When Apple Arcade first launched in 2019, we chucked down a fiver and gave it a go. At the risk of sounding like an Apple advert, we found more value there than we expected, but that wasn’t because we got lost in all the games: it was because we were glued to one game in particular. Who cares about the rest of the service when you can spend dozens of hours on just one?
You can probably guess which game it was. Grindstone. When we finally said goodbye to the monthly subscription, it was Grindstone we were longing for. We assumed that our paths would never cross again.
Ho boy, we were wrong. We think we actually rubbed our hands with glee when we saw Grindstone appear on the ol’ review queue. And like crossing paths with an old summer romance, it’s been nothing but a joy to rekindle old feelings.
Writing about Grindstone, it can be easy to forget just how simple it is under all the game modes, campaign, fabulous artwork and monster-hunting theme. Carve it all out and you have a puzzle game much like those that you’ve played umpteen times on mobile.
Close your eyes for a moment and imagine a grid full of gems, all three or four colours. Now position your finger on that grid: it doesn’t matter where. This is where you have to start. You can now choose one particular colour and move your finger through an unbroken line of all the gems that are of the same colour. You can’t lift that finger off the grid: you are chaining together as many gems as possible, moving up, down, left, right and diagonally as you go, being careful to never cross the same gem twice (although your finger can cross over previously crossed paths).
Once you lift your finger off the grid, the gems explode in sequence, revealing gaps that are then filled by the gems above them. Then it’s another turn and another, as you aim to reach a milestone total of gems and complete the level.
About ten years ago, we could imagine Popcap taking the idea and making a sweet Bejeweled variant from it. But this is Capybara Games, makers of Below and Super Time Force, and – pfft! – they weren’t going to leave it there. So, the gems have become gloopy monsters called creeps, the finger has been replaced with a hulking warrior named Jorj (or Jorja, should you choose) and the milestone at the end of the level has been changed to a giant gate that you need to leap through – once the creep threshold has been reached. All of this has been given a Devolver, Cartoon Network-style lick of paint and voila, you have Grindstone: a puzzle game par excellence.
With that theme locked in, Capybara Games can make some exquisite design tweaks. Those creeps can attack on occasion, shifting into an aggressive stance. End your turn next to them, and they will whip a heart off of your total (Jorj starts with a paltry three per level, and then has the cheek to make that health persist between levels). So, you’re careful to kill or dodge these rage-filled monsters.
Kill ten creeps or more in a chain and an actual gem, named a grindstone, will drop to the floor randomly. This is a wild card: end a sequence of creeps on a grindstone and you can change to a colour of your choice. You’re capable of creating greater chains with these grindstones, which creates greater grindstones, and suddenly you’re synergising to become a puzzle colossus, straddling the grid and showing it your undercarriage. We struggle to think of a better feeling than chaining together multiple creeps, grabbing a grindstone and then killing even more. It’s a dance that gives us toe-tapping joy.
There is oh so much more, but you have other things to be doing today, so we’ll stick to the best of them. The creeps are static, but there are jerks and other monsters who will merrily walk around the grid. Some jump, others reach out vines, and yet more chuck javelins at you. They’re pains in the arses, but they can be killed, importantly, with a tempting number hovering above their heads to denote their stamina. Accumulate a big enough chain and you can cut through them like Lurpack. And it tastes just as good.
A word about the frippery. There’s just so much stuff around the edges of Grindstone, making it moderately over-complicated, but also engaging enough that – perhaps – you never need to play another puzzle game. New Puzzle Quest coming? Bah! Gems of War? Pah!
Grindstone has two collectibles to gain per level, should you want to rinse every one of its 200+ campaign levels (totalling 500+ levels across all modes), while there are three daily events to crack. Challenges apply a meta layer on everything, and a deep crafting system beckons you into the triple-figures of hours played, as you construct new clothing, weapons, shields and one-time mega-foods that will garner you the big scores.
In all honesty, a lot has changed since we last played Grindstone. It’s been fed into a fuller, fatter game than we remember, with offshoot dungeons that we don’t recall being there, and global highscores that definitely weren’t present. You could argue that it’s got the faint whiff of free-to-play (challenges and a daily heartbeat will do that), but we can confidently say that you can ignore the FOMO.
The issues with Grindstone are still there, so small that we feel a bit churlish bringing them up. We’re still not convinced by the way grindstones are implemented, as a 10-chain grindstone is just as useful as a 50-chain grindstone – both doing the same thing. You’d hope that one would reward more than the other (admittedly, they earn you more outside of the puzzle), but alas they don’t. And fiddling about with consumable weapons and potions is more fuss than it really needs to be.
Oh Grindstone, we’re trapped underneath you again. Grindstone represents the absolute zenith of puzzling, and you should bump and grind against its smooth edges as soon as the opportunity presents itself. One hour will lead to another, and soon it will be three weeks later. You have been warned (but do it anyway).