Version tested: iPhone
A man may be entitled to the sweat of his brow, but what happens when he wants to chill out? Pixel Defenders Puzzle may well be the answer, an iOS title that's like an RPG Triple Town, and a recommendation from none other than Ken Levine - a sure sign, if one were needed, that this is much more than just another match-three puzzler.
Pixel Defenders Puzzle takes place on a screen-sized grid which, depending on the level, can be dotted with obstacles, ready-made warriors, and one pixelly VIP. Keeping the latter alive is nearly always your goal. Waves of enemies will enter at the top of the screen and a countdown ticker indicates when they'll attack; some go straight for the jugular, others freeze the VIP in place, and mages buff their allies.
Matching pixels is how you build an army to take the beasties down. Early stages limit the number of colours you're working with, each one producing a different kind of defender, and three pixels combine to create a low-level warrior; blue pixels, for example, will create a wizard. Every match you make produces energy to fill a five-part action gauge, and attacking with any defender uses one action point.
Which is why the wizard, and any other low-level defender, is a bit useless. He does negligible damage, half a heart's worth, and can only attack once, after which he morphs into a grid-blocking obstacle that has to be removed by matching. But combine three wizards rather than attacking and you get a wizard with a much pointier beard that can attack twice and does more damage. Combine three of those and you get a Shaman, who can attack three times and debuffs the enemy. Combine three of those and... you get the picture.
It all sounds so simple when explained like that, but of course Pixel Defenders Puzzle is one of those games where you'll constantly screw up mighty plans with misplaced pixels. The VIPs act a little like Triple Town's bears by walking around and blocking grid spaces: a great piece of design that can be so frustrating at all the wrong moments. They seem to have a preternatural sense for where you want to put that next pixel, and all too often mess up their own rescue by wandering up the wrong cul-de-sac.
There are 36 single-player levels, a few of which are 'puzzle' levels where you have to clear the grid entirely, and as these progress, the system's depths come to the fore: using low-level defenders to get rid of obstructions, trapping the VIP in corners, trying to divide the grid into colours, and most of all using the action points at the right time. That's substantial enough, but beyond this are two excellent extra modes, Assault and Endless. The first is composed of constant enemy waves, and soon a skin-of-the-teeth struggle to keep the VIP alive, while the latter removes all the stress of combat and focuses on Pixel Defenders Puzzle's finely-honed matching, a much more relaxing way to play.
Pixel Defenders Puzzle is 69p, less than a chocolate bar, yet it over-delivers - and although it offers in-app purchases, you won't ever need to spend money beyond that purchase price. It's a great game - and also proof, were it needed, that Ken Levine really knows his niche puzzlers.
8 / 10