By: David Cooper
Sum Fighter is probably not going to set the indie gaming scene alight, in that modern gamers are unlikely to flock to a maths-based puzzle game. Then again, those that pay attention to the XBLIG scene are often looking for something off the beaten track, and Sum Fighter certainly provides something unusual, while still achieving a sense of familiarity with its core gameplay mechanics.
The first thing that struck me about Sum Fighter is the polish of the presentation. The game opens up with a gorgeous animated sequence introducing us to the characters with a level of quality unlike anything I’ve seen in an XBLIG release. The characters are well designed, stylish and look as though they came straight from Cartoon Network. The tutorial even has half-decent voice acting! The wow-factor fell a little once I was in the game, but a high standard is maintained throughout.
Basic gameplay is immediately familiar, albeit with a couple of unique tweaks and twists. Sum Fighter, for me, was initially reminiscent of Genesis classic Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, although this style of gameplay has been used many times over the years. The tutorial is a bit intimidating and unclear at first, but a little quick experimentation within the game itself clears things up. Blocks rise from the bottom of the screen and the player has to match groups to make them disappear while hoping their opponent’s screen fills up.
Traditionally games use color to organize groups of blocks and banish them from the screen, but this is where Sum Fighter differentiates itself. Every block has a number on it, and groups of blocks have to have the same number to be eliminated. Thus, you have to group two blocks of two, or three blocks of three, four blocks of four, and so on. The player’s job is to merge existing blocks to make them add up, for example merging a “two block” with an adjacent “one block” to make a larger “three block.” Yes, the math on offer here is really that challenging.
In addition to this is the usual power-up malarkey you would expect to find — each character has a special ability they can charge up and unleash upon their opponent. While some of these take a standard form of adding more blocks or making some blocks inaccessible, there are a couple of creative ones on offer. For example, adding a plus-one to some blocks or hiding the numbers on display so they can’t tell what is what. These are frustrating to be on the receiving end of, but also add an extra level of challenge and fun. They’re also a great way to keep players on their toes.
What I found surprising is how quickly the pressure mounts to make you look like a fool. It may be embarrassing to admit, but as soon as the screen fills up it becomes more and more difficult to think which numbers add up to five. So while things may seem easy at first, there is a significant challenge here, especially in later levels of the story mode.
The story mode, incidentally, is where most of your time will be spent. The four playable characters are hardly Shakespearian, but each one has their own individual endings and taunts, most of which are well written and even forced a chuckle from me. This, in combination with the challenging but rewarding gameplay, ensured that I was never bored while playing, despite some repetitive elements.
It’s also worth mentioning that I encountered a couple of game breaking bugs during play, which forced a crash for no apparent reason. These were perhaps the most frustrating part of playing, interrupting my flow, but as the story mode is quite short such things are unlikely to affect gamers too severely.
On the subject of length, Sum Fighter isn’t going to keep players’ attention for a long time. This is a common failing of indie games in general, and it all depends on how much you think your $3 is really worth. There is a story mode, with four playable characters, and a multiplayer mode, and that’s it. It won’t last forever, but I’d argue that there is more quality here than quantity, and the importance of that will vary from person to person.
Multiplayer will certainly be a hard sell for many people. While fun, it will be difficult to convince friends to play a math-based puzzler over some Call of Duty or Street Fighter, and with no online play on offer, Sum Fighter will probably be a solo experience for most.
Like many XBLIG releases, Sum Fighter is probably a short-lived experience, but as a unique puzzler it’s difficult not to recommend. Simple math-based gameplay may divide the audience, but add in this level of polish and the fan base will surely multiply. In summation, (puzzles plus math) times high-quality presentation equals fun.