You see, when I went to sleep, I kept playing MouseCraft in my head, and that has to count for something. MouseCraft plants you in the shoes of a cat scientist – that is to say a scientist that is an anthropomorphic cat, complete with argyle sweater, white lab coat and tiny spectacles. Your experiments, as experiments often do, revolve around leading mice to cheese. Specifically you have to safely guide three mice through a grid-based gauntlet of hazards, ranging from acid to electrified surfaces, evil rat robots and even exploding TNT. The tricky part: You can't control the mice. They always walk forward, and they automatically jump over small walls and leap off of ledges.
To help your little mice navigate their 2D obstacle course, you can drop tetrominos (i.e. Tetris pieces) in their path, creating platforms for them to traverse. What engages your brain is figuring out how to rotate and stack your pieces so that they create exactly what your mice need to stay safe. These two pieces, when rotated correctly, will create a perfect staircase. Stack this one on top of that one, and you've got a nice bridge for your mice to collect their cheesy reward.
It's easy enough, at first, but MouseCraft begins to introduce different types of blocks as the game progresses. Some blocks crumble after two mice walk over them, other blocks start a 3 second timer that culminates in a destructive explosion, while yet other blocks are gelatinous and can save your mice from an otherwise lethal fall. Your mice can also acquire bombs that can be used to destroy any tetromino on the map. Furthermore, you can freeze time once you release your mice, allowing you to place or destroy blocks at your leisure, which is essential for some time-sensitive levels.
You start every level with a different set of blocks, and with each block having different properties, you really have to think ahead. You have to analyze the layout of each level, figuring out what path your mice will take and where your given blocks fit in. Adding to the challenge are collectible crystals that often require a little more ingenuity to claim. You can clear levels without leading your mice to all the crystals, but you'll need a certain number of them to advance to later sections of the game (four sections in all, each divided into 20 levels). Some of the trickier levels will have you separating your mice, forcing them to go in different directions. One mouse might set off a chain reaction of TNT blocks while another one collects bombs to destroy obstacles in the other's path. You might stop time and place a block under a mouse frozen in mid-air, saving it from a nasty fall.
Finding the best possible solution, which will net you every crystal and ensure that all three mice reach the cheese alive, is mentally satisfying, though the puzzle design itself is a little uneven. For instance, I found many of the later levels, particularly in the fourth section, to be considerably easier than earlier levels. Maybe that just means I was getting better at the game, but it felt like the real stumpers were in section three. Furthermore, MouseCraft is rarely demanding of dexterity, especially since you can freeze time at any moment. That's fine, and perfectly suitable for this kind of puzzle game, but sitting back and watching your mice slowly march to the goal after you've figured out the solution can get a little boring (even with the fast forward function). Having to make at least a few decisions in real time – even if only on a handful of levels – could have added a nice sense of urgency.
MouseCraft is built on a very interesting premise, combining traditional logic puzzle design with the spatial reasoning of Tetris. The overall difficulty curve is somewhat uneven, and the presentation maybe just a touch too languid, but it's hard to overlook the satisfaction of (literally) putting the pieces together and cracking the solution to a tough puzzle. If you want to work your brain for a few minutes, MouseCraft is a good choice (especially on Vita).
It's not the first time a game has inspired me to spin tetrominos in my head as I drift off to sleep, but it is the first time I've used them to save imaginary mice.
This review is based on a pre-release PSN download the PlayStation Vita version of MouseCraft, provided by Crunching Koalas. The PSN version of MouseCraft is Cross-Buy, with a single purchase allowing the download of the Vita, PS3 and PS4 versions of the game. Images: Crunching Koalas.
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