Rooms: The Main Building review
Ask any adventure gamer what they think of slider puzzles, and a huge majority would probably rank them slightly behind root canal and rectal exams. You know, the type of puzzles where you need to move tiles around a grid to form a picture with only one empty slot, or shuffle jumbled blocks aside to free a particular piece. Yeah, those. Along with mazes, sliders are generally on any short list for the most reviled obstacle in adventure games past or present. So naturally, someone has gone and made an entire game out of them in the form of Rooms: The Main Building.
Are they nuts??!!
As it turns out, no – no they’re not. The game might drive players a little nuts, but HandMade Game and Hudson have teamed up to offer a pretty inspired little package, available for PC, Wii, and the Nintendo DS. A few corners have clearly been cut on production, and the concept probably overstays its welcome before the end, but Rooms is a pleasant little puzzling diversion that just might charm even the most ardent slider hater… Okay, maybe not them, but just about everyone else.
The reason for much of the slider-loathing in this genre is twofold. First, they’re usually absurd contrivances meant only to impede narrative progress for no apparent reason. (“Great work, detective. You’ve followed the forensic evidence to the criminal’s hideout, so crack open that slidey-thingie-puzzle lock and let’s arrest him!”) Secondly, they’re often friggin’ hard, and see point #1 for why that’s a bad idea. (“The culprit could have climbed out the window, caught a plane, and be sipping Mai Tais on a beach in a non-extradition country by now, but good job getting that lock open, detective!”) Oh yes, sliders often deserve their reputation as the bane of adventure games.
Rooms: The Main Building gets around the first problem by not trying to be an adventure at all. Sure, there’s a threadbare premise tying the story together and a few rudimentary inventory puzzles to solve, but don’t let our coverage here fool you: this is a puzzle game, pure and simple. A puzzle game of potential interest to adventure fans, but a puzzle game nonetheless. If deep plots, interesting characters, and rich exploration are all you care about, go ahead and call your proctologist now for all the fun you’ll have here. If, on the other hand, you can appreciate a stimulating intellectual challenge without all the usual window dressing, you might just enjoy this unique, refreshingly offbeat low-frills title.
The story, such as it is, puts players in the shoes of a certain puzzle-loving Mr. X. It’s your birthday, and a present appears on the doorstep that magically sucks you into an alternate world. There you’ll meet Mr. Book, who just so happens to be what his name implies. Offering to be your guide and helper, this snickering literary companion informs you that in order to escape, you’ll first need to make your way through the four mansions of Rooms Street. But these are no ordinary mansions, and its rooms are no ordinary rooms. Instead, they’re made up of environmental sliding tiles that must be correctly connected for you to reach the exit and proceed.
It may seem like a subtle distinction, but the difference between abstractly solving a slider and actually being in one is an important fundamental shift. Rather than blocking your way to the next part of your adventure, here each room actually is the next mini-adventure. Solving a room is its own motivation and its own reward, and with as many as 100 different rooms to navigate all told, there’s a lot of gameplay to be found, with a prevailing feeling of “just one more” when you solve the latest room.
Actually, the word “rooms” is something of a misnomer, as each level consists of any number of smaller rooms in its own right. You aren’t merely trying to recreate a single pattern, but rather get yourself through the many layers of obstruction. Layouts come in all sizes, from the simplest 1x3 horizontal tutorials to 4x4 squares to 7x3 verticle rectangles, and each comes with its own distinct challenges. There are quite a few blank spaces between tiles to help you maneuver, but some tiles have impassable floors, walls, or ceilings in various combinations, others have one or two-sided locked doors, and still more rooms have breakable barriers with the right equipment.
But the game still consists of sliding tiles around like very other slider puzzle, right? Well, not so fast. You will slide tiles to any empty adjoining vertical or horizontal space, but since here you’re actually inside the puzzle, you can also move yourself around, too, and even impact the environment. To do this, there are ladders to climb, keys to acquire, and explosives to light in just the right place. But that’s just the basics. Where Rooms really gains momentum is by introducing a steady stream of new features to help you get around, though of course the level design changes to make using them just as tricky.
Dying just means starting the level over, but it does highlight one notable omission: there’s no “undo” option. It’s possible to accidentally walk Mr. X into danger or back yourself into an unwinnable corner, and it’s very easy to make an unwelcome mess of your current situation with one ill-advised move. There’s a “restart” button to begin again, but in the more complex levels, you won’t be eager to give up your hard-earned progress to start all over. Many of the rooms can be solved in just a minute or two, so it’s not often an issue, but the ability to reverse your last step would certainly come in handy on occasion.This approach keeps the levels feeling fresh and challenging. Just when you think you’re mastering the current gimmick, the next is just around the corner. Among others, there are telephones that let you warp Matrix-style between tiles (though some can only receive), partnered wardrobes that warp the tiles they’re in while leaving you in place, clocks that allow limited rotations of the current room, and mirrors that move their corresponding counterparts in the reverse direction elsewhere. My favourite was the fire hydrant that lets you pump water from one room into another nearby – preferably with you not in it, as poor Mr. X can die if you’re careless.
You’ll always know what kind of challenge awaits, as each room displays a difficulty rating before you enter. Forewarned is not forearmed, however, as Rooms is a very linear game that usually requires you to solve the current level before you can move to the next. Several rooms per mansion are optional, and for no apparent reason, some are locked until you’ve uncovered new abilities later in the game. These extra rooms are consistently the hardest, so it was a wise move not to make them mandatory, but if you get stuck anywhere along the main path, you’re there until you figure it out. There’s a help button that highlights all interactive items in each level, and another that shows you which tiles are currently in the correct place, but this isn’t particularly useful, as you often need to purposely slide tiles out of position to gain an advantage elsewhere. There are no other hint features or a puzzle skip option, so you’re mainly on your own. It shouldn’t happen too often (I think it was three times for me), but “just one more” can quickly become “screw this” when you hit a particularly devious level.
You can bypass the optional levels entirely if you wish, but you won’t get the “real” ending if you do. In fact, you’ll get a lousy ending. On the plus side, it’s so unsatisfactory that you’ll likely be motivated to finish any rooms you skipped to see the good one. The finale ties back into the skimpy storyline running through Rooms. Periodically between slider levels, you’ll “collect” (done automatically as you progress) various items that let you solve simple inventory puzzles in different buildings on Rooms Street. A sleepy hotel chest needs to be roused, a subway station cleared out, and an antique shop’s grandfather clock must be repaired, for example. This attempt at diversity is appreciated, but the puzzles are so random and elementary, all they really do is interfere with your main task.
Getting around the mansions is a simple point-and-click affair. Tapping an interactive object or accessible spot on the ground will cause Mr. X to walk there, and tiles are moved by clicking onscreen arrows. There’s a basic inventory that lets you hold up to three items (cell phones, candles, etc.) per level, accessed by clicking its onscreen icon. Occasionally you’ll need to make a couple of moves in quick succession to avoid danger, but these are easily accomplished, making Rooms a very leisurely game overall. There is a timed mode for masochists, though it’s only available after completing the game normally, and since the rooms aren’t randomized, there’s not a lot of incentive to go back and finish the same levels faster.
Perhaps some nicer scenery would have made a return visit more appealing, but the graphic design of Rooms can be described as functional at best. With its relentless display of black, grey, and brown, the palette is decidedly underwhelming, and even a bit dreary after a while. A little more artistic variation would have gone a long way. Even on a practical level, the game makes poor use of its real estate. A significant portion of the screen is wasted on a brick backdrop, needlessly limiting the size of the main playing area. This is most relevant on the DS (the version primarily used for this review), as the tiny screen size already makes it difficult to discern much detail within the rooms, and the fixed playing area allows only for an active 3x3 room grid at any one time. As many levels extend beyond that, the restriction actually hinders your ability to strategize moves, despite a minimap showing the complete layout on the top screen. Why the levels weren’t tailored to turn the handheld sideways or show active rooms on both screens is a mystery. Such an impediment is really unfortunate, as Rooms is the sort of game that’s ideal for portable play sessions.
At the end of the day, Rooms: The Main Building is still a game full of slider puzzles. If you simply can’t reconcile yourself to that notion, move right along. But if you like puzzles at all, it’s definitely worth giving this game some attention. It’s all brains over beauty, but the clever move of placing you inside these sliders has a subtle but profound impact on their enjoyment, and the constant stream of new tools and twists keeps the experience engaging throughout. The PC version can be picked up cheaply from Big Fish Games, while the Nintendo versions are available through regular retail channels. If you’re willing to sacrifice some production quality for gaming on the go, I can certainly recommend the DS game as a viable portable platform. After all, you need something to play while you’re waiting for your next dentist appointment. It might as well be something fun.The music quality is far more limited on the DS, but none of the platforms offer much in the way of audio. There are no voiceovers, only a few select sound effects and a pleasant but ridiculously repetitive soundtrack that will have you reaching for the volume controls long before you’re done.
You won’t arrive at the finale for quite a while, either, as Rooms is a fairly lengthy game. Depending on whether you play the optional levels or not, it should take you anywhere from six to a hillion jillion hours to get through the four main mansions. (Hey, it’s a puzzle game! How long it takes depends on how often you’re stumped.) And when you reach that point, there’s still another bonus mansion awaiting with another 20 highly challenging rooms.
Note: Adventure Gamers is a Big Fish Games affiliate.
Embrace the fact that Rooms: The Main Building is essentially just a series of very clever sliders, and you should have an enjoyable time working your way through this unique puzzling diversion.