Straight Outta Howling Wolf Inn
Every once in a while, I come across a game that utterly defies my expectations. One that is so good, it’s stunning to me that it was ever isolated on one platform to the exclusion of others. And sure, sometimes it makes sense for this to happen, since funding may come from one avenue earlier than another. But what it boils down to is that I’m so very glad Capybara Games finally managed to bring Grindstone to Nintendo Switch. I honestly didn’t know if that was gonna happen. I’d been glancing at Grindstone wistfully on Apple Arcade for a while now. But turns out, it was absolutely worth the wait.
Brokeback Mountain (Man)
Grindstone is all about the adventures of a StoneGrinder (see what Capy did there?) named Jorj. Though there’s not much in the way of plot, it seems clear Jorj is longing to be reunited with his family again. But to do that, he has to earn enough cold hard cash. In this world, the currency of choice are the titular grindstones. So Jorj sets off to climb a massive mountain, slaying any Creeps, Freaks and Slobs between him and that family reunion. It’s a long, winding path, and there’s unexpected dangers and monstrous threats to slay. But if there’s one thing I can say about Jorj, it’s that he’s determined to stay the course.
Jorj, Jorj, Jorj of the Mountain!
Now while Grindstone is essentially a puzzle game, it has elements of other genres to liven things up. The basic goal of each level is to slay a specific amount of foes to open the exit, then rush out with your hard earned loot. Jorj is essentially a berserker, and he will smash through hordes of foes in his way. There’s just one catch – you can only path through foes of the same color. The way around this restriction is with, you guessed it, grindstones. To acquire one, you’ll need to path through at least 10 foes first. Though if you manage a higher number, you’ll get more valuable stones as a reward. Those are super helpful, since if you path through them, they let you switch colors mid stream. This of course allows you to reach much higher combo numbers, and make much more moolah. Just keep in mind, the longer you take to beat a stage, the more agitated the foes get. They’ll start gearing up to attack all at once, leaving Jorj little room to maneuver. But that’s not all there is to the gameplay. Oh no, there’s plenty more.
It’s a Hard Rock Life (For Him)
I mentioned Grindstone had other elements that most puzzle games don’t. There’s actually RPG elements here. Sure, Jorj doesn’t ever level up or manage stats. But he can equip a variety of equipment to prepare himself for dangerous situations. You’re allotted space for three types of Gear each run, one lunchbox item and armor. Gear has limited uses per stage, and some of the better stuff has to be restored using valuable items. It ranges from Shields to Arrows to Potions and even Swords. You can use them by pressing R and selecting something to use. Early on you’ll get Gear that respawns after every encounter, but that’s honestly pretty weak fare. To get the best stuff, you’ll need to grind for resources to craft by playing through stages. As for armor, it will provide a passive benefit to Jorj while equipped. Some armor has a chance of preventing damage, others spawn gifts randomly, some will protect you from poison and much, much more besides. As for the lunchbox item, that’s a bit different. You don’t craft it or repair it with standard resources. Every time Jorj smashes a monster to bits, the extra goop is automatically added to the Slop Bucket. Once it’s full enough, you can have a very shifty witchy woman mix you a potion. These are one time items with amazing powers. Some will turn all foes on screen a specific color, others will let you travel to Bonus Realms bursting at the seams with grindstones and other resources. There’s honestly a ton of ways to make the game work in your favor, which is good. Cause Grindstone will repeatedly kick your ass.
Planet of the Creeps
Not only are there tons of different monsters to slay, some more dangerous than others, but there’s a ton of nuance. Besides just pathing through critters, you’ll have other hazards. Most other items you encounter will have a specific toughness, indicated by a number. That number tells you how many things you’ll have to path through first to smash it. This ranges from stones that block your path to wooden barricades to chests full of goodies and blueprints for crafting items. You’ll often have to play a stage more than once to get these, and often come equipped with the right Gear to do so. Besides that, there’s also stronger enemies you’ll encounter, many falling under the subheading of Jerks. They live up to their name. You can’t just smash through them like other foes. They have inherent toughness, as well as hitting a wider range with their attacks. Normal foes just hit you when adjacent at the end of the turn, but these guys can hit whole circles of space. Some can even harpoon a whole column or row. The only upside to them is that their color is neutral, meaning you can path through them with anything. Oh and there’s bosses. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about them. Often puzzle games try boss fights and make me wish they hadn’t. That’s not the case here. The bosses in Grindstone are truly harrowing, and have specific elements you need to manipulate to win. There’s one recurring boss that spews bombs you need to smash back at him. Another is an undead scourge that transforms regular foes into reanimating skeletons. One noteworthy foe is a massive plant that heals itself as its nasty vines spread across the stage. They’re all fantastic, but they will put your skills to the test.
Die Hard With a Vengeance
Honestly the gameplay in Grindstone is perfectly tailored to be challenging and diverse while not being overly frustrating. Sure, you’ll die a lot, but all that means is you need to grind for more stones to heal yourself with. I never felt I absolutely couldn’t beat a stage, though some were definitely harder. The Crypt stages in particular gave me a very hard time early on. They were full of caves of Batskii that burst forth from caves and horrifying gravestones that turned normal foes into skeletal menaces. But once you start to master the systems present in the game, it really starts to come together. I learned neat tricks like bouncing grindstones. Once you create one, they’ll fall to a random space on the stage. They might even land on a foe, squashing standard ones instantly and damaging heartier enemies. I also appreciated that pathing through particular foes and items other than grindstones allows a wider range of movement. If you ever feel overwhelmed, I strongly suggest you head to a Grotto. These are side areas full of goodies, and they saved my bacon when I was temporarily stuck in the Crypt. They helped me go from a grindstone deficit to having hundreds of extras on hand. And don’t be afraid to leave a level without loot if it’s not going your way. RNG always has a chance to give you a better layout the next time you attempt a stage. But everything here is really solid and well balanced. Just don’t expect the game to go easy on you, cause it will constantly challenge your strategy.
There’s a ton of replay value in Grindstone. Besides offering 200+ levels, there’s also features like Daily Grind. This lets you either challenge the online leaderboards for top spot, or do a Quick Grind. The latter provides random equipment to beat a series of stages with, which is a fun change of pace. That said, I don’t believe either of these modes lets you keep your hard earned stones. Though that’s really not an issue, since there’s so much of the main game to enjoy. You’re free to tackle those stages more than once. And you’ll need to in order to get all the items therein. Most story stages have a reward for the following criterion – for beating it, for getting the chest and for beating the Slob. The Slobs randomly spawn late in the stage, usually after you’ve opened the exit door. They’re not all that hard, but they have decent toughness and are color coded. It’s worth beating them since that’s the only way to get Crowns, which are used to unlock gates between the various sections in the game. Oh and you can also fulfill Challenges from the barkeep as you play. You get rewarded with stones or other resources every time you succeed, making it very worth your while. This is the sort of title you’ll try and play for a little bit, and walk away from your Switch hours later. It’s really fun and hard to put down.
A World of Pure Imagination
One of the reasons I was so captivated by Grindstone early on was the art style. It’s candy coated and full of creepy details. I love how Jorj’s face changes the more he takes damage, and his defeated countenance when you run out of life. Likewise, the many critters he destroys are equal parts lovely and creepy. Besides the many color variants, each foe has a unique animation and look. Some appear to be tentacled monkeys, others are like giant tadpoles and much more. What I can’t convey is how great they look just wiggling about. The animation in the game is fluid and full of humor. Slobs will cower as you get close, and Jerks will fume with anger. Plus it’s always clear when an enemy is primed to attack, as they light up with a fiery aura, telling you to stay away. A favorite part of mine is how Jorj opens things at the end of a stage. He breaks chests to bits, as well as any hapless Slobs you’ve beaten. Though if you don’t want to turn them into a gooey mess, you can press B to give them a sweet kiss that disintegrates them instead. But Grindstone isn’t great just cause of the artwork. The music and sound effects are tremendous as well. I love how Jorj starts shouting in anticipation when he’s pathing through a massive chain of foes. There’s also great cues for when a foe is charging up to do something nasty. All in all, the aesthetic design and sound just make a great game even more incredible.
Capybara and the Holy Slop Bucket
Honestly, Grindstone is a game I’m ecstatic I finally got to try. If I hadn’t known it was originally for mobile, I wouldn’t have believed it. This is a high quality adventure, and a reason I keep following the work of Capybara Games. It’s full of content, amazing art and challenge galore. Yet it never gets so hard that I decided to stop playing for very long. Honestly, this is the best puzzle game I’ve played in a decade. It’s tremendous fun, and the only real downside is that sometimes the difficulty will spike unexpectedly. If you have a Nintendo Switch and are looking for a game to grind away the hours, this is a wonderful choice.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), mobile (Apple Arcade); Publisher: CAPY; Developer: Capybara Games; Players: 1; Released: December 15, 2020; ESRB: T for Teen – Blood, Use of Alcohol, Violence; MSRP: $19.99
Editor’s note: The publisher provided a review copy to Hey Poor Player.