Sudoku Ball Detective is a potentially brilliant idea marred by a half-formed story and the terrible decision to allow for guessing.
Sudoku Ball DetectivePublisher: Playlogic
Platform: Nintendo DS (Reviewed), Wii, PC
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+
Release Date: 2009-08-25
I'm sorry, but Sudoku is boring. Okay, fine, I think Sudoku is boring.
A lot of people don't find it boring -- it's true! -- and for those people, Sudoku Ball Detective might actually be a passable way to spend a few hours of time, if not more, by doing puzzle after puzzle the same way that you'd do them in Brain Age, Brain Age 2, Sudoku Gridmaster, Platinum Sudoku, and so on and so forth. They all function in basically the same way: you fill in digits from 1-9 in a 9x9 grid, such that any given digit never appears twice in the same row, column, or 3x3 section. The rules don't change, there are no clues other than a few digits that you're given right off the bat, there's no narrative, and there's nothing to it other than logic and math. If that's your bag, Sudoku Ball Detective will treat you just fine.
My own high hopes for Sudoku Ball Detective hinged on the fact that I love puzzles but never could bring myself to care about Sudoku given its relatively clinical take on the genre. The addition of the words "Ball" and "Detective" to the title of this particular piece of software indicate a game that takes Sudoku somewhere that perhaps it has never been before.
First, there's the "Ball" portion of the title. This refers to the "Sudoku Ball", a construct that adds a third dimension to the traditional 2D Sudoku puzzle. It does this by slapping a whole bunch of Sudoku puzzles onto a large ball in such a way that they share corners with each other. This allows the puzzle solver to work on one puzzle while helping toward the solution in another, "solving" the ball by finishing all of the puzzles that comprise it. It sounds interesting enough, but it's basically just like doing a whole mess of Sudoku puzzles at once.
The other side of the innovation in the title is the "Detective" side, which appends a mystery to the Sudoku. You play a detective, there's a murder, and yes, you use the powers of Sudoku to solve it.
This is the part of the game that has the most potential given that it sounds as though the narrative could well turn the game into a Sudoku-centered Professor Layton. It starts out in a promising enough fashion, as there are games that involve solving numbers in a Sudoku ball as quickly as possible as part of a chase, solving the center number in a series of puzzles to pick a lock, and solving specific 3x3 sections on the ball to find clues.
The problem is that something like 25% of the way through the game, you've seen all that it has to offer, and the mystery narrative is so dry and perfunctory as to barely exist. Worse, some of the game types don't get any more difficult as the story progresses, so you never feel as though you're overcoming any sort of difficulty; you're simply going through the motions to get through the game. Perhaps worst of all, every game type other than the lockpicking encourages guessing. When you correctly complete a row, column, or 3x3 square, it flashes and freezes, letting the player know that that section is complete. The problem is this: if you need a 3 and a 6 to complete a row but it's not obvious which number goes in which open spot, there is no penalty for putting them in the wrong spot. So if you put the 3 in one spot and the 6 in the other and the row doesn't flash, you know that you got it wrong, so all you have to do is switch them.
This is where Sudoku purists should be crying foul -- it essentially removes the deep elements of logic that make Sudoku appealing to so many people, replacing those elements with a simple guessing game. It's the sort of move that's aimed at people like me, people looking for a casual Sudoku experience who don't want to run into any brick walls as they solve the mystery, but rather than adding to its appeal, the allowance for guessing feels nothing more than insulting.
Add to that a couple of game types that feel utterly tedious when put next to the more fast-paced games, and you have an unevenly-paced story with a poor implementation of Sudoku. The ball is an interesting idea, but it doesn't change the game enough to make up for its deficiencies. I mean, why bother putting in a world map if you can only go to one location on it at any given time?
Even Sudoku fans should steer clear of this one -- there are simply too many solid attempts at Sudoku on the DS to bother with Sudoku Ball Detective.