Chime Sharp Review
Reviewed on PC
2010’s delightful puzzler Chime has returned (courtesy of Kickstarter) in the form of Chime Sharp, with a fresh look, new levels, and a couple of challenging new game modes. A missed stretch goal means that consoles will sadly be missing out for the time being, but anyone with a Steam account can happily dive into this charming yet deceptively complex indie gem.
Perhaps best defined as a music-based puzzle game, Chime is to Tetris what Rez was to on-rails shooters - a familiar format augmented with a reactive soundtrack, in which success is rewarded in real time with additional layers of a level’s theme music. Gameplay-wise, it’s essentially Tetris with the gravity switched off - whereas its venerable ancestor had 4-block shapes falling endlessly into a well to be cleared by arrangement into horizontal lines, Chime requires players to move 5-block shapes (“Pentominoes”) freely around on a grid in order to make 4-sided shapes (“Quads”). Placed Pentominoes trigger events in the initially minimal backing music, with completed Quads adding more significant musical layers, scoring points, and triggering all-important score multipliers. A completed Quad shatters shortly after being formed, leaving any extraneous blocks (“Fragments”) behind and colouring the grid where it lay - the objective of the game being to colour as much of the grid as possible. Fragments sit on the board for a short time, giving a penalty (depending on the game mode) if not removed as part of a Quad within a relatively short time.
It sounds simple enough, but those who never played the original might find the learning curve in Chime Sharp steeper than expected. There’s a link on the main menu to the game’s somewhat basic instruction manual (as if anyone ever reads manuals these days), which explains the core concepts and gives a few tips, but ultimately provides rather flimsy preparation for the game itself. The manual recommends a methodical approach, emphasising the importance of careful fragment management and encouraging a focus on creating “Perfect Quads”, which use the entirety of their constituent Pentominoes, leaving no Fragments behind and scoring bonus points. However, trying to follow this philosophy in the game’s Standard mode (which has the player trying to colour as much of the grid and score as many points as possible against a time limit) is extremely daunting at first - new players trying to focus on fragment management and building Perfect Quads will frequently find themselves staring down the barrel of the time limit with only a fraction of the grid coloured in. Switching to a fast-but-messy approach will colour the grid much faster and keep the timer refilled long enough to hit the 60% coverage threshold required to unlock new levels. Methodical play is best left until you’re ready to try mastering the game and assaulting the high score tables.
Speaking of levels - there are fifteen on offer, each with its own music track, game grid, Pentomino set, and colour scheme. The lack of variety between grids is slightly disappointing - apart from small differences in overall size, the only defining features are a couple of square holes in the middle or notches in the sides of the boards. The choice of colour palette on some levels is distinctly unhelpful, often leaving it unclear which tiles are part of the empty grid (coloured or uncoloured) and which are Pentominoes or Fragments. It’s even more frustrating when reaching the last ten seconds of the time limit, during which the screen is tinted red and a large countdown overlay appears, further obscuring the action. There is an option to use a black and white palette, but this is arguably one of the more confusing ones, incorporating as it does several shades of grey for empty grid spaces and fragments. Fortunately, the colour-blind palette is an excellent choice for those wanting consistent clarity to help them master the game. Still, the different palettes add a nice touch of individuality to each level, so it’s a shame that some of the defaults distract from the gameplay in this way.
A handful of game modes offer a welcome dose of longevity to what might otherwise have been something of a token experience. Sharp mode ditches the time limit for a given level entirely, replacing it with a lives system: the player loses a life every time a Fragment is left to expire, but can replenish their lost lives by forming Perfect Quads. This offers a more sedate and thoughtful challenge, which some players might find more appealing than the rather hectic Standard mode. Strike mode occupies the opposite end of the spectrum, giving the player a static 90-second time limit to score as many points as possible, demanding frantic precision and instinctive play. Finally, players who achieve 100% coverage of a level in Standard mode are rewarded with a fiendish Challenge mode, in which a unique set of pentominoes is provided in a set order, with 100% grid coverage being the goal.
What matters most of all in a game like this is, of course, the music - and this is where Chime Sharp really delivers. Each track is immersive and complements the mood and aesthetic of the game perfectly. There are some huge basslines to be had, and players with good sound systems or headphones will relish the chance to put their hardware through its paces - this is definitely a game to turn up. The soundtrack, featuring the likes of Chvrches and Chipzel, is a perfect mix of thumping electro-pop, catchy chiptune, and chilled out trance. Whether you feel like zoning out for some casual puzzle gaming, or really focussing and working for 100% board clear, the soundtrack has you covered. The game is at its best when the music reflects your prowess without you really being aware of it - the “Synesthesia” experience that the aforementioned Rez was so keen to provide can be had in spades once you get to grips with the challenging gameplay offered by Chime Sharp.
Those looking for a casual puzzle game might find Chime Sharp a little unwieldy and intimidating at first, but gamers wanting a cerebral challenge will quickly grow to love it for its surprising depth and satisfying variety of modes. Elevated above its humble origins by a killer soundtrack seamlessly and compellingly integrated into its core mechanics, this update is a worthy successor to the cult classic original.