If you've ever played a puzzle game on iOS, you're probably familiar with the three-star ranking systems that plague the genre. Is plague too harsh a word? Certainly some games benefit from being able to offer a scale of difficulty, especially physics puzzles. But other games use them as a way to reward failure. Sure, you did the puzzle wrong, but you tried, and that's what matters. Here's a participation ribbon. Feel good about yourself.
Whenever I completed a puzzle in Punch A Hole [$0.99] with one or two stars, I felt that patronizing head pat. I might as well have pressed a level skip button (absent here, but also unneeded), because I certainly didn't solve the puzzle correctly. Played for one or two stars, Punch a Hole is a lifeless thing, barely able to hold my interest long enough to punch the necessary holes. Play for three stars and it comes to life, a mind-bending challenge that kept me captivated beyond any distraction while I tried and retried single levels over and over, knowing the solution was just out of my reach.
Players will certainly start in the right mindset — it's virtually impossible to earn fewer than three stars for far too many levels. Punch a Hole holds your hand too tightly while it teaches you the basic mechanics of the game. You play on a top-down billiards table, with the goal of moving colored balls into matching holes. Swipe a ball in the four primary directions and it will travel in that direction until it encounters something, like another ball, the edge of the table or a hole. You can fail by knocking it off the table or into the wrong hole, but you can always tap undo to go back as many steps as you need.
You can also punch holes in the table to stop the ball from moving, which is where the challenge comes in. Each level has a set number of holes you can create for the best ranking, the fewest that can possibly be used to solve the puzzle. When the game's difficulty eventually kicks in it requires large doses of lateral thinking. You'll need to punch a hole here so that you can bounce this ball off of that one, knocking the other over there, and...you get the idea.
Obstacles are introduced as time goes by. Balls of different colors get in each other's way, they bounce off blocks and slide through tubes. You can even paint them. Figuring out how to best use or avoid each obstacle is great fun, and what works in one level will rarely make the next much easier. There are a few epiphanies to be had, though.
Beyond the lack of conviction in ranking players' performance, Punch a Hole stumbles a few times. The difficulty curve is messy: levels are too easy for too long, and even once the challenge ramps up you'll occasional run into levels that are dead simple. The Game Center achievements are a disappointment. All of them can be earned by playing the game normally, except those for completing with three stars. Those ones can be completed by playing the game correctly. I will note, however, that while the art style and interface look overly utilitarian in screenshots, they're pleasantly simple and clean in action.
When Punch a Hole is bad, it's boring. But when it's good, it's frustrating in the best possible way. I feel well-rewarded for working my way through the slow bits when I'm free to experiment in the hardest of the levels. I can't recommend it wholeheartedly, but on the whole I've enjoyed my time with the game. I'll certainly be watching for releases from its developer, Bartosz Ciechanowski, in the future. If you decide to jump in too, let us know what you think in our discussion thread.
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