Sunday, May 18, 2014

Review: Membrane for iPhone and iPad

A couple of months ago I tweeted about Membrane by Michael Stephens. I didn't find time to review it until now, which is all the more reason to follow me on Twitter so you don't lose any worthy puzzle game.
At first glance, Membrane might look like yet another clone of Move the Box, a game which I've seen copied so many times that I'm not even sure if it's an original idea itself. On closer inspection, however, Membrane has interestingly different mechanics that add a lot of depth.

The basic idea is that you control some blocks. You can move the blocks only horizontally, by one step at a time. The blocks are also affected by gravity, so they will fall vertically when there is nothing under them. When three or more blocks are on the same line, horizontally or vertically, they disappear. Your goal is to remove all the blocks.
The distinctive feature of this game, which also gives it its name, is the colored horizontal lines (the "membranes") that populate the puzzles. A block can only pass through a membrane if their colors are different. So in the above example, the green membrane is supporting the green blocks, while it would let the brown block pass through.

To solve this puzzle, you could move the brown block right, making it fall down above another brown block, then left to make a match; and then move the isolated green block to the left to make the second match. But that's three moves; as you can see on the top left corner, the "par" for this puzzle is just one move. How can we do that? The movement rules come to our assistance.

To move a block, the space next to it doesn't have to be empty: there can be another block there, which will be pushed. So in this case, you can move right the leftmost green block, which will push the block next to it, forming a match that will disappear. The brown block, no longer supported by the green blocks, will fall down, pass through the membrane, and land between the other two brown blocks, completing the puzzle.

But thats not all! There's a second way to solve this puzzle. Blocks can be moved even if there are other blocks on top of them. They will just slide away, while the block above them will remain where it is. So you can move the rightmost green block to the left: it will slide away from below the brown block, and go to form a match. In the meantime, the brown block, no longer supported by the block you moved, will fall down and form the second match.

Note that in the latter case the green blocks will not be removed until the brown block has finished to fall. That is, the rule is: first all blocks move as far as they can, then all the matches are removed. If the removals cause some blocks to become free, then they all move as far as they can, then all the new matches are removed, and so on until there is no more movement to be done. The order of things might seem a minor details, but in some of the puzzles you have to take full advantage of it.

There can be more than three blocks of one color on the board, and in that case you have to be careful to destroy them all at once. For example in this puzzle there are four green blocks.
If you moved the topmost green block first, you'd make a match of just three blocks, and then would be stuck because you'd have no way to remove the fourth.

The mechanics I just described are already pretty interesting, but the game also adds many variations. First of all, some blocks will float instead of falling.
The white blocks are unmovable and are just obstacles. When you move to the right the brown block with an arrow, it will go up to form a match and solve the puzzle.

Match-3 games often have explosives as power ups; in the case of Membrane, they are just part of the mechanics.
The white line around the bomb block indicates its blast radius. Moving the bomb to the right will form a line of brown blocks, which will make the bomb explode, also destroying the lonely green block.

Other special blocks destroy all blocks in the same row or column after they are matched.
Here the special block is the topmost one. If you move it right, it will make a match and then also the brown block, which is in the same column, will be destroyed.

Finally, we couldn't do without rainbow blocks.
As you can easily imagine,a rainbow block will make a match with any pair of blocks of the same color. Interestingly, rainbow blocks can't pass through any membrane of any color.

The game contains 126 puzzles, divided in three packs. You can play the puzzles in a pack in any order, but to unlock the packs after the first you need to collect a certain number of gold circles, which you earn by solving puzzles in the optimal number of moves. This will require some effort because for many of the puzzles it's easy to come up with an inefficient solution, but finding the optimal solution is a lot harder.

The quality of the puzzles is somewhat uneven. In some cases, the solution is elusive and you really need to think hard about the available options, until you get a nice a-ha! moment when you finally figure it out; other times the puzzle layout feels more like a random collection of blocks without a clear plan behind.
The puzzles that work best are the ones where all the blocks are part of the solution. Take this puzzle for example:
The brown and orange blocks are cleverly interlocked. If you move the bottom orange block, you can make a match; but then the top brown block will move up, making it impossible to form the second match. Conversely, you can easily make a match with the brown blocks, but then the orange block would fall down, again making it impossible to form the second match. The solution involves coordinated motion and reliance on the movement order I described earlier.
The green blocks, on the other hand, don't take any significant part in the solution. They are easily matched, and are not needed for anything else.

By the way, the par in the above puzzle is wrong: it can be solved in just 6 moves.

The user interface is OK, but I strongly dislike that the block colors are randomly changed every time you restart a puzzle. This is jarring and can easily make you lose track of the solution you were building in your head.

I like the premises of the visual style, but it's not polished enough. The graphics are not just lackluster, they are also confusing, for example the blast radius of the bombs is just a plain white line, which cannot be seen when the bomb is on a white background. I also don't like the asymmetry between the "normal" blocks, which fall down and have no visual markings, and the floating ones which have an up arrow on top. An idea I just had is that it might have been nice to explain the fall down/float behaviour with an underwater setting.

Anyway, the game is totally free and doesn't contain ads, so not much reason to complain. You might have to weed through some filler, but there surely are some worthy puzzles in here.


Logical Reasoning★★★★★
User Interface★★★☆☆
Loading Time★★★☆☆
Saves Partial Progress
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©2014 Nicola Salmoria. Unauthorized use and/or duplication without express and written permission is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicola Salmoria and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.