When your brain needs a bit of a workout, have steam shoot from your ears while taking on these devious, challenging puzzle games.
Bring You Home
For the most part, Bring You Home is a game about failure – bonkers, surreal, hilarious failure. This is because each of the single-screen tests involves sliding bits of screen about, so that protagonist Polo can continue on his quest to rescue a pet-napped alien critter. Get things wrong, and Polo tends to die horribly, mostly by being eaten.
The game’s a visual delight, and relentlessly imaginative. Scenarios involve everything from dealing with figuring out how to sate two graveyard horrors to finding a path through artwork that temporarily turns you into a tiny Picasso or Mondrian.
There is a touch of trial and error about proceedings, but mostly to figure out how everything before you reacts. Crack a level’s sometimes oddball logic and you can continue - and if you succeed first time you’ll be back later to check out the funny failure animations (much to Polo’s displeasure). Craig Grannell
If nothing else, Campfire Cooking is an excellent example of why gaming should never try to emulate reality too closely. In the real world, people sit around campfires, with marshmallows on sticks, and poke them into the fire for a bit. That would make for a very dull (yet mercifully quick) game. But Campfire Cooking reimagines this experience as an amusingly brain-bending puzzler.
Each level is based around a grid, which houses one or more fires. Your marshmallows need to be toasted once on both sides, and helpfully rotate whenever they move sideways. The problem is you can’t lift them up, and the grids are small and packed full of obstacles.
Although the first few puzzles are simple, Campfire Cooking soon has you dealing with multiple fires and sticks, and pots of food that need heating. At one point, it all goes very weird as marshmallows are replaced by magnets, used for dragging pots around, despite them sporting perfectly serviceable handles.
A bright, colourful puzzler, then – and one that’s especially satisfying on the larger screen of an iPad. Craig Grannell
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). Craig Grannell
The basic aim is to wipe out your enemies before heading to an exit. The tiny snag is that each enemy behaves differently - some guarding the space in front of them, and others unhelpfully moving about of their own accord. Getting into position to off them with your spear can be tough.
Even early levels offer a challenge for anyone wanting to crack the minimum moves count. But before long, just getting to the exit is enough, when you’re confronted by optical illusions, multi-cube constructions that shift in weird ways, and boss battles where your enemy takes control of the cubes.
The entire thing’s dressed up in a gorgeous minimal visual aesthetic that echoes mobile hit Monument Valley. But although Euclidean Lands perhaps wears its inspirations on its sleeve, it still feels fresh and essential, ensuring the game’s place among the very best puzzlers on the platform. Craig Grannell
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. Craig Grannell
There’s an immediacy about G30 that becomes disarming when you realise what’s really going on. At first, it all seems obvious and straightforward – a puzzler where you spin dials to change the object before you into something that matches the level’s name.
This convention is familiar – even overdone – in puzzle games, but G30’s refined, vibrant visuals ensure it’s engaging; and, frankly, that tactile sense of one-to-one physical interaction with on-screen components never gets old.
But beneath the dial-twiddling, which resembles a flattened take on Shadowmatic, is an underlying narrative about fear and loss. It turns out the shapes you’re playing with are memories being chased by a protagonist with a cognitive disorder. In a sense, they’re losing their mind, and need you to grasp glimpses of meaning before they’re gone forever.
These take the form of collectable words that appear above the current puzzle. Sentences morph and change along with meaning, and so a single word (trees) can become a command (find trees), then something more elaborate (find trees in an unknown park), before acquiring a sense of terror (I was petrified to find trees in an unknown park). Grabbed words fill empty slots in a parallel tale told on the level select screen.
This sense of layering propels G30 beyond its contemporaries, providing serious emotional heft alongside the minimal visuals. And rather fittingly, just as the shapes you manipulate are more than what they initially appear to be, so too is the game as a whole. Craig Grannell
This elegant puzzler exists in a world of neon lines dancing to the beat of a chill-out soundtrack. You direct a little white spark about networks of grids suspended above a coloured haze.
The puzzles are mostly about pathfinding and logic - figuring out how to deal with switches that unlock doors and move coloured pathways, in order to open up the route for you to continue. But once you encounter patrolling sparks, moving back and forth along pre-set pathways, you realise the vital rhythm that underpins the game.
You’ll initially consider these sparks enemies, because they kill with a single touch; but they’re easily avoided, since they move to the beat. And they’re also allies of sorts, which you can manipulate into doing your bidding. For example, you might use moving platforms to place a spark near a switch that triggers a platform elsewhere, allowing you to move across an otherwise impassible divide (if you’re on the platform by that point).
Towards the end of the first set of levels, Linelight ramps up the tension by having you complete such puzzles at speed, with another line in hot pursuit (yet also required to help you cross numerous bridges). Beyond that, further subtle shifts in the game’s mechanics force you to rethink your strategy yet again, in what turns out to be one of iOS’s most beguiling modern puzzlers. Craig Grannell
There’s a hint of Lemmings about Splitter Critters, which features little aliens toddling about platform-based levels, trying to reach their spaceship. However, their only means of help is your finger, which can slice through scenery, and drag separate sections of the screen about.
Early on, your impromptu landscaping mostly involves aligning platforms, but Splitter Critters keeps adding new ideas to the mix. Gruff and deadly brown critters with spiked teeth show up, as do little red aliens who karate kick the aforementioned foes in the face. Rocky areas have platforms that topple. Watery sections flood or fling our ambling heroes towards deadly anemones. And that’s before you get to the bits with lasers.
The end result comes across like Telepaint crossed with Fruit Ninja, only lacking the insanely tough challenge of the former and the freneticism of the latter. Instead, Splitter Critters is a gentler puzzler, which you’ll likely work through in a few hours - but every step of the short journey is a joy. Craig Grannell
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 your done, fill in the backstory with The Room, The Room Two, and The Room Three. Craig Grannell
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. Craig Grannell
World of Goo
This gorgeous puzzler presents you with a pile of small goo balls (usually sitting dormant at the bottom of the screen) and an open pipe (generally up high) and asks you to introduce them to each other. Using your finger, you have to stack the balls up to reach the pipe: once you get your goo structure near enough, the pipe sucks up all the balls not used to build the structure.
Each level is a challenge and takes a great deal of thought (and structural consideration) to complete. There’s a lot of strategy involved, and graphically, the game soars, its levels littered with canyons, water fountains and volcanoes. Moreover, it’s infused with heart. You end up caring what happens to these little balls of goo, urging yourself to help them complete their journey to ‘goo heaven’. Few games are as fun, interesting and enjoyably complicated. Sam Felsing
You Must Build A Boat
This hybrid game blends match–3 puzzlers like Bejewelled and dungeon-running roleplaying games. As your little pixel-dude sprints through a retro dungeon, he encounters assorted obstacles - monsters, locked chests and traps. You must arrange matching blocks in the bottom half of the screen to defeat them.
Matching three (or more) swords or staves damages the enemies; keys unlock the chests; shields increase your defensive powers; and so on. Don’t match fast enough and you’re forced off the lefthand side of the screen and your session ends.
Alongside these speedy missions is a side order of boat-building action. Your vessel begins as barely a dinghy but grows to a sprawling galleon by the end of the game, complete with hordes of recruited monsters, each providing a small stats boost, and shopkeepers waiting patiently to upgrade your character. It’s a wonderful spin on a genre that elsewhere has become markedly stale. David Price
Zen Bound 2
Yes, we’re covering a game where you wrap a length of rope around little sculptures. No, we haven’t lost it. And that’s because Zen Bound 2 is beautiful, engaging and unique.
Much of the magic of Zen Bound 2 stems from its tactile nature. Objects turn beneath your fingers with the slightest swipe, and the rope’s position can be shifted with subtle tilting of your iPhone. Despite the fact you’re pawing at glass, you can almost fool yourself into feeling like you’re manipulating a real object; and it’s a rather magical experience as this object is slowly painted due to the rope’s touch (or, in some slightly less meditative cases, through blowing up strategically positioned paint bombs).
Those with long memories may recall the stir the original Zen Bound made at the dawn of the App Store - and even this sequel has been around for some years. However, 2017 saw it get a big 64bit revamp for modern iPhones, thereby ensuring a wonderful, timeless concept was made fully fit for Apple’s most recent devices. Craig Grannell