Version tested PlayStation 4
The biggest hurdle between you and an appreciation of this slight but charming puzzle game is its own title. A weak pun that says nothing about the game, it serves only to cheapen an otherwise appealing experience, making it sound more like a craven voxel-based Mojang knock-off scrabbling for pennies on the Xbox Indie Games channel.
If MouseCraft is poorly served by its title, the reality of what it offers is, on the surface, not particularly original either. "Lemmings meets Tetris" is the elevator pitch, and it's impossible to come up with a more concise or efficient description of what the game entails.
Working to further the goals of a feline scientist, winkingly named Schrödinger and styled after Back to the Future's Doc Brown, you must guide three mice across a variety of puzzle stages. Just as in DMA Design's Lemmings, the mice simply march to the right, reversing direction when they reach an obstacle they can't climb. They can hop up single blocks, but anything taller stymies them. They can drop down from a height of three blocks, but anything more kills them.
There are quite a few things that kill them, in fact, so keeping them out of danger and steering them in the direction of collectable blue crystals are your primary objectives as you direct them towards the plate of cheese that marks the level goal. You do this by placing Tetris-style blocks into the level from a limited selection at the top of the screen. Actually, scratch that - these aren't Tetris-style blocks, they're simply Tetris blocks. The chunky square one, the rough pyramid-esque triangle one, our old friend Big Long Four Block. They're all here, using their distinctive, iconic shapes to alter the layout of each stage in your favour.
It's an intriguing concept and one that turns a few deeply ingrained prejudices on their head. Those staggered S-shaped Tetris blocks, so often your downfall in the classic Russian puzzler, are actually a godsend in MouseCraft as they form natural steps. The square block that is so useful for plugging gaps in Tetris can be a pain here, its sheer unwieldy size frequently making it a hindrance rather than a help. Getting perfect completion on some stages means remaking the level on the fly, and you can pause the game and still place blocks in order to allow for the split-second timing this requires.
New features are slowly added as you progress through the game. Enemies known as "Ratoids" are deployed in some levels - robotic rodents that act just like your mice, yet will kill them on contact. Bombs allow you to destroy blocks, but are limited in number. New block types are introduced, such as jelly blocks that cushion your mice from high falls.
Each adds a new twist to the gameplay, but few offer any surprises. Pretty much every block type you'd expect is used, but they're so predictable in function that you're rarely challenged to reappraise the way you're already playing. Blocks that crumble when traversed have been part of the gaming lexicon even further back than Tetris and Lemmings, thanks to Miner Willy. Only occasionally are old tropes used in clever new ways. Water hazards, for example, also double as soft landings. This leads to levels where you must allow your mice to fall into the water but engineer ways for them to climb out again within ten seconds, before they drown.
That flash of ingenuity is the exception, however, and most of MouseCraft is merely pleasant and moderately challenging. With only 80 stages to play through and a fairly gentle difficulty curve that means you'll be halfway through before you feel any real intellectual friction, the game never quite develops its ideas into something genuinely new. Not coincidentally, it was at about the halfway mark, somewhere around level 42, that I realised I'd passed the Reviewer's Threshold - the point where I become aware that if I was playing on my own time rather than for work, I'd probably have lost interest.
A level editor teases with the possibility of handing responsibility for developing the game's concepts over to the players, but as intuitive as the editor is, you can only ever save and play your creations locally. There's no way to share them online, even with friends, and in an age when such community features are second nature it's a glaring omission.
MouseCraft certainly looks nicer than most puzzle games, with its bold cartoon style and lively animated backdrop showing Schrödinger excitedly watching your mice progress. To begin with, it's also a delight to play, while the allure of its retro mash-up remains strong. That allure dims, gradually but inevitably, as the game fails to find that alchemical moment where its undeniably appealing genetic ingredients give rise to a genuinely new species. MouseCraft is always, noticeably and unapologetically, Lemmings meets Tetris - and like the mice of its title, it seems happy to scrabble about in the twin shadows of its genre-defining inspirations.
6 / 10