The PS3 has a ton of great games on it, but few of them are puzzle-based. PSN is even more barren, with Critter Crunch being one of the few original entries in the genre on the platform. Now, Germinator joins the fray and delivers the most addictive puzzle game experience on the platform. Its gameplay can be best described as Bust-A-Move in reverse — instead of shooting bubbles up, you shoot antibodies down with the goal being to blow germs up after a few shots and then destroy all of the black super-diseased germs before the screen fills with illness. There are a variety of modes available, including a story mode, an endless Arcade mode, a versus battle where you can face either an AI rival or a real-life one — and the trickiest mode of all — puzzle mode. Surprisingly, the game even uses the Move, so if you need an excuse to use that, this provides you with one.
If you don’t have one, or simply don’t want to use it, then you’ll use the left stick to aim and X to shoot — which becomes a power shot when held down. They’re easy to remember and work fairly well. With the Move, substitute a stick for the motion control and the Move button for X and you’ll have an idea of what to expect. This allows for easier bit-by-bit movements since the d-pad isn’t used at all and could come in handy for small incremental moves, and as long as you stay within the PS Eye’s line of sight, you’re fine. If you move out of it, you’ll find stuff piling up as you can’t do do anything and won’t be able to improve your situation until you move back into range. There is an on-screen indicator that you’re out of range, but it’s still something to keep in mind. The Move controls are a nice novelty and do allow for precision, but the always-active gameplay doesn’t quite mesh with being outside the camera’s range and causes problems there. Thankfully, the Move controls are completely optional and don’t really count against the game in any way.
Gameplay is basically the same across every mode with some changes in the execution to mix things up. Antibodies are aimed at germs to clear the screen of all of the black ‘gummy’ germs, and try to make pairs to either do that, or pile them onto your rivals. Story mode teaches you the basics and gives you a variety of tough puzzles to solve across five different areas. The basic goal is to beat a stage by getting rid of all of the gummy germs before the poison reaches the top of the screen. Doing this will net one star at a minimum, and doing so in a more efficient manner will yield more stars. You can get rid of germs by either causing them to explode with too many like-colored antibodies or by super-charging a color after filling a meter up due to popping germs and causing a massive explosion with a well-placed power shot. Kind of like a shotgun blast in an FPS, this does a lot of damage, but doesn’t let you shoot anything else towards the germs for a second or two. The risk/reward factor is high, and if you miss, it can lead to you having to scramble to survive.
It’s a bit odd to have a mode called puzzle mode in a puzzle game, but it makes a bit more sense when you play it. The goal here is to not only destroy the black germs, but do so with only a certain amount of antibodies at your disposal. This forces you to think about exactly which ones to go after first and what chain reaction will come with each move. It’s definitely the toughest mental challenge in the game and gets addictive fairly quickly. You’ll beat a stage knowing that you’ve only got one move left to make, and while that will let you move on, it’s not enough. You then want to replay it over and over until you feel like you’re as efficient as you can be with it. Going from using eight antibodies to three is an incredible thrill and something you always strive for when beating a stage. You’ll do it for one stage, then just keep trying as the whole level wears on, and by the end of the play session, be amazed at how much time has passed.
The versus battle evokes Puyo Puyo wonderfully as popping germs causes new piles to form on the opponents’ side, and the brightly colored blobs definitely evoke that classic series. Of course,the execution is handled differently because you’re shooting pieces and hoping they hit instead of aiming them precisely for a certain area. You don’t have as much room to work with as far as aiming goes, which is a blessing in a sense since it’s easier to tell where you’re aiming in a smaller playing area, but harder since it’s more cramped and a mistake means you’re adding a new pile to it instead of taking one down. If you do that too many times, you’ll find that your enemy is able to block a planned move that might’ve saved you, and wind up leaving you stuck waiting for the end to come. Thanks to the game’s Youtube uploading feature, you can boast about victories or great performances as a whole pretty much instantly – and as the videos in this review show, the video quality for them is fantastic.
As much as I love the other modes, my favorite one is the endless Arcade mode. With a variety of difficulties available (unlocked by playing through the story mode), you can test yourself against an always-increasing stream of illness. The most addictive thing about this mode is that it’s always different – you never know how it’s going to begin. It will always start off towards the bottom of the screen, but you never know just what color of germs you’ll have to contend with at the onset, how big they’ll be, or which colored antibody you’ll start with. It makes every play session interesting, and when you’re playing it, you start making little goals for yourself. First, it’s to get a certain score, then you’ll try to last a certain amount of time, but then you get into the game and you stop caring about that while it’s going on, so you just try to keep the pile down, and then feel a huge sense of relief when you get all of the screen clear and realize that it’s merely a break and more pieces are going to rear their ugly, smiling faces fairly soon. This mode is even more of a time sink than the puzzle mode, and easily my favorite part of the game.
On the AV side of things, Germinator does a lot of things right. The graphics are very bright and the germs have a lot of expressions when they expand and then finally explode — adding a lot of personality to things that otherwise wouldn’t have it. Everything has a crisp look to it and when you think of what a modern-day puzzle game would be like on an HD system, this is what it should be. The music is good, but nothing memorable. It’s intense, but unlike Columns and Tetris, you won’t be humming it after a long play session. The popping sound effects are excellent, and it’s impossible to not love the little screams of terror from the germs as you blow them up.
Germinator doesn’t do a lot new, but everything it does is done really well. It uses the basic framework of a Bust-A-Move game and tweaks it to craft the most addictive puzzle game I’ve played this generation. It even takes the star rating grades from Angry Birds (and every puzzle game of the past few years) and adds to them with YouTube uploading to allow you to not just top your best performances, but show them to the world. Its bright and colorful graphics are always a joy to look at, and while the music isn’t going to stick with you after playing, it does make you more excited while you’re doing so. It’s the most addicting puzzle experience yet on the PS3 and a must-buy for anyone who loves the genre.
Platform: PS3 (PSN)