REVIEW: Spark and Sparkle

This is an unusual blend of two genres, one of which isn’t seen very often in gaming to begin with. I don’t know where the idea of mixing a jigsaw puzzle with a PvP SHMUP came from, but the creativity is to be applauded.

Released: Steam
Type: Single-Player, PvP
Genres: Puzzle, SHMUP
Developer: Essencey
Publisher: Essencey
Release date: 16 April, 2020

First Impressions

When first looking at Spark and Sparkle (SS), I was intrigued by the combination of a shooter and jigsaw puzzle game. The fact that you were always playing against an opponent was just as interesting, since most shooters are either single player or cooperative. My main curiosity stemmed from how this would even be functional, as these are such distinct tasks from one another. Admittedly, the graphics are a little rough, so I was a bit hesitant to get the game. However, I decided to trust those who gave it positive reviews and find out for myself how this all came together.

When brother and sister, or so I assume based on their names, fight against one another, who will come out on top?

Gameplay

One thing that becomes apparent before long is that SS taxes one’s ability to multitask, as you always have multiple things attracting your attention. You have to kill enemies as they populate on your screen, pick up the gems they drop as that generates jigsaw pieces to spawn for you, deal with distraction attacks your opponent sends over, collect jigsaw pieces before they scroll off the screen, and of course try placing them in the correct spot. Between all of these factors, it can be incredibly distracting as your focus switches from one thing to the next. It’s easy to get caught up trying to complete one of these, such as fending off enemies and dodging your opponents’ attack, while your puzzle is a horrendous mess that you have to clear up.

If war is Hell, why does this battle look so cute?

There are 3 main modes available in SS: Match, Arcade, and Online. Match Mode has you play a single match against either a human player or the AI, with the ability to choose which puzzle you play, if there’s any handicaps, and how difficult the AI opponent is. Arcade Mode allows you to play through a series of opponents, trying to beat all of them in order to complete the run. There are currently 5 available, with each being harder than the last, which you have to unlock by beating each sequentially. This is also the means by which you unlock all of the characters. Online Mode allows you to play against other people who also have the game. Unless you have somebody on your friends list that already owns SS, it’s very unlikely you’d find someone online randomly, as that can be hard with even semi-popular games, let alone a title that’s not well known. I commend them for having this option available though.

Looks like a page from a child’s book.

Controls

This was one of the elements I was most curious about, and it works fairly well. You’re able to choose between using the keyboard or controller, and I opted for a controller. Firing at enemies is done by holding ‘A,’ and you activate your limited use special move by pressing ‘B.’ This meter refills slowly, and I believe is centered around placing puzzle pieces in the right spot. You’ll pick up and place the jigsaw pieces with ‘X,’ and rotate them with the ‘trigger buttons.’

One problem I encountered was when trying to pick up and put down the puzzle pieces, as they sometimes seemed to be unresponsive. I also came across an anomaly where upon trying to play SS, it was barely registering my inputs to the point that I couldn’t even navigate through the menu, even after uninstalling and reinstalling the game, as well as verifying the integrity of the files. However, after trying it again another day without any other troubleshooting, it was playing just fine again, so I have no idea what the issue was. I look at it as a fluke though, since it only happened for a short period of time.

That green circle with the spikes on it is a huge pain. Prioritize its destruction.

Story

I was hopeful that with the various characters to choose from that there would be some sort of plot line behind why they would be battling (puzzling?) against one another. Most likely having something to do with acquiring a magical artifact that would grant them some kind of special power. However, we wind up finding very little about any of the characters, the world they’re in, or what is even going on here. At most they exchange some dialogue before they face off against one another, but there’s no follow-up after you win, nor is there a meaningful ending screen after you beat everybody else. This isn’t technically necessary, but I find that developing even a simplistic motivation for your character helps round off their personality and gives you more incentive to play as all of them.

Crow is very observant, and potentially hungry. This is as far as the story goes in the game.

Graphics

SS uses pixel graphics, and when looking at the size of the pixels, they’re small enough that it’s more than possible to give everything shown crisp detail. Certain aspects of the visuals take advantage of this, such as the lighting and shading used in the jigsaw puzzles and character portraits. However, I wasn’t fond of the overall aesthetic and art style that was chosen for the game. It lends itself to a cutesy look, which isn’t inherently bad, but it doesn’t look clean and polished the way other pixel games do. A game that I think has done very well with pixel graphics in contrast is Mercenary Kings, though the tone and emphasis is considerably different. Another thing I don’t care for is how the font looks, which isn’t something I’d normally pay attention to.

You’d think a game that includes the name Mint Tour would be a cake walk, but it really isn’t that easy.

Sound Design

There’s a nice variety in the soundtrack, with most of them having a slight dreamy vibe to them. They have a relaxing and calming essence to them, which helps prevent the game coming off as too intense when puzzle-solving is still a significant basis of the gameplay. The bloops and blasts that go off as you blow up enemies seems at home in the SHMUP arena.

Pros

  • Some of the unlockables, such as character skins, are quite difficult to earn. However, there’s a reason for playing Arcade Mode multiple times as it’ll develop your skills and unlock new puzzles you can choose from.
  • The developers have expressed interest in further updating SS, particularly based on suggestions made by people who have played it.
  • There are 8 playable characters, all of whom play differently from one another.

Cons

  • I think the characters need rebalancing. For instance, the Frog Prince has the disadvantage of needing to get up-close to attack, but has one of the hardest to see distraction attacks. It creating a U-shape in its flight pattern means it can hit you coming from either direction, with no way to know when it’ll veer off and go back up. Stripe and Mermaid Princess have similar distraction attacks, but they’re much easier to dodge.
  • The AI is programmed in a way that’s perplexing. When facing against them at higher difficulties, they place each puzzle piece without any hesitation or error, which is so unfair. Oddly enough though, even they seem to get overwhelmed by everything, as I’ve been able to dodge all the hazards, and they will be hit multiple times in a row, losing a few puzzle pieces in a short duration.
  • There’s no game mode available to practice the mechanics of how SS functions without facing off against an opponent. Being able to get a grasp of the juggling required for this game, without the additional factor of facing an enemy would be very helpful. Perhaps something like a Time Trial Mode would be nice.
  • If you screw up a match early on, there’s no way to restart quickly. You have to wait it out until the opponent finishes. I quit out of the last match in Arcade Mode because after messing up early, I had no patience to sit it out.

Tips

  • I would suggest going straight into Arcade Mode, as the starting difficulty is set rather low. When I first tried Match Mode on the default settings, instead of lowering the difficulty, I got annihilated. Besides, you only face off against 3 opponents in Arcade Mode, so it’s not that much of a time investment.
  • Each puzzle is made up of the same # of pieces, 20. There are 14 edge pieces, which are the easiest to place. The 6 center ones can be oriented in any direction and can take a while to figure out. Being able to pick up a piece, rotate it once, and try it again repeatedly becomes a fundamental skill in SS.
  • Keeping up with waves of enemies is crucial, as even if you don’t take damage, you’ll lose simply because your opponent is getting more gems and pieces than you. Your puzzle can be messy for a while, and you’ll eventually get a chance to sort it out.

Final Thoughts

I actually have played another game where you tried to put together a jigsaw puzzle before your opponent did, and that was Pieces for the SNES. It wasn’t particularly interesting or fun, but for most of my life, it was one of a kind. SS is the only game I’ve seen since that’s taken on such a concept, and does so in a way that’s pretty enjoyable. The learning curve is fairly steep, as my first attempts led to spectacular failure. However, now that I’ve gotten more practice with it, I have a better appreciation for the game and how you’re supposed to beat the AI. With the cute exterior and concept belying a fairly challenging game, I do think more could be done to make it approachable for new players. Based on remarks made by the developers to make further tweaks, I’m hopeful it will improve, with perhaps more options available to ease or increase the challenge. I’d say it’s a mite steep at $10, but if you want a novel puzzle game to play, I’d suggest getting this on sale. Bear in mind the need to stay focused while playing though, as it’s not one you can play casually.

I dislike both playing as and against the Frog Prince. Nobody better smooch him so he can remain a frog!
Written by
Fruit N Doggie
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