Game review: Grindstone for EGS

There wasn’t a review or any post last week because I had so much to talk about, and in all cases, I just wanted a little more time with each…thing before passing a verdict. So in my infinite wisdom, I chose instead to start playing another game that I figured I could get through in a few days.

Ah hahahahahahaha. Ha…ahem.

So, one week later, let’s talk about Grindstone, which I bought from the Epic Game Store. It is to date only the second game I’ve bought rather than just being a free game of the week, so that should say how much I was looking forward to playing this. First of all, it’s a puzzle game, and my love for those goes all the way back to Tetris on my first Game Boy. Second, it has a cartoony presentation that’s one part adorable mixed with two parts gory. As a fan of horror and cartoons, that sounds like a perfect cocktail for me.

It didn’t take long playing it before I started muttering, “This had to be a mobile game first,” and I did some digging to confirm that yes, this was originally part of the Apple Arcade offerings before moving to PC. I will circle back to everything that made me think that, but first I want to take more about the overall gameplay, the story, and the usual stuff that a review should dig into before hitting on the feely bits.

So, the story is about a barbarian named Jorj, a family man just trying to save up some gems for a nice beach vacation for his wife and son. So every day he climbs ol’ Creep Mountain to slay Creeps and Jerks and to grind out more Grindstones, the main currency of this world.

Pretty simple stuff, and it’s augmented through lost pages collected by killing various monsters and bosses on the mountain. Soon after starting, Jorj’s mother Jorja is added as an alternate player character, which doesn’t really change gameplay, but offers the classic question, “Do you want to play as a dude or a chick?”

The puzzling here is a simple affair, but it has a lot of tricks to allow for creative solutions. From Jorj’s starting point, you have to select chains of Creeps of the same color. (Red, Yellow, Blue, Green, and Purple.) Getting a chain of ten drops one Grindstone, and this is what makes the chain building way more interesting. Hitting a Grindstone while building a chain allows Jorj to swap to a different color of Creep, so if a player focuses first on getting a few gems on the board, they can make much longer multi-color chains.

You want that because with every additional five chained Creeps after ten, the shape of the Grindstone changes and offers additional rewards. The triangle drops two smaller gems, the square drops five, and so on. My highest chain of forty-five, or all enemies on the board, netted me a huge Grindstone worth 50 gems. (It was not a galaxy-brain chain, but rather an item I equipped that turned all the Creeps green. I’ll cover more on that later on in the gripes section.)

Creeps can often turn hostile, sporting a glowing aura and a snarling face to let players know they intend to attack. They can only attack if Jorj stops on tiles above or below them or to the left or right. So landing on a tile diagonally to them is safe. This is part of any level strategy, figuring out how to end a chain on a safe space, and for whatever reason, I struggle with this because I can’t see the red Creeps when they’re angry. Seriously, I end a move, the Creep attacks Jorj, and I sigh because I literally didn’t see that it was angry. That’s a me problem, not a game problem, as those little guys are clearly marked.

Soon after the start, the game starts dropping in Jerks. These are colorless enemies with a number over them representing their health, and thus the number of Creeps needed to chain first before adding them. Because they are technically colorless, they can be chained from any other Creep, and the chain can continue through them if the same color is available. (Or if a Grindstone is available, leading to a longer chain and possibly another slain Jerk.) But the danger with them is that they have a much wider area of attack than Creeps, and Jorj only has three hearts two work with. Those hearts carry over between level unless players exit to the map and use a healing nectar. Adding the final wrinkle to the risk/reward mechanic is that Jorj cannot keep what he gathers in a level if he loses all his hearts and gets knocked out.

You’d think that would be it for gameplay, but nope, there’s more. Jorj can equip three items to aid with his runs. Some of them recharge between levels, like the Spinny Sword, Pickaxe, and Arrow. Others have a limited number of charges and must be refilled after draining their charges. Then there’s outfits that can offer special traits. The Prospector outfit lowers the resistance of rocks, making it easier to mine materials, while the Santa suit has a chance to drop presents at the end of chains. The presents can be anything, so I found that the most useful suit when I wasn’t in need of some special gimmick for certain areas. There’s a lot of strategy power in the outfits, so they are worth exploring.

Finally, areas of Creep Mountain end with Boss fights, and they too require some tactical thinking and creative solutions to beat. Though I should note, because the colors of incoming Creeps is random, sometimes RNG makes a boss fight way harder. On the second boss, I had them down to 9 health and had to flee and start over because ANY move I made would have led to a knockout without me getting anywhere near the boss. I got him on the second try because the RNG was better. I’m saying that sometimes luck is just as much a factor in a win as strategy is.

Right, so all of this sounds positive so far, and it should. The game has a main line of levels to play as well as side routes filled with their own challenges and rewards. There’s a Daily Grind board pitting players against a trio of tests to see how high they can get on the leaderboards. These Daily Grinds offer only a little gold, as all gems and items found within are “sacrificed to the gods” at the end of a run. Getting on the board isn’t hard, though, but that’s because so few people are playing it. Like, I got second place twice during my time reviewing the game, but even up to the closing of the board for the day, there were only fifteen other people listed. Maybe the boards are divided by region, or maybe lots of player just skip the grind because it offers so little in rewards. I don’t know.

Anyway, we now get to that glaring flaw, the mobile game tomfoolery and davefuckery. The fact that this was on Apple Arcade can’t gloss over the sheer amount of mobile game bullshit making Grindstone a diamond buried in a turd farm.

Where to begin? Items that need to be refilled between uses have ridiculously high prices per use. Granted, unlocking the Carnival of Creeps area reduces some of the problem, but players who rely on rechargeable items are stuck in a LONG daily grind just to keep their favorite gear in operation. I ended up sticking with stuff that recharges between levels because then at least I could focus on climbing up the mountain instead of constantly backtracking to play for hours, all so I could get two more uses out of a potion flask.

There’s a chef named Helga who can make “snacks” out of the Creep guts Jorj gathers during runs, and these cost either 3,000 or 6,000 guts. That’s around six hours of grinding for a one-time use item. No, I’m not exaggerating. I did the grind multiple times to get a lunch bucket that could turn all the creeps green, because otherwise, certain floor drained all my saved up gems with one knockout after another from armies of creeps. And yes, paying for health potions often requires backtracking to easier floors. Paying five gems for one heart or ten for two seems the least offensive of these prices, but on higher floors, it gets a lot harder to make chains long enough to earn gems and avoid damage. It got to the point where after every level, I had to go back to the map to heal, and the cast of doing so meant I usually just broke even.

There’s the sheer number of crafting materials needed to craft and refill items. This sort of multi-currency crafting is rife in mobile games, stymying progress by forcing players to return to the same floors over and over just to keep stocked up on random garbage.

Oh, and lest I forget, there’s hats. Yes, cosmetic only items that must be earned by fulfilling special requirements. The first hat I got required a bunch of Jerk guts, lumber, and Grindstones. The second required trying on five outfits, but for the better part of that timer counting down, I only had four. I finally got the fifth by defeating another boss, and by then, I was on the last day of the timer. So there’s the classic FOMO of free mobile games still baked into a game I paid for.

Oh, but we’re not done raking the hats side quest because Jorj’s dear son runs a hat stand outside the family cottage. This stand gathers hats Jorj might have missed from the special hat missions, and they cost X amount of yarn, X amount of a random item, and FIVE HUNDRED GRIDSTONES. So every hat is literally a full day’s worth of work to collect, and as an added kick in the taint, little Harry’s shop is only open for two weeks out of every two months. That kind of garbage is bad enough in a free game, but for a game I paid money for, it’s a whole other level of aggravation.

None of this is a deal breaker to the point where I would stop playing and delete the game, but there were frequently times where in the midst of trying to pay for an item or just make a little forward progress without spending gimmick gear, I started thinking, “I’d rather be playing anything else besides this.” Because it stops feeling like a game, and more like a side job with terrible pay. That’s a wretched feeling to get from a “casual” puzzle game.

And here’s the thing: while I have gripes about excess grind, there are all kinds of games where I do it because there’s a tangible reward for putting in the work. I might get extra Titanite Shards to upgrade backup weapons in any of the Dark Souls games. I might hit up the same Rift Dungeons in Diablo immortal to see if I can find a new legendary item that changes my character’s abilities in cool new ways. (A mod that turns Arcane Blast into a large, slow moving tornado that follows enemies and deals damage over time? Yes, please!) I might grind levels in Salt and Sanctuary to make wielding a great sword less taxing, or I might hunt the same mage over and over in Salt and Sacrifice because I’m looking to make a complete armor and weapon set from them. All these examples of grind, I go in for because the end result makes me feel like it was worth it. At the end of a day’s grind in Grindstone, all I have is an empty gem account, a useless hat, and the ability to use a gimmick item one or two more times.

It’s that kind of grind that feels bad, and it takes what could have been another 5 star game rating down to a 3. I’m not saying it’s not worth the price of admission, or that it doesn’t deliver as a puzzle game that encourages creativity to get the best rewards. But at the end of the day, I’d be hard pressed to recommend Grindstone to anyone, even the most hardcore puzzle fans. Even if I did, I would suggest playing it in smaller doses, and don’t worry so much about the FOMO hats.

But hey, the boss fights are pretty cool. So that’s something, right?