When your brain needs a bit of a workout, have steam shoot from your ears while taking on these devious, challenging puzzles.
Dissembler is a match game with a difference. Instead of being presented with a well of gems, each level begins as a tiny slice of abstract art. And although the mechanics are familiar - swap two tiles to connect a series of three or more, whereupon they disappear - Dissembler is a much more strategic affair.
In part, this is because there's no gravity, and no new pieces fill the void left by those you've already removed. Each slice of artwork is therefore a finite, intricately designed puzzle. Your aim is to figure out the precise sequence of moves required to eliminate every dab of colour, leaving you with a blank canvas.
At first, the puzzles are obvious. Then you'll come across ones that seem obvious, until you're several moves in and realise you've stranded a single tile so no others can reach it. You'll soon come to appreciate the deviousness of the hand-crafted challenges, along with the unlimited undos that enable you to try different approaches.
An endless mode provides an interesting spin on the game - if one that doesn't quite come off; but there's also a daily puzzle for Dissembler fanatics who exhaust the game (and solutions the following day for us mere mortals).
£2.99/$2.99 | For iPhone and iPad (Universal) | Download Dissembler
In FROST, you find yourself confronted by tiny single-screen universes, driven by rules that dictate how each element reacts to you - and anything else on the screen. The aim is to fill orbs, by directing swarms of flocking spirits their way.
FROST is, in essence, a puzzle game. In each level, there's a trick to filling those orbs, whether simply carving a path through space with your finger, or understanding how to combine flocks to make the new creatures required to sate the appetite of a particular orb.
But FROST feels more than a typical puzzler. Like the developer's own BLEK, this game somehow feels alive. It's an organic, tactile experience as everything shifts and moves beneath your fingers. And as you interrupt constructions akin to neon-infused abstract art, fluorescent strands spit across the screen, while microscopic creatures fizz and fly.
It's an iOS gaming experience to slow down with, savouring each level like a gallery painting, rather than blazing through it in a tearing hurry.
£4.99/$4.99 | For iPhone and iPad (Universal) | Download FROST
The Gardens Between
Cause and effect are more fluid concepts than normal in The Gardens Between. After some scene-setting showing best friends Arina and Frendt in a rickety treehouse between their homes, you're whisked away to the first of over a dozen islands, built from oversized objects extracted from the duo's memories.
The aim is to reach the peak of each surrealist mountain, so the pair can plant a light. The snag is you've little control over Arina and Frendt - you can merely drag the screen to direct the flow of time, or tap during the rare occasions when one of the kids can interact with something.
The timey-wimey aspect of the game - and how you break the rules of reality - is where the puzzles arrive from. You might, for example, leap back and forth in time to saw a plank that creates a pathway; or by pausing time at just the right moment, natural elements may continue to flow, exploding all over the place in a manner that enables progress.
One of the most beautiful games you'll play on iOS, The Gardens Between is also one of the most unique. The experience is short, but one to relish as you breathe in every moment.
£4.99/$4.99 | For iPhone and iPad (Universal) | Download The Gardens Between
Craft often sets apart the very best games on iPhone and iPad. You can have a great concept - or even share a concept with many other titles - but only with perfect execution do you grasp the chance to leap from also-ran to classic.
Hidden Folks is in that space. The basic idea isn't innovative or terribly exciting: it's a hidden object game. And there are plenty of those on the App Store, more or less transferring paper equivalents to the screen, and inviting you to poke around until all targets are discovered.
Here, though, everything has been fashioned with the utmost care. The illustrations are hand-drawn and neatly animated. As you tap objects, mouth-originated sounds are emitted - particularly joyful in an area based on a rock gig. Even the clues are bright and clever, intelligently marrying hints and humour in only a handful of words.
All this comes together to make a hidden object game that's leagues ahead of anything else on the system - or paper, for that matter. And it's a challenge, too, especially when you're faced with mammoth scenes packed with detail you know will conceivably keep you occupied for many hours.
It's testament to the game's creators that Hidden Folks is so good - not just if you're a fan of Where's Wally? and the like, but also if you fancy a sit-back title that will challenge your eye for detail and frequently bring a smile to your face.
£5.99/$5.99 | For iPhone and iPad (Universal) | Download Hidden Folks
Path of Giants
Path of Giants feels like all the A-list tomb raiders are busy, so someone sent for the dregs. Rather than featuring Lara Croft scooting up walls, leaping from ledges, and punching the odd T. rex, Path of Giants has three doddering explorers dressed to the nines trying to reach the coloured goals that whisk them away to the next challenge.
Reaching said goals is all about pathfinding and co-operation. Select an explorer and the others plonk their bottoms on the ground. The one under your control heads wherever they can get to - assuming such a path is possible. If necessary, one explorer will clamber on another to reach higher points on the screen. You'll also find yourself experimenting with switches and other contraptions, to have the trio head deeper into their quest.
The game looks lovely on whatever platform you play, echoing the dazzling minimalism of Lara Croft GO. The pathfinding is also intelligent, as is the game as a whole. When you reach more claustrophobic caverns, you must think ahead and manage your explorers in a way that brings to mind sliding puzzles. Should you hit a dead end, Path of Giants makes that known and invites you to use some undos and try something new.
Said undos are unlimited, because this game wants to be played. This robs it of a little challenge, but that's no criticism when a game's so friendly, honest, and thoughtful.
£3.99/$3.99 | For iPhone and iPad (Universal) | Download Path of Giants
The Room: Old Sins
It doesn't take long before you realise there's something very weird going on in The Room: Old Sins. Tracking a missing engineer and his wife, the trail leads to an attic. You catch a glimpse of a body, quickly fix a lamp that illuminates a doll's house, and then find yourself sucked inside.
Elaborate and impossible, the doll's house is itself a miniature mansion, packed full of contraptions and puzzles. And every puzzle you complete enables you to dig a little deeper into a Lovecraftian horror and the overriding puzzle of the house itself.
The atmospheric surroundings surpass other games of this type on iOS, and the combination of multiple locations and speedy navigation result in something a bit like Myst - but without the tedious walking around. Tactile, peculiar and thoughtful, this is a superb puzzler. Once you're done, fill in the backstory with The Room, The Room Two, and The Room Three.
£4.99/$4.99 | For iPhone and iPad (Universal) | Download The Room: Old Sins
Song of Bloom
If you're still questioning whether games can be art, Song of Bloom might just convince you. Although you're unlikely to find it playing on an iPad nailed to the wall at the Tate Modern, there's no denying Song of Bloom is an artistic, hand-crafted passion project. It also helps that it's really good.
Like the best art, there's a certain ambiguity running throughout Song of Bloom - it drops you into a bizarre universe of miniature vignettes and lets you get on with it. Assuming you're prepared to observe, think, and experiment, you'll find one of the most satisfying and rewarding puzzlers on the platform.
The root of the game is a looping animation, with flickering chalk-like illustrations narrating a tale of regret. Soon, you end up staring at a stick with a bud that when held reveals a mountain with a circle at its peak. Draw this circle at the right moment when the animation is replayed and you're transported to another scene.
To say more would spoil the surprise in a game that's basically all about surprises. Suffice to say Song of Bloom is varied and clever, not only in what you see on the screen, but also in the various ways it has you interact with your device. You might still question whether it's art, but on playing through Song of Bloom, you won't be in any doubt that it's wonderful.
£1.99/$1.99 | For iPhone and iPad (Universal) | Download Song of Bloom
Splice: Tree of Life
Set in a world of microbes, Splice is an experimental puzzler about rearranging tiny organisms into pre-defined frameworks, based on the rules of binary trees. That probably doesn't sound interesting, but Splice is an excellent game, with a unique aesthetic and smart challenges.
In each level, you're presented with a set of black blobs, suspended in goop, and a white outline into which they're supposed to fit. Any microbe can have another dangle from it, or two branch from it. You also begin with the power to splice specific blobs by tapping an invitingly large button.
The key is in understanding how the system works, and thinking ahead, picturing how what's before you will look several moves down the line. That's easier said than done, but when Splice clicks, it clings on for dear life. Having engaged your chess brain, you'll master splicing before being faced with microbes that mutate in other ways.
Complete the game and it barely gives you time for a spot of smugness before unleashing a brain-smashing 'epilogue' level set. Still, that just gives you more time to enjoy the swish visuals and relaxing piano score, while slowly rocking back and forth in the corner, broken by the final few challenges.
£3.99/$3.99 | For iPad only | Download Splice: Tree of Life
One of the great things about mobile is affording games creators the space to take the seed of an idea and make it grow, without worrying too much about adhering to convention, or making enough cash to satisfy backers desperate for another multi-millions mega-hit. Spring Falls takes this line of thinking quite literally, basing its puzzles around water, erosion, and helping little flowers bloom.
The game takes place on a geometric rock face that's more Monument Valley than photogenic BBC documentary background. Its hexagonal columns - like a meticulously refined and regimented Giant's Causeway - provide great clarity regarding the current state of play. And that's just as well, because making the flowers come to life isn't easy.
Spring Falls is at least simple to play, in that it essentially invites you to 'erode' rocks, thereby adjusting the flow of water. On making changes, you'll find grey rocks turn green, possibly enabling a nearby seed to have a drink and bloom into something beautiful.
However, the rules always remain slightly opaque. There's no hand-holding. Spring Falls leaves you to figure out its internal logic, and work your way through the 60 handcrafted levels. Fortunately, there's also little frustration. You can undo as many steps as you like, which encourages experimentation. In all, it's blooming great.
£3.99/$3.99 | For iPhone and iPad (Universal) | Download Spring Falls
Ho-hum, another match game. But wait, because Starbeard recognises how sick of gem-swapping everyone is by now, and does everything it can to make things interesting. For a start, the backstory involves a group of intergalactic gardening gnomes, and their desperate attempts to defend their handiwork from the evils of massive marauding bugs. No, really.
Battles play out on a grid of tiles, but although this presents the veneer of familiarity, Starbeard is no mere Bejeweled. First, everything's upside-down. You can only take an item from the bottom of any column, before moving it. Secondly, your little character sits within the grid, as do the bugs he's attacking. And thirdly, the gems you match charge up powers that enable the tiny gnome hero to blast bugs into oblivion in a manner that'd make an extra-large can of Raid nod approvingly.
The more you play, the more Starbeard reveals its secrets. You learn new techniques, giving you a chance to win on boards that to the casual onlooker would seem hopeless. There are upgrades to explore, varied planets to visit, and all kinds of nasties to battle. This certainly isn't the prettiest game, nor is it the most immediate; but if you love match games and want something different, compelling and smart, you'll find Starbeard three quid well spent.
£2.99/$2.99 | For iPhone and iPad (Universal) | Download Starbeard
The original There Is No Game wowed at a 2015 game jam, and finally arrived on iPhone/iPad in late 2020 as an App Store freebie. It spends much of its length arguing that there is no game.
By manipulating the interface and doing things you clearly shouldn't, you gradually unlock its oddball world. WD (Wrong Dimension) is a superbly polished and massive evolution on this basic concept - and one of the best games released on any platform during 2020.
Like its predecessor, the game begins by claiming it's not, in fact, a game. You must convince it otherwise, kicking things off by using an exclamation mark as a bat and ball to smash up the game's logo. This escalates with the game's voiceover going to extreme lengths to keep you out.
Things get progressively weirder as the not-game subsequently transforms itself into recognisable puzzle genres, and a narrative unfolds that incorporates the voiceover, a deadly foe, and various NPCs who aren't aware they're in a game. Or a not-game. Because there is no game.
With a witty script and clever puzzles and set pieces, this (not a) game is a must-have on iPad. On iPhone, iOS's infuriating Home indicator sometimes gets in the way; but if you can put up with that bobbing up and down, grab There Is No Game: WD, savour it, and wish every title on your devices was infused with a fraction of its imagination.
£4.99/$4.99 | For iPhone and iPad (Universal) | Download There Is No Game: WD
Every platform needs its perfect puzzle game, and Threes! deftly makes its to be the iPhone's. As with all brilliant examples of the puzzle genre, Threes! has at its heart a simple mechanic, which in this case involves merging cards within a tiny four-by-four board. But it's the details that propel Threes! beyond the competition.
The idea is to match numbers. Slide a blue '1' into a red '2' and they combine to become a single '3' card. Two 3s make a 6. Two 6s make a 12. And so on. The snag is every move you make slides every non-blocked tile on the board as well. If you're fortunate or have planned ahead, this can result in several merges in one move; if not, you end up with a mess to clear up. And since after every turn a new card enters the board in a random spot on the edge you swiped from, planning is key.
It takes a few games for Threes! to click, but once it does, it never lets go. You'll be dying to see new cards (each is infused with a unique personality), and will soon spot how reaching higher-numbered cards boosts your score substantially.
£5.99/$5.99 | For iPhone and iPad (Universal) | Download Threes!