The best picross/nonogram puzzle game on PC, Pictopix, just got a free update on its first anniversary. It’s added in another 45 large-size puzzles, pretty much doubling the play-time of the whole game. So I’ve gone back in, and argue once more why this is the sort of PC game our industry is sadly failing to celebrate.
I think one of the greatest frustrations I’ve encountered over twenty years of this ridiculous job is the sense of failure when it comes to successfully communicating the positives of pure puzzle games. Too often I’ll encounter something utterly extraordinary, something like Hexcells, or Slitherlink, and just getting people to even click on the article feels like a challenge. I’ll write a review bursting with enthusiasm, hyperbole after hyperbole, just to try to make people realise that this is something special, and it’ll get three comments, one of them complaining about the site’s login system. And worse, even when I do get some traction, like with Hexcells, the rest of the industry just ignores it.
Of course, most of the problem is the ludicrous contradiction that the most popular puzzle types on Earth are a tiny niche when it comes to PC games. While the real average gamer, the 30-something woman in America, isn’t loading up Plunkbat but playing puzzle games on her phone, she’s also one of the less likely people to be clicking on RPS to read about them.
But there is a crossover audience! I know, because I’m in it. And if more critics would start writing like such people exist, those people would start reading in greater numbers. And when it comes to picross (some say ‘nonograms’), there’s no better way to play than on PC.
Which makes the fact that there are about three decent Picross games available on the machine even more ridiculous. And the best of them is Pictopix. And it just got better.
Made by one guy, Thomas Leroy, it does the decades-old puzzle in the cleanest, neatest way I’ve found. Unlike the DS, where picross previously found its ideal home, the PC has space for much larger puzzles without the fiddle of needing to zoom in to be able to click in the grids. (Jupiter Corp’s Picross E series on 3DS is superb, especially its excellent variant Mega Picross, but it’s woefully limited when it comes to grid size.) Oh, and of course there’s paper. The puzzle continues to live in magazines in Japan, and you’ll find it in some UK newspapers. But as soon as those grids get big, bloody hell, it’s a grim fuss to shade with a pencil, especially if you discover you’ve made a mistake. But on PC, 30×30 is no problem at all. Starting over is a click, fixing a mistake doesn’t require erasers, and there’s the added pleasure of more colourful presentation.
Paint It Black is perhaps the cross-platform picrosser most people have heard of, and it’s a fun game, but try going back to it after the clean simplicity of Pictopix and it feels like swimming in clay. Leroy absolutely nailed it a year ago, and he’s just added a huge pile of new, large-sized grids that continue the lovely pixel art solutions, and the cheeky sense of humour that riffs on iconic PC games.
I mentioned last April that I hadn’t stopped playing Pictopix since I reviewed it last January. I didn’t stop then. I think I played that game on and off in my spare time for well over six months – completely unheard of in a job like mine. The longevity came from playing the player-designed puzzles, regularly added in via the Steam Workshop. My goal, I told myself, was to play every single one, no matter how dreadful (and many were), but eventually I couldn’t keep up with the volume. At the time of writing there are 1280 of them. A volume thankfully sortable by quality, as on completion you can rate them. There are only so many times you need to realise you were creating a Pokeball, trust me.
It was playing the amateur puzzles that really highlighted the quality of the original challenges. A good picross isn’t just about making a nice picture by the end – it’s about a solution requiring you to scour and scour for that one remaining available move, that will unlock the next three, and those constant moments of satisfaction of deducing your way though a puzzle. There’s a fine art to creating a good puzzle, and after wading through hundreds of mediocre ones from the community, it’s quite the relief to have a new pack designed by the creator.
And there aren’t many picross packs where you’ll realise you just pixel-created a Penrose triangle.
The 45 new puzzles start at 30×30, and go up to the new size of 40×40, meaning each puzzle is a fair old challenge. You might find yourself putting a good half hour into some of them, meaning there’s a whole ton of new game here. The developer claims the new 45 will take longer to finish than the original 155, and I suspect (from the speed with which anyone familiar with the puzzles will breeze through the 5×5 and 10x10s) that’s true. Oh, and this is all for free for owners of the £5 game.
This is completely marvellous. My only issues are so minor as to barely register – I really would like it if the cursor hovering over a cell faintly highlighted the row/column in these larger puzzles, and I still don’t agree that having the numbers auto-fade out when their cells have been unambiguously filled in is deserving of penalty. (Not least because you can do it by hand for no penalty.) But this is picrossing at its best, equal to the best in the business – Jupiter Corporation – when it comes to puzzle construction, art, and wit. I do rather wish we lived in a world where that was the sort of accolade that would make people gasp, rather than say, “Who?”, but for those who already know, it’s like saying, “As good as Valve at FPS”.
I’ll keep hammering away at this. Games journalism will, perhaps, maybe, one day recognise that there’s more to puzzle gaming than 3D first-person mazes. Maybe, perhaps, one day the industry will give them the respect they deserve, such that the best of the best like Pictopix can rise to the top. In the meantime, if you already love these puzzles, this is a must buy, and if you want to get into a smart, engrossing, and perfectly delivered pure puzzle game, this is an amazing place to start.
Pictopix is out now for Windows, Mac and Linux, for £5/$7/7€, via Steam, Humble