"Played one puzzle game, played them all." This was my first thought when I booted up Tricone Lab by Partickhill Games Limited. That feeling lasted for about 20 minutes, until I was presented with one of the most well-authored puzzles I've played. Since then, I've been absolutely hooked on Tricone Lab - seriously, I think I need an intervention.
At first blush, Tricone Lab doesn't look like much. The graphics and interface are quite simple but the reason for that becomes clear quite quickly: you don't need high-quality 3D graphics to depict the kind of puzzle you'll face in Tricone Lab and, if I'm any judge, anything more than what the game provides would only serve to detract from the puzzles themselves. That's not to say that the game is bad looking - it's not - it does exactly what it needs to and no more: the puzzles themselves do the rest.
"The graphics and interface are quite simple but the reason for that becomes clear quite quickly: you don't need high-quality 3D graphics to depict the kind of puzzle you'll face in Tricone Lab"
Each puzzle has, it its core, a simple goal: create one or more units of "Tricone". They all take place within the microscopic confines of a multi-cellular organism, meaning that you're going to have things like cell walls and interfering antibodies to contend with in your quest for the elusive material. It all being a bit cellular, the different tools that you'll have at your disposal all have identifiers that include words like "catalyst", "node" and "compound" and definitely seem quite biological in their form and function. The different tools are introduced as you play through the levels and you have to complete a series of training puzzles before properly unlocking one of them - this, in turn, will open up more levels in which new mechanics are introduced that you'll need your new tool for.
Creating the Tricone means that you'll have to identify and be able to draw an unbroken line between the Tricone catalyst and the three "cones" (red, green and blue) that go into making up a single unit of Tricone. Having walls between your catalyst and your cones means that you'll need to create breakers (formed by fusing a mobility modifier and a breaker template together with a breaker catalyst) to bring them down or build a mover to carry the cones across the cell-wall boundaries. Sometimes you'll need to create more than a single unit but won't have enough cones - time to start cloning with replicators. Or, perhaps, there's a pesky anti-catalyst nearby who likes to snap up all the tasty cones, templates and modifiers before the player gets a chance to use them; in that case, you'll want to build a constructor and lock that anti-catalyst in its own cellular prison.
"One thing that really stands out about Tricone Lab is that the puzzles themselves have been incredibly well designed and crafted"
One thing that really stands out about Tricone Lab is that the puzzles themselves have been incredibly well designed and crafted. Going into the later puzzles - which begin to use more and more mechanics, requiring more and more tools to be put to use - I'd start out with a feeling of overwhelming dread, then get giddy with excitement at having found a solution before, finally, sitting back with a euphoric sigh when that lovely little bit of Tricone popped up out of the catalyst. In early levels it's fine to just dive right in but, when you really get into the meat of the game, there are often so many different templates, modifiers and catalysts (with a few nodes already created, just to really set the cat amongst the pigeons) that you're required to sit down, digest the tools at your disposal and properly plan a strategy before even thinking of trying to solve the puzzle. That being said, it definitely pays off - I've not played a game that feels as rewarding as Tricone Lab does in some time. The reason for my rather smug attitude at having solved Tricone Lab's puzzles is, I think, attributed to its unique reliance on skill, manual dexterity, logic and deduction all at the same time. It's rare for a game to demand quite so much brainpower from a player that you'd be forgiven for thinking that this is another brain training exercise - though, I'd argue, Tricone Lab is a lot more fun.
There are a couple of small downsides to Tricone Lab, though. My biggest problem was with the map (or level) loader - all maps are listed, with those that you've completed at the top, incomplete but available in the middle and locked at the bottom. Unfortunately, as you progress through the maps you unlock more until, after only a few levels, the map list gets bloated with all of the levels you've unlocked and you're stuck wondering which one you should do next. This has quite a negative effect on the difficulty curve which, if I'm honest, isn't the smoothest to begin with. As each new mechanic requires a little teaching, you're sent back to the flatter ground to learn how to use your new tool or combat your new foe in a few quick and easy puzzles before diving back into the steeper curve you've just been unceremoniously yanked from (unlocking more maps in the process).
And, if those maps weren't enough, Tricone Lab also has a custom level editor so that you can throw some of your own into the mix and an in-built sharing platform so you can add other peoples' maps too!
"I've not played a game that feels as rewarding as Tricone Lab does in some time"
Tricone Lab's level editor is brilliant. You've got access to everything that you'll need to create mind-bogglingly difficult puzzles, just like the developers. Creating a map is quick and easy, as is creating individual puzzles. Shortcut keys are listed on all of the commands to help speed up your workflow (though it's just as easy to use the mouse) and actually building a puzzle is a breeze: draw walls with your mouse, select the catalysts, cones, templates and modifiers you want to include and drop them in with a click or switch to "remove" mode to get rid of unwanted items. The design is responsive so that, as you add more elements, cell walls contract a little and all the little doodads you've dropped in shuffle around a little to fit on the screen. There's a playtest button so that you can quickly give your level a go, too. I managed to create a four-puzzle map with increasing puzzle difficulty (the last one used one of everything bar a replicator) in about 30 minutes and am pretty pleased with the results.
My only niggle with the editor is that you have access to everything in the game from the off - anything that you've not actually unlocked in the main game, yet, included. That means that people trying to create new maps might not actually have much idea as to how a certain element functions and, unfortunately, there's not much in-editor information to help you out (what there is is certainly no replacement for actually having played a couple of puzzles with that tool or mechanic).
Once you've created your own map, Tricone Lab also lets you put it out into the wider gaming world for any other player to see, download and play themselves. The process is really simple, very quick and utterly hassle free. You can even submit your map for approval by the developers (this makes it easier to search for and proves that you've done a good job creating Tricone Lab levels! Way to go, you!). Unfortunately, at the time of writing, my map was the only one on there so I've not been able to play any other player-made maps and, what's worse, I felt like a bit of a loner.
"I've been absolutely hooked on Tricone Lab - seriously, I think I need an intervention"
Out now on Steam Early Access (with a full release in Spring 2016), Tricone Lab is a the kind of puzzle game you might have thought you've played before - but I'm telling you you're wrong and that you should definitely check this out. Don't forget to get on that level editor too, though, because I really could do with some more maps to play - pretty, pretty please, just one more, just... one... more...