By: ARTE Experience (Cosmografik)
Cosmografik’s Vandals is the latest turn-based puzzle game in the style of Square Enix’s GO series, like Hitman GO (HMG), Lara Croft GO (LCG) and Deus Ex GO (DEG). While I never really got into HMG, I thoroughly enjoyed LCG and all its expansions. It had personality, atmosphere, tricky puzzles, and it felt great on a touchscreen. It raised the bar for what a mobile puzzle game could look like. Since then, I’ve been excited about every GO-style game that released, though cautiously optimistic because the formula is getting a bit tired. Still, I liked the look of Vandals and the graffiti twist, so I was eager to give it a try.
Let me talk about my experience with the other games first so you know where I’m coming from here. Any complaints I had of LCG were minimal, boiling down to slow loading times between levels and the lack of an undo button. There was no move count, and the controls were snappy and responsive, so I was still able to enjoy the game thoroughly. But that was two years ago already. Since then, DEG released, with faster load times but again no undo button. And this time, there was a move counter for added challenge — and stress. The game lacked the charm of LCG, and restarting levels with thirty or more moves to try and get all three stars wore down my patience. My review of the game focused primarily on the lack of an undo button, something I’d come to expect in my puzzle games. The developers later added the ability to undo moves, but they were consumables you would either earn in-game or purchase with cash. In a game I had already paid for. That one action tarnished the whole game for me and I’ve never revisited it, despite its included level editor and daily puzzles.
So let’s fast-forward to Vandals. Once again, you have a board full of nodes with lines connecting them. You either swipe to move your character over one node or tap the the node you want her to move to. Obviously, there has to be a path connecting the two nodes or it won’t work. The goal is to tag a wall and get to the exit without being caught by police. To do so, you’ll have some tools at your disposal. There’s always a whistle at hand, but you can only blow it if a cop is within hearing distance. The cop will head towards the sound, allowing you to access the spot he started in, as long as you get in and out before he returns and sees you. You can also pick up a glass bottle on some levels, carry it around, and then throw it somewhere away from you to lure cops to it. The bottle both has a longer range from which you can throw it, as well as a louder sound, so cops can hear it from farther away. Spraying the wall with paint also makes a noise, so if the cops are within hearing distance, they’ll head towards that spot. This makes every level about using these sounds to make the cops go where you want so you can get where you need to be. Later, you’ll also have manholes that act as teleports, wire-cutters to get through fences, and new kinds of enemies to deal with. The terrain also shakes things up, as a cop can hear you if you’re on a platform above them, but they can’t see you the same way they would if you were on the same level as them.
In each level, you can just worry about tagging the wall and getting to the exit. But if you want to unlock bonus levels, you’ll have to earn stars. Each puzzle has three stars to collect, but you must earn all of them at once to get credit for all three. The first is for getting through without ever being seen by cops. The other is for completing it within a certain number of turns. And the last is on the map itself, usually requiring some extra work to grab it. The puzzles are far more satisfying when you try to get all three stars, but if you’re struggling to do so, you can always complete the bare minimum and move on to the next level, then come back with a clear head.
The biggest challenge in Vandals is going to be learning the behavior patterns of different cops and planning around them. Especially early on, police behavior will often seem inconsistent and unpredictable. The more you play, the more you’ll understand it, but you’ll likely have to take a lot of chances and make a lot of mistakes before you do. I don’t think the game makes it easy to learn about all the mechanics. For instance, I stumbled across this by accident more than halfway through the game, but you can tap and hold either the whistle, bottle or spray can to see its range before actually using it. This is a welcome tool, but it would have been even better if the game gave me some indication that it exists. I played a huge chunk of the game guessing how my actions will affect things instead of making informed decisions. And this is where my main problems with the game come in.
Now, I know Vandals isn’t by Square Enix, but it is inspired enough by the GO series that one might mistake it for theirs. Since LCG released two years ago, one would expect any newer iterations on the formula would take the issues mentioned earlier to mind. But, besides a few new mechanics and improvements, it all feels like a step back. When it comes to these turn-based puzzle games, I want to spend as much time as possible working out the solution and waste little time waiting for that opportunity. But Vandals‘ loading times are sluggish. Transitions between any screen take at least a few seconds. The pause button isn’t always responsive, so even when you know you messed up, you may have to waste some time first getting to the pause menu. The move counter is also hidden in the pause menu, so you have to keep stopping to check how you’re doing. And it’s even clumsy to open and close the pause menu, since the pause button is on the lower left corner, but the menu exit button is in the upper left. A few more seconds wasted just checking your move count! But if you want to restart, you then have to wait for the level to slowly reload. If the board is fairly big and and you want it zoomed out, you have to redo that when the level reloads, because it won’t remember you had it that way. This is especially a problem in later harder levels, as the boards get bigger and don’t fit on the screen until you zoom out. So that’s another second or two you have to wait before getting another try at the solution.
Let’s say you’ve already been working on a level for a while and determined that the first few moves have to go a certain way, and you’re just trying to figure out the second half of the puzzle. Like the GO games, there’s no undo or rewind button. So you have to repeat the same three or five or seven or ten moves until you get back to the point where you messed up. To make matters worse, you can only do so as quickly as the game will allow you, which is not fast at all. Each turn you take, you have to wait for any sounds to play out their animations and any cops to take their moves. You have to watch all these animations before the game will allow you to take your next turn. It all starts to feel so tedious that I’m not even sure I’ll bother completing all fifty-odd levels in the game.
Let’s say you’re tired of the level you’re on and want to switch to an older one that you haven’t perfected yet. The menus will waste your time, as well. You can’t just swipe between maps to access them. If you want to select a level on a different map, you first have to exit the level, then exit the current map, then find the other map and open it. When you’re working on 3-starring older levels in between trying new ones, it can feel a bit cumbersome.
One thing I was excited to see when I first started playing is that the game works in either landscape or portrait mode. Since these turn-based puzzle games are are not timed and consist entirely of swipes and taps, they’ve always seemed like a good fit for one-handed iPhone play in portrait mode. But since they’re usually designed to fit the screen in landscape — mostly so they can also work on PC — that was never an option. This is the first time I’ve seen it for one of these games and I was thrilled. I played with one hand for a good chunk of it, and that made it a game I could play just about anywhere, even if I only have one hand free. Unfortunately, this love affair did not last. Besides the lack of iCloud that forced me to play catch-up on my iPad when I got home, I started encountering levels that don’t fit the screen in portrait mode. Even zoomed out completely, parts of the scene get cut off. You can pinch to zoom out even more, but it won’t stay like that. It’s easier to just rotate your device than keep pinching. So eventually you might just get back into the habit of playing in landscape mode and forget about portrait altogether.
But let’s talk more about the good stuff. I absolutely love the soundtrack. It’s upbeat and jazzy between levels, then either quiet or toned down while you’re working on a puzzle. That’s exactly how I like it, as these kinds of games involve a lot of staring at the board, and hearing the same tunes over and over can become grating. So I’m glad they went this route. I also like how each time you tag a wall, you can personalize it. You basically have a paint tool at your disposal with three different thicknesses and some basic colors to choose from. You can either draw something or have the game quickly tag it with your name in a variety of fonts. I would often use my name if I didn’t feel like drawing, then come back later and paint something when the mood strikes.
Thankfully, even if you fail a level after tagging the wall, your artwork will remain intact. But they did add some weird aging system in a recent update. Each time you replay a level, the spray paint will age, so the colors darken and the wall behind it starts to show through. While this is an interesting concept, I found it looked ugly if I painted on my first completion of a level and then kept the same artwork through all my myriad attempts to get all three stars. I would often end up redoing my art because of this, which was a little annoying. I’m not sure I want the feature gone completely, but maybe it could age at a slower pace? Or be optional? As you can see in the photo below, I drew a poor excuse of the character from Six Match and his white turned a muddy gray over my time with the level. I ended up deleting him eventually. Since these paintings are saved to your “blackbook,” it might have been nice to have the option to remove the aging and just see the work you made in its original glory.
Throughout the game, there are some not-so-hidden collectibles to find in the form of polaroids. When you pick one up, it will give you a bit of a history lesson about a real-life graffiti artist or a movement. The problem is, they’re not written particularly well and give off the impression that they were rushed. Thankfully, you’re not tested on the information, so you can just ignore it if you’re not moved by them. But it’s a nice addition to the game for those interested in learning more about the history of graffiti art.
Overall, there’s a lot to like about Vandals. But there are also lots of little niggles that, over time, just made me lose interest in the game even though I was enjoying the challenge of earning all three stars in each level. The main thing that wore on my patience is not the difficulty level, but the lack of an undo button. I know I mentioned this already, but I really can’t stress it enough. In most levels, you can tell after just a few tries that the first number of steps can only go one or two ways. But if you mess up, you have to keep restarting. I’ve complained about this with every single one of Square Enix’s GO games, and the same holds true here. It’s simply tedious to retrace your moves over and over. Just let me work things out without wasting my time and energy.
The price here is not the problem. The content is not the problem. The difficulty level is not the problem. The problem is that there are too many things that make the game feel like a chore, and it’s that much easier to just put it down and play something else that’s more user-friendly. I like what the game adds to the formula, and many of the puzzles are well-crafted. But there’s already a sense of deja vu here, so all the little problems pile up and make me wonder why I need to deal with them if I’ve already played the GO games. I’ve gotten all the stars in the first two maps and more than half of them in the third map, but I’m losing interest and not sure I’ll continue with the game in its current state. I do think all these issues can be fixed, but so far the developer has stated that they have no plans to add an undo button.
The bottom line is, if you’re looking for another GO-style game, Vandals has a lot to offer. If you’re already tired of the formula, I don’t think this will convince you otherwise. But if you want a challenge and don’t mind the tedium that comes with restarting a level until you get it right, as well as all the other little issues I mentioned, then you should get some enjoyment out of it. But if you’re short on time or just want a game that values your time more, you may want to look elsewhere. If you’re willing to give Vandals a chance, you can download the game here.