The other day I was feeling nostalgic for some classic puzzle games, especially after watching the broadcast for the new Puzzle Bobble Everybubble that comes out within a month. As fate would have it, news of another competitive puzzle game would make itself known soon after. I'd have the opportunity to play Gematombe for myself and a huge thanks to Ratalaika Games for making this possible. Gematombe is another game aiming to bank on nostalgia from those who were fond of the puzzle game arcade era. The best puzzle games are the simplistic ones. Does Gematombe fulfill this condition?
Fortunately, the concept for Gematombe is incredibly easy to grasp as the core gameplay is based on the "block-breaking" genre of puzzle games. Most notably debuting under Atari's Breakout, which was also one of the first video games ever developed. While many games like Arkanoid would build upon its gameplay, the objective of Breakout is to bounce a ball against a paddle into blocks, clearing all the blocks in this manner. Depending on the game, if the ball hits the paddle, the player can aim and shoot elsewhere. Sometimes, the paddle bounces off the ball like a game of Pong, giving the player bonuses the longer they keep the ball in play.
In Gematombe, each player controls their balls and their paddle much like in a game of Breakout. However, each character has a special attack that becomes active once a player hits six blocks in one ball run. This is where strategies involving the "block breaker" genre come into play as the longer you keep the ball active, the more blocks the player can hit in a single run before it hits the paddle again. Becoming a master at purposefully hitting several sandwiched blocks to ensure you're getting the most out of each run was important to learn. It's easy to confuse its gameplay with something like Puzzle Bobble, although the whole "aim the ball to shoot at objects" is something they share.
The added challenge of fighting against an opponent also adds up to the ante as the opponent will attack the player in the same manner as the player would attack the opponent. There are two win conditions in a Gematombe round, either clearing your board or crushing your opponent's. The player who clears their entire board first wins, but the player whose board fills up first, loses. That means either player cannot become too lax when it comes to playing their game. Work fast to clear your board, but do so efficiently and without errors.
Gematombe's presentation reminds me of a very late 1990s puzzle game's main menu. Take a game like Puzzle Fighter and imagine its colorful menus, animations in between character selection, and of course a mascot character. There's a tutorial that features the mascot which does a decent job of telling the players the basics. There aren't any crazy execution barriers to learn, at least as far as what I've played. The basic rules of block breakers apply. Keep the ball in play by strategically angling in the direction of the most bricks. Don't drop the ball or you'll gain more blocks as punishment. Most importantly, move fast and efficiently.
Gematombe is a refreshing puzzle game that takes familiar and easy-to-understand mechanics, placed in a well-designed creative design that encourages the player to explore more. The AI is a challenge even under normal difficulty, but it didn't deter me from playing. It captured that old-school "first level is a challenge but the rest is manageable" difficulty spike. In the end, while I've played this on my laptop, this would be a perfect title to play on the go via the Steam Deck and the Nintendo Switch. Both portable platforms could use some more refreshing titles like these.
Gematombe releases on April 28th, 2023 for the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Steam. Players can wishlist the game ahead of its release here.