Version tested: DS
The ideal puzzle game is deceptively simple, increasingly involving, and balances high pressure with moments of calm. Magnetica fails at every single element, but remains reasonably interesting.
The main problem seems to be its expecting a little too much of you too quickly, without offering anything new. This may sound an odd complaint when living in a soup of games that think you a pre-school buffoon - the gaming equivalents of the inflatable gutters at a bowling alley - but occasionally the right answer is at least the illusion of simplicity. The game's premise is yet another interpretation of the puzzling staple: eliminating things once there are three of them. Indeed, it's the reclaiming of the specific formula 'borrowed' more recently by Zuma. In this case: coloured marbles, rolling around tracks toward a 'reactor'. You have to fire matching marbles at them, creating clumps of three, such that they disappear and don't reach the end of the line. And then, you know, variants on that.
Pleasingly, Magnetica makes decent use of the stylus. Marbles emerge from a central hub, and are fired at the track of balls by flinging it in whichever direction. The faster you flick, the more quickly it travels. That's the way a stylus should be used. Bravo. It's vital that the interaction be this intuitive, as the speed with which you have to respond is paramount.
Of course, asking a lot of the brain is to be encouraged, but this isn't the nature of the problem. The problem is that it asks you to do this far too fast, far too quickly, such that the game lacks both depth and longevity. It's only a minute or so before things are so frantic that you're flailing, or at least noticing that the end is nigh.
It really is designed that way - I'm not rubbish. Well, I probably am rubbish, but I'm not that rubbish. Despite the main Challenge mode having 99 levels to complete at each difficulty setting, they fly by at a rate of literally one every few seconds, such that you're at the more tricky level 50+ extremely quickly. It does have the advantage of removing the tedium of trudging through easier early stages that plague any long-term player of Zoo Keeper, but at the cost of being particularly involving.
Challenge mode throws in two oddities to mix things up as the marbles make their way toward the centre of the spiral - the Rocket and the Detonator. Both appear once every ten levels, the former pushing the marbles forward very quickly until you destroy it, the latter removing all marbles of the colour it hits. It's all relatively simple to say, but to play it's oddly frustrating. Keeping on top of things seems like it should be easy to master, but the balance of distribution of colours seems all out of whack, such that tactics are rapidly made pointless and it's all just frantic flinging in the hope of staying alive. Marbles of the same colour are magnetically attracted to one another, so when you've got rid of, say, a group of yellows, blues either side will link up and also vanish. This creates the impression that you'll be able to plan ahead, set yourself up nicely, and feel very clever. But then there are suddenly six colours at once, the layers doubled up, and it's a scramble for whatever you can take out. Giving yourself a second to think ahead will ensure you lose. Annoying.
Far more interesting is Quest mode, so we'll save the best until last and deal with Puzzle mode first. Still better than the quickly tiresome Challenge mode, Puzzle intelligently takes the premise of the main game and creates an interesting series of challenges based on the internal logic. There might be five or six marbles in place, and three or four to fire at them - all must be used and eliminated to complete the task. This begins well, increasing the difficulty steadily, requiring the planning ahead the Challenge mode lacks. Without a time limit you can take things calmly, planning three or four moves in advance to work out the correct order of marble destruction. Unfortunately, this too gets quickly out of hand. As the puzzles become more complicated, the solutions are more easily found through trial and error than brain-aching nine-steps-ahead thinking. Still, they're interesting for a good while, and certainly rewarding to correctly complete.
But let's finish on a happy note. Quest mode is perhaps the most complete and satisfying implementation of the game's motif. Here a limited number of marbles appear, although it's still very many, and your task is to eliminate all of them before any reach a reactor. But this time on varying tracks, with constantly added new twists and ingredients. There are the fruit machines, where throwing a ball down a hole will spin the dials on the top screen and perhaps result in a bonus item, such as clocks that freeze or rewind time. There are multiple reactors, multiple marble sources, interweaving tracks, and imaginative and inventive layouts that mean you need to constantly reassess your tactics. And there are a good number of Quest levels to keep you interested. Again it gets quickly very tough, but this time, with an end in sight, you feel the urge to keep going, have another try. It's here that Magnetica improves upon the concept after Zuma's version. But obviously this isn't quite enough to justify the entire game, especially when variants - albeit without the lovely stylus control - float around on the internet for free.
Magnetica never escapes its own over-complications. Too much to think about, and not enough time to think it, changes what might have been an intriguingly complicated puzzle into frantic frustration. With no down-time, or moments of respite, it doesn't offer the engaging appeal of a Tetris DS, Meteos or Zoo Keeper. And ultimately, despite the pleasing use of the stylus, there aren't enough original ideas to make it stand out from the crowd. Certainly a brief distraction, and Quest mode gives it a couple of hours of interest, but not a necessary classic to add to your mighty puzzle collection.
6 / 10