Challenge mode plays like Tetris, with rows of blocks continually falling down as you try to clear them out before they stack up to the top of the upper screen. This mode can seem incredibly difficult at first, but with a little practice, the simple patterns start to emerge, and you’ll be able to blow through the first 100 lines with ease. After that, blocks start falling more randomly and more frequently, and your chances to remove several rows at once become slim indeed. Challenge mode is definitely intense and interesting for a while, but it has two fairly significant problems. First, it fails to get into your brain on such a level that you can zone out and play on instinct as is possible in other, superior action/puzzle games. Second, there’s no way to skip ahead to the harder sections, so you have to start from the very easy beginning section every time you play.
Puzzle mode presents you with a non-scrolling field of blocks, and there is no time limit. The goal is to clear out the entire playing field with one continuous line. The one hundred devious pre-made puzzles, which unlock in sets of ten, are often brilliant in design, requiring you to learn the underlying rules of the game (for instance, you can draw vertically but not horizontally from one color to the other). Two optional hint systems can point you towards the solution: the upper screen shows the last path you tried, and suggested start and end points will be marked after a certain amount of time. There’s a great sense of satisfaction when you finally solve a really nasty puzzle. With the puzzle editor, you can create and store your own evil designs, then send them wirelessly to other Polarium owners or even translate them into passwords for trading online, a la Animal Crossing.
Speaking of wireless, Polarium has both single-card and multi-card features. The main difference is that you can send custom puzzles wirelessly to friends who have their own copies of the game. The downloadable version includes the tutorial, ten sample puzzles, and the versus mode. The latter is played with the DS turned sideways, so the wide-format screens can be better used to approximate the tall vertical space normally shown across both the top and bottom screens; of course, the opponent’s playing field is shown on the other screen. Versus mode is based on the single-player Challenge mode, but there are some power-ups added to heat up competition.
What Polarium makes up in gameplay, it lacks in presentation. The graphics are even simpler than is warranted for the two-color gameplay. Menus in particular literally look like something that could have been done on the NES, blocky text and all. Then there’s the music, techno-ambience stuff that fits the gameplay fine, but there are only two songs in the whole game! They definitely get old after a while, at which point you’ll want to turn down the volume and listen to something else.
Of course, that stuff is quite superficial and ultimately not very important. Gameplay is king, especially for a puzzle game, and Polarium does a great job at being fun and accessible and even mildly addicting. The Challenge mode is temporarily amusing, if less than fantastic, but Puzzle mode has enough brain twisters to keep you busy for a long time. There are some great wireless features to play with, too.