A Peaceful Little Hamlet
The mobile game market is saturated with copycat games, each inspired by or a direct rip-off of another. This makes the story-based match-3 puzzle title Small Town Murders, created by Angry Birds developer Rovio, all the more praiseworthy. In the picturesque town of Thornton Grove, a series of crimes have disrupted the peace. The police force, inexperienced in solving big-city crimes, seems ill equipped to track down the perpetrators. You are Nora Mistry, a mystery writer who came to town to start her next book and discovered a different use for her sleuthing skills.
Boosts, Bonuses, and Power-Ups Oh My!
Although categorized as a match-3 game, Small Town Murders differs in many ways from similar titles. Sure, matching tiles to remove them from the board forms the central mechanic of the game. You receive special power-ups for matching four, five, or more tiles and for creating shapes like squares or crosses. Some of these boosts are typical—bombs to destroy sections of the board, rockets that clear entire rows or columns and disco balls to wipe out all tiles of a particular color. You can also launch paper airplanes that fly around the board and hit random tiles.
An interesting feature of the game is the ability to combine these boosts to create more powerful effects. For example, matching a paper plane with a bomb will cause the bomb to detonate wherever the plane lands. Pairing two bombs creates an even bigger explosion, thus clearing up more of the board at once. I’ve found that merging the bomb and disco ball often results in an instant win. Learning these combinations leads to more tactical gameplay. It’s sometimes worthwhile to not use a boost immediately and instead maneuver tile matches in order to get two power-ups together. Oftentimes, a board that I’d failed to clear multiple times became stunningly simple with luck and a strong power-up combo.
You also receive boosters by completing puzzles, progressing in the story, or purchasing them from the in-game store. You select pre-level boosters, such as one that creates two paper planes instead of one, prior to beginning a level. In-level boosters are handy tools to use during a match if you get stuck and are running out of moves. An example of this is the sledgehammer, which damages all tiles in a cross shape without costing you a move.
Clear 50 Tiles in 20 Moves? No Problem.
What’s this about moves, you ask? Well, this is one of the more frustrating yet effective gameplay mechanics of Small Town Murders. You have a limited number of moves to clear each puzzle board, and the number varies from board to board. More times than I can count, I ran out of moves with only one or two matches left to make. When this happens, you can purchase a few extra moves using gold coins, which are acquired by completing puzzles and advancing the story. This proves useful if you only need a few more matches to clear the board.
It’s often more expedient, however, to exit the match entirely and use one of your five lives to try again from the beginning. These lives are on a timer, each requiring 30 minutes to recharge. Many times, on particularly difficult boards, I ran out of lives and had to stop playing. You can of course purchase additional lives from the in-app store, where prices range from inexpensive to absurd, but I refused to do this. If you don’t mind taking a break for a couple of hours, you can easily avoid spending real cash altogether. Although it’s exasperating to run out of moves or lives in the middle of a play session, these two features add a gratifying element of challenge to the game.
A Break From the Norm
Unorthodox board layouts provide another notable difference from the standard match-3 puzzle game. Gone are the conventional squares that you can mindlessly clear one after another. Small Town Murders offers puzzles of varying shapes and sizes. And sometimes boards are divided into two or three areas, either using blockades that you must burst through with explosives or as sections that are actually spatially separated. Some of these arrangements require a moment to wrap your head around and a bit of enjoyable strategizing to figure out.
Also unique to the game are the number of obstacles that impede your ability to clear a board. Some tiles are wrapped in chains that must be broken before the tile can be moved or matched. Others are protected behind layers of bubble wrap. Many boards have conveyor belts that move tiles after every action, necessitating a bit of foresight when planning your moves. There are special tiles that can only be cleared by getting them to the bottom of the board, and so on.
While this innovation adds to the difficulty and therefore the fun, it also results in a lot of frustration. You can’t progress in the story until you’ve completed the requisite puzzle, and some of the boards are incredibly tough to clear. I found myself attempting the same puzzles multiple times. Then I’d run out of lives and gold, have to take a break to regen, and return to the game only to exclaim, “Oh my God, I’m still on this one!” Yet despite the momentary feeling of annoyance, I kept coming back for more and enjoyed myself the entire time.
Definitely Not Least
Speaking of story, it’s important to mention this additional distinguishing feature of the game. The underlying premise of Small Town Murders is that you must solve a number of crimes by completing match-3 puzzles. Each step forward in the story is preceded by a corresponding puzzle. For example, if you want to ask a suspect five questions, you’ll have to complete a puzzle before each one. Spot a potential piece of evidence at a crime scene? You have to beat a puzzle before you can inspect it. Time to head to your desk and analyze your findings? Solve a puzzle first.
The finite number of puzzles doesn’t mean that you’ll finish the game any time soon though. Currently, there are eight cases to investigate, with more on the way. To get through the first seven cases and unlock access to the eighth requires beating over 850 puzzles. Each case has multiple steps, including conversations with different characters, evidence to discover and inspect, and various locations to investigate. This free-to-play title will definitely provide you with ample puzzles to solve and quite a bit of fun while you’re at it.
Is It Hardcore?
Without a doubt.
Small Town Murders offers a unique and pleasant take on the conventional match-3 puzzle game. With its combination of crime sleuthing and puzzle solving, the game stands out from the puzzler crowd.