Stubies [$1.99] is a deceptive little game. When you first start playing, it's simple. A bit too simple, in fact. In this game, little creatures of different colors will come walking in a straight direction from some point off of the map, and you have to point them in the right direction to find another creature of the same color, at which point they'll be cleared off the board and you'll score some points. Each level has a set amount of points as the goal, and once you reach it, your score and time are tallied and it's off to the next stage. The only way you can lose is if too many of the little Stubies wander off an edge. Each one that drops costs you a star, and if you lose all three of your stars, you fail the stage. Another thing you want to avoid is having two Stubies of different colors pushing against each other. After a short time, they'll turn into solid white objects that will deflect anything that tries to walk into them. It doesn't directly cost you stars, but it can complicate things.
The first several stages feature no drops, with a relatively low clear goal, and a manageable flow of Stubies. Even when drops first start showing up, they're not very threatening. The main paths the creatures spawn on are usually well out of the way of the gaps, so unless you make a misguided turn, there won't be any problems. This is obviously the game's way of easing you into the mechanics, and you might be fooled into thinking this is going to be a relatively slow-paced, easy game. It's almost too slow in the beginning. I was getting pretty bored with the game in the first set of stages, called Blue World, and was ready to write the whole thing off, and then suddenly, it started to turn up the heat.
In the next batch of stages after that, Green World, I started enjoying the pacing of the game and its difficulty. See, there are lots of different kinds of Stubies, going beyond their colors. Match two bomb Stubies and they'll disappear in a blast that takes out other nearby Stubies as well as certain types of walls and pillars. Match two multi-colored Stubies and you're sent into a bonus mode where the Stubies are all multi-colored and move faster, allowing you to easily rack up matches. Platform Stubies let you fill in a gap by walking them into it. Along with these different types, there are also lots of enviromental objects, like movable pillars and item boxes that can only be opened up by a Stubie of the same color.
At the same time all of these interesting new mechanics started opening up, the traffic flow of the Stubies themselves really started to pick up. They were more numerous, moving more quickly, and coming from different directions. It got harder and harder to keep track of everyone and avoid having them run into each other. The stages became more devilishly designed, with gaps placed directly in the path of the Stubies, and some made up of little more than walkways. To change a Stubie's direction, you have to swipe over it in the direction you want it to go. It's a simple enough gesture, but micro-managing a screenful of them is both difficult and fraught with accidental swipes on the wrong creature.
It turns out that Stubies was just getting started cranking the heat up. The third world, Yellow World, introduces a couple of new stage gimmicks and ticks up the pace and density of traffic even more. The game becomes almost ridiculously hard here, a stunning contrast to the early stages. It's not even the final world, either, with the truly crazy Orange World waiting if you can survive the Yellow World. If you're looking for a test of your reflexes and ability to process colors quickly, this game is for you, but it requires a great deal of patience, not just to make it through the early dull stages, but also to put up with a few losses stemming from misfired swipes. There's no way to move past a stage other than by beating it, so if you want to see all 60 of the game's stages, you'll have to persevere.
The game throws you a lifeline, almost literally, in the form of revives. Revives can sometimes be found in item boxes and allow you to come back with a full three stars in the event that you fail. If you have enough revives, you can technically brute force your way through the stages, but they're not common enough that you're going to be stockpiling them by any means. The game does include IAP to buy revives, which might help if you want to try to force your way through a level. I found the game tossed them out often enough via item boxes that I was able to use them now and then when I failed a stage painfully near to the goal, but not much more than that, which seemed fine to me.
There's a very difficult and surprisingly complicated game hiding behind the almost child-friendly veneer of the first several stages. Further adding to the contrast are the visuals. It's a bright, colorful game, and the Stubies look pretty adorable. The music is light and bouncy, and the creatures make all kinds of cute little noises as they bump into each other and disappear. Sometimes the little guys will stop and wave, which is adorable, but sometimes frustrating when it messes with your timing. When they reach an edge, they teeter over it for a short time, giving you a brief chance to send them in a different direction. Little animation touches like these go a long way towards establishing the charm of the little Stubies.
There's just one problem, and it's unfortunately a pretty sizeable one. It's okay to make a very hard game, and I in fact applaud it most of the time, as long as the progression isn't too severe. If you're doing this, however, it's extremely vital to nail down the controls, because if you don't, the player is going to end up very frustrated when they lose for reasons outside their control. Stubies has some control issues. I think this is partly a result of how many of them end up on-screen sometimes, leading to confusion over which one exactly you are trying to swipe across. Another problem I had was with the tap command to make a Stubie duck into the ground. Sometimes, rather than planting the little guy, it made it speed up, oftening heading straight for its doom via drop or solidification.
These issues aren't common, but they happen often enough when the screen is busy that it's very easy to make a mistake. One mistake in this game can snowball very quickly, leading to a failed stage and some serious aggravation. It's irritating because the game is very fun when it's working the way it should, but it's absolutely terrible having a good run destroyed because the game thought you wanted to speed up rather than duck down, or that you wanted to turn the blue Stubie who was walking above the yellow Stubie you were trying to turn. The farther you go into the game, the more these problems come up. It reached a point where I felt like I was just banging my head against the wall trying to clear stages without failing due to a mistaken command.
It's too bad, because I really like the design of Stubies. There are tons of elements to it, but they don't overcomplicate the design. The visual design is sharp and smart, keeping things simple so that individual elements stand out properly. There's a good mix of levels here, and though I wasn't thrilled with the exact way the difficulty curved, I appreciate that there actually was an attempt at one. I also really love that I can play in portrait or landscape. It's upsetting that of all the things to get wrong while getting so much right, it had to be the controls. If the game sounds interesting to you, by all means, it's worth checking out, especially at such a reasonable price with no particularly nasty IAP. Just be aware that the game gets quite frustrating in the long run, and not in a very fun way.
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