As games about blood-raging berserkers go, Grindstone is probably the most brain-tickling. Kratos never spent much time plotting his next move. Conan was never concerned about his killstreak. Jorg, with skin covered in ice and demeanor covered in gloom, is equal parts tactician and destroyer. It’s maybe the most minor of Capy Games’(Superbrothers, Critter Crunch) subversions in this puzzler, but it’s one that sticks with me. I’ve played plenty of games that feature ripping minions to pieces, and none make you feel like the smartest person on the bloody battlefield quite like Grindstone.
This was also true in 2019 – technically 4 years ago when you account for pandemic time. Apple had just dropped Apple Arcade, a video game subscription service that promised to elevate the quality of games on the platform by curating the best experiences and pulling them out of the microtransaction mire of free-to-play. A process also known as “providing a solution to a problem they caused.” For five dollars a month, Apple provided a menu of “always available” games a la Microsoft’s Game Pass, and though it was rife with some very interesting projects, Grindstone was largely considered to be the standout game of the service.
Grindstone felt at home on the pocket sized phone screens. It looked an awful lot like those bejeweling, match three, candy-smashers at quick glance. It can be played with minimal input, just dragging a finger across the screen, and tapping an icon here and there. Stages are turn-based, short, and easily won or lost in a matter of minutes. Perfect for a bus ride, a long wait in line, or a bathroom break.
It was also good. While including all of the baseline design touchstones of the mobile games that it was clearly bumping elbows with, it also did away with the more predatory microtransaction economy that hamstrings the experience of progress. You’re free to win or lose without that arcade cabinet pressure of having to stuff quarters into the machine to continue. “Quarters” in the typical App Store instance is “some sum of real money for some fake money to buy health, continues, etc.”
All this before even considering the game itself. Jorg, disgruntled barbarian from above, needs to climb a mountain whose path is subdivided by doors. These doors only open when enough (or in some cases, the right kind) of blood is spilled. The chopping is done by tracing a path through a grid of enemies, matching like colors, to try to chain as many as possible. The higher the chain, the more of a chance that you’ll create an eponymous grindstone. These count towards your combo, and can let you change the color of your path, allowing you to string even more enemies together. The normal peon level creeps are easy pickings, but as you progress, stronger enemies will dot your play spaces, fighting back in unique ways, and making you think strategically towards your goal of getting to the next zone to do it all over again.
It had been months since I dipped my toes in the gorepool of cartoon carnage before I picked up the Switch port. When it dropped in July-ish 2019, my phone was stuck between my fingers for hours on end. That was just for tweeting. When I was done with that I would still literally play Grindstone for at least a half hour at a time, multiple times a day, several days a week, well into the fall. It had this way of hooking you into its madness. Of showing and coercing you down one well drawn kill stripe, just to twinkle yet a different, and possibly more tactically gooey alternative kill stripe somewhere else. Of tempting you to retread old stages just to make sure you’ve got every gold trinket of completion.
But did the Switch change or enhance my memory of that experience in any significant way? Well, for one thing, I had to start at the very bottom of the mountain again, minus all of my resources, tools, costumes, etc. Cloud saves and cross play, a movement growing steadily across the industry thanks to some targeted bullying from one giant corporation towards another, is absent here. I missed it, but it didn’t take very long before I was flush with crafting materials and cosmetic accoutrement.
There is A LOT more content in Grindstone 2020 than there was in this time last year. New weird beasties to complicate you fatal feng shui, daily challenges, and loads of new bonus stages give you much to think about. All of this, of course, is available on the iOS version, <technically cheaper than $19.99. So what is different, if anything, about the move on to Nintendo’s portable platform?
Being on Switch means being on a bigger screen, which can be a benefit. The UI on Switch looks and feels like a way better version of the iPad’s, with buttons for consumables well positioned around the board, and all the necessary information is legible without compromising aesthetics. But a Switch is heavier and more awkward to hold in your hands than a phone, obviously. That all said, it uses the touch controls very well.
There’s also, of course, the vast majority of people who own smartphones that aren’t iOS who would find this as the first time the game is playable to them. To you guys I say congrats – you’re about to get your face puzzle crushed off.
To the “put everything on Switch” people, I also say congrats – here is yet another thing on the Switch.