Review: Block’hood 2017-06-01 14:51:08
Block’hood (Linux, Mac, Windows [reviewed])
Developer: Plethora-Project LLC
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Released: May 10, 2017
Starting Block’hood is a bit weird because it’s natural to dive straight into the tutorials and see what it is all about. However, I went straight into the story mode (“Tutorial” is fourth on the main menu, “Story” is first) and learned all of the basics and then some. There are tutorials that cover more advanced mechanics not included in the story, which makes me thankful that it is possible to jump into any stage of the tutorial. There are some tutorials I still haven’t done because they seem so pointless now.
The story mode is a rather heartwarming tale of nature versus industry. It does a great job of explaining the mechanics and controls while simultaneously telling its story. It’s quite easy to predict where things are going, but it doesn’t detract much from the experience, which is told over five relatively short chapters. The idea of combining nature and industry is a central theme of Block’hood, and it is great to see it explored in the story mode. The game did crash on me towards the end of the fifth and final chapter and there seems to be no auto-save, so that’s an achievement I’ll never get.
The core gameplay is made up of placing blocks on a tiled map to create a “hood.” Blocks need input resources and, in turn, output their own resources. This becomes a resource-juggling game very quickly as players do their best to manage the wild variety of fluctuating resources. Seriously, everything is a resource in Block’hood, including leisure and knowledge, which aren’t even tangible things!
Perhaps the most interesting bit about the hoods that players build is the verticality. Blocks can be stacked on top of one another to create skyscraper-esque combinations. Elevators and stairs allow people to go up with the hood, and some of the more developed worlds are insane. This is certainly a game that rewards creativity and gives the players plenty of opportunities to experiment with the mechanics.
This is not a knock against the game, but it often feels like balancing a spreadsheet. To use an early example, Tree blocks output Fresh Air, Wilderness, and Leisure, but require Groundwater to sustain. No biggie, Sprinklers can output Groundwater and just need some Water and Electricity to keep working. Easy. Put up a Water Tower, which only costs Money, and a Solar Panel, which doesn’t need anything. For each Tree, all of those things need to be producing more of their respective resources than are being used. This soon explodes into dozens of resources to manage.
Luckily, the game makes it easy to do so. A chart of resources can be brought up to identify how much of each resource is being produced, along with if it’s producing positively or negatively. Clicking on a resource will highlight all blocks that either input or output said resource in the building menu. So if a hood is low on Wheat, it’s easy to identify what blocks can help in that regard. Perhaps the best part of Block’hood is its information conveyance to the player — it’s top notch!
The challenge mode was the main draw for me. There are 24 challenges to complete of varying difficulty, and each one gives the player a set amount of space and an often multi-tiered objective. Using limited resources, the player must meet these demands any way they can. The biggest issue I had with many of the challenges was that it’s easy enough to do the bare minimum to get a positive production going, then just ratchet the game up to 8x speed and wait until the numbers reach the right amounts. This gets harder as the objectives become more complex, but the idea remains true.
The sandbox mode gives players some beginning resources and sets them free in an area of customizable size. There are two modes: one that will challenge the player with inhabitants’ demands and random events, and another that is more of a zen experience of building. Personally, I was never drawn into the allure of the sandbox mode and mainly stuck with the challenges (which get very hard). I’m glad that it’s there and I certainly see the appeal, but Block’hood never quite inspired me to want to achieve as much as possible.
The controls are almost entirely mouse-based, with some keyboard shortcuts. They can get frustrating at times when starting to build vertically, as the placement of blocks gets finicky. There were many times where I was trying to place a block on a particular tile and it took way too long to achieve. Also, be sure to adjust the zoom sensitivity to something that feels more comfortable, as I found the defaults disorienting.
The visuals are a sight to behold. Inhabitants are just blocky extras from Money for Nothing, but the hoods themselves begin to look gorgeous. As much as I love looking at the colors of the hoods pop, I did have constant frustration with the reds and greens. You see, blocks will show a red number if they do not have enough of a resource and a green one if they do. Being colorblind, I couldn’t tell the difference at all. This let to a lot of guessing and checking to best optimize my blocks, though I’d imagine that this only affects a select few of you out there. At times, it felt hopeless and unplayable but using the resource graph and having a better understanding of the interplay of resources eventually made it palatable for me.
The music stands out as amazingly relaxing. It’s perfect for the type of game that Block’hood is. It doesn’t become a distraction from what’s going on but helps the player focus on what is in front of them. In fact, I left the client open while writing this review because it’s just so damn wonderful to have in the background.
I have a very strange relationship with Block’hood. I’ve enjoyed my time with it, though I did get frustrated because my eyes are dumb and don’t see colors well. I also never quite felt inspired to create the grandiose skyscrapers that the promotional materials and community show off. The story mode is delightfully elegant and the challenge mode is great for fans of puzzle games, though I don’t think this is a game for the hardcore city-building crowd.