Version tested: PlayStation Vita
Surge Deluxe is FuturLab's attempt to do to the puzzle game what it did to the top-down shooter with Velocity - namely, to apply the defibrillator paddles and give it one hell of a jolt. It's an unusual approach to take to what is traditionally a fairly sedate genre, but it works. Deluxe, a Vita-exclusive version of a game released a little over a year ago on PlayStation Mobile, throbs with a restless, febrile energy.
That's quite the achievement for a match-three game. On the face of it, Surge Deluxe could hardly be more straightforward. You've got two 4x6 stacks of blocks, one on either side of the screen, and your job is to trace a line between like-coloured ones with your finger to get rid of them - though blocks are only in play when they're illuminated, which happens as soon as you can reach them without having to pass through any other blocks. You'll need to be quick about it, mind: pressure is building up in vents at the extremes of each row, and your task is to prevent it spiking on both sides. Once you've removed all the blocks on one side of a row, you can tap an opening to release some of the pressure. Better still, remove the entire row, and you can press both to send a beam of energy across the screen.
But that's just for starters. There are, of course, special blocks that encourage you to think a little more before you match. Each stage adds a score-boosting star to one type of block, while multiplier blocks are obviously best employed when you've made a longer chain. Bombs blow up all blocks of the colour they're linked to, while Chain Linkers allow you to connect two or more strings of different colours. The more blocks you get rid of in one go, the more points you get.
A further layer of strategy is added by the vents themselves. Tap any free one, and any blocks of the same colour will start to tremble excitedly, like a kid about to step inside Disneyland for the first time - or perhaps it's the anxious agitation of a commuter busting for a wee on a train where the toilet is out of order. Either way, they'll keep wriggling until you join them up for a hefty points boost.
Better still are the Frenzy blocks, which oddly resemble broken TVs displaying a horizontally-oriented test card. These wonderful tiles turn all blocks the same colour, prompting a frantic rush to remove as many as possible in a single, snaking line. Take your finger off and bang! The resultant explosion treats you to points and bonuses galore, and a fabulous lightshow in front of the gunmetal background.
I've said it before, but the absence of the tactility of physical controls means visual and audio feedback is doubly important in touchscreen games, and perhaps even more crucial for touch-based puzzle games. Most puzzlers are either about tidying up or organization, and the best ones recognize the value of rewarding you for doing just that. The satisfaction of a job well done isn't enough; you expect some kind of recognition for your achievements, for a game to shower you with praise.
Well, Surge Deluxe all but flings its arms around you and smothers you with kisses. There's a tiny, delicate metallic sound with each connection you make, followed by a big, bassy, electronic thud that accompanies the explosion of blocks. NICE! GREAT! AMAZING! you're told as you remove more and more blocks. Seven or more and it gets even better: a robotic voice declares your tile matching skills to be equivalent to a CYBORG! (And hey, if anyone should know these things, it's a fellow cyborg.) Each clearance is accompanied by a series of melodic chimes and then a lovely, deep synth tone that applies the finishing flourish. Boom. You're done. Well done. Next!
If that was all Surge Deluxe had to offer, it would be an easy recommendation, but like the best puzzle games, it has a second mode that makes you reevaluate the way you approach the first. Individual puzzles charge you with reaching a target score by removing all blocks. The time it takes you to do this ultimately determines your position on the leaderboard, and yet the challenge isn't really to do it swiftly, but to figure out the right order to link the chains and tap the valves to make the blocks jiggle about so as to earn the all-important bonus multipliers at just the right time to maximize your total.
Once you've committed the solution to memory, you can go back to complete it quicker, though some of the top times are so bewilderingly fast that I'm sure the leaders can only be playing a hacked, multitouch-enabled version of the game. Either that or I'm getting old, and I know which of those two explanations I prefer.
As for whether Deluxe is worth getting if you own the original Surge - that's not quite so simple. It's slightly more challenging than I remember the first game being (either that, or I'm getting old, and I know which of those two explanations I prefer) and yet the controls seem to have been refined; certainly, I'm finding I make fewer errors on longer chains. FuturLab has also introduced different shapes for the blocks to support colourblind players, a laudable addition that also happens to be more visually interesting.
The Chain Linker and Combiner blocks - the more of these you can place in a chain, the higher your multiplier will be - add further strategy to score-chasing. While it's still fairly easy to muddle through levels by matching no more than three or four at a time, you'll never trouble the leaderboards until you properly master the use of these two newcomers. All these are welcome changes, but I'm not sure you'd be missing out on too much if you opted to stick with the original, which offers similar pleasures in a marginally less refined form.
Ironically, what makes Surge Deluxe so instantly sensational is perhaps also what holds it back from being one of the greats. That riot of colour and sound, that constant positive reinforcement, can make it feel a little too eager to please. And yet each play session offers a very tangible surge, a rush of dopamine that will take some time to wear off.
8 / 10