In a gaming world dominated by AAA studios constantly vying for our attention – all while attempting to out-teraflop, out-controversy and out-shameless-sponsorship-deal one another (by the way, I’ve really been enjoying the new Totinos’ Stuffed NachosTM of late) – it’s easy to forget a very basic principle. Bigger doesn’t always mean better. Its brother maxim, ‘less is more’, also seems to be tragically overlooked by many modern devs. Sometimes, in the apparent belief that shoving so much on the screen to distract the player with hypnotic lights is the done thing.
Which is why it’s refreshing to, every so often, get a game like A Weekend in Puzzleburg, which applies both of these fundamentals to the extreme. It’s not fifty hours long and overstuffed with DLC. It won’t swallow eons of your time on a needless grind. It has no narrative or thematic pretensions. Instead, it just comes in, spells out what it’s going to do, does it, then is off on its tod less than three hours later. And you know what? That’s just fine – ehh, mostly. Kind of. Sorta. Let me explain.
A Weekend in Puzzleburg, a cozy pseudo life sim married to a puzzle-RPG, comes to us from the aptly-named Sunny Demeanour Games. We’ve been covering it fairly extensively over the last couple of months. So much so, that our EWKA covering the demo has already done a lot of the legwork for this review. If you’d like to discover more about the title’s origins and its basic framework, please do partake. Here, I’ll be focusing purely on its merits as a twenty-buck pop on Steam.
Right. The plot of A Weekend in Puzzleburg, such as it is: you’re Cindy, a protagonist who I now realise is indeed named, contrary to the impression earlier previews gave off. She’s off on a wee little vacay to the puzzle-piece-shaped island of Puzzleburg. It’s stuffed full of residents and other holidaymakers who, natch, have a veritable laundry list of tasks they can’t be arsed to perform. Guess which poor sap will end up being stuck with ‘em?
From the off, you’re able to tinker with a couple of Cindy’s attributes, particularly her backstory and profession. There are quite a few choices here, some of them rather eccentric. Your Cindy might be a lass who shovels chips, whereas your mate might make her a NASA engineer, a singer or something else entirely. These customisations do actually have a bearing on the game’s dialogue and structure, with certain quests opening or, indeed, closing based on the player’s selections. After all, you’re not going to ask a waitress to assist with mending a catalytic cracking unit, are you? Right out of the gate, this ensures each playthrough will have a different flavour, though it is a bit of a shame Cindy’s appearance can’t be altered in any meaningful capacity.
A home away from home, from the comfort of your home
Your task is to, well, have a weekend in Puzzleburg (ah, those eponymously-inclined devs!) Highly trumpeted by Sunny Demeanour is the element of choice. You have the power to decide how Cindy spends her time, whether that be helping the aforementioned lazy bums or just having some ‘her-time’ in the hotel: watching ‘Wheel of Misfortune’ on the TV (one of the game’s cleverer running gags), cracking open a book (of which there are a decent selection) and having long, hot soaks.
At first, the concept is fun. It soon becomes obvious that the choices you can make are, on the whole, shallow; but it’s tough to care for a while. You really do feel like you’re on holiday here, with the ability to go for a stroll on the beach or pop into the local arcade if you fancy. Clothes shopping, horse riding, chocolate-scoffing and other activities are all available to you. The Puzzleburgians are only too happy to oblige your every whim; some suspiciously so. I see you, Dante the hotel receptionist. Yes, I know you can track my quests. No, I don’t want to verify that rag smells of chloroform, thanks.
Trouble in paradise
Where it all starts to come apart at the seams, however, is when you attempt to engage with the game part of the flippin’ game. Controls are fine, whether you opt for the mouse, keyboard or controller, and performance-wise it’s as smooth as butter. But villager requests can be obtuse, despite the amusing wit on display within NPC conversations. It isn’t always clear what you need to do to progress the core narrative. Every time an RPG trope tries to shove its way into the laidback life-sim vibe, you get a sense of two warring genres trying to pull the poor game stubbornly in their disparate directions.
There’s a rudimentary quest log, but I’ve had it bug out on me a couple times and it feels quite amateurish in its layout. Completionists will be appalled to discover there’s also no means of tracking precisely how many of the game’s multitudinous twists and turns you’ve seen in each playthrough. While it helps that A Weekend in Puzzleburg‘s world is relatively compact, making it simple enough to see everything if you’re truly committed, the omission is glaring.
And as for the ‘puzzles’ themselves? You’ll note the sarcastic quotation marks there, because for a game with the word ‘puzzle’ literally in the title, these barely qualify and are a major disappointment pour moi. They are incredibly simple, almost infantilizing stuff. Why yes, I do know that money can be used for goods and services. My my, I can move that one statue into its clearly designated spot. Horses like apples? Never coulda guessed.
If you have any functioning mental capacity above a third-grade level – and are cool with the odd bit of memorization – you won’t get stuck once. I recall being tantalized by the demo and its neat point-and-click style riddles (loose cash from fountain goes into vending machine, etc.), hoping that these would develop in complexity and would only be the beginning. No such luck.
Pixels, niggles and niggly pixels
All of this, sadly, is indicative of one of the game’s most immediately noticeable shortcomings (albeit one which was far beyond the control of Sunny Demeanour): the shoestring budget. I’m loathe to mention it, as I’m nothing if not a stalwart defender of indie development. However, even for an independent outing, this can be quite a poor showing visually at times. The pixel artstyle is pleasant, and doubtless allowed development time to be invested more wisely in other areas, but has an unfortunate knock-on effect across the entire presentation, making it look like a late-90s cereal box-freebie adventure game that’s stumbled into the 2020s – which I presume was not the intent.
Character sprites are static and don’t really animate. Environments are largely monochromatic and smack of copy-pasted tile art. In place of cutscenes, we have PNG images of ‘talking head’ dialogue exchanges. The font and text used throughout is dangerously close to charging full-throttle into Comic Sans’ forbidden territory. Music and sound effects, mostly of the generic ‘Hawaiian ukulele equals exotic locale’ variety, loop often and lack diversity.
Again, these are to be expected given A Weekend in Puzzleburg’s provenance – and once more I should stress I do not intend to harangue the very-small team that put the game together – but it makes another of its sticking points sting all the more. The price. There’s no way around it. This thing costs almost £20 (during a 10% off sale!) in my Monopoly money, which in dollary-doos won’t be too cheap either. For the length of the package and presentation on display, that’s borderline criminal. There are indie classics that go for half the price and offer ten times the value.
If it was intended to offset high production costs, I can tell you this: the money certainly isn’t on the screen. I was more forgiving of the cheap quality in the demo, since that was, y’know, free; and one assumed it’d be tidied up a bit by the final release. One assumed incorrectly, it would seem.
And man, that length. Discussing the two-to-three-hour duration of A Weekend in Puzzleburg is complicated, since they aren’t exactly hiding it: right on the game’s page, it proclaims that the focus is on repeat playthroughs, with “over 180,000 possible ways your weekend can play out.” While this is technically true, and looks good in the marketing to be sure, the branching paths, core gameplay and changes to the dialogue just aren’t sufficiently deep to warrant more than a handful of playthroughs.
One for the initial run. A second driven by curiosity to see what ‘that bit’ would have been like if you picked the other option. And then perhaps a third just for the heck of it. Once you start pushing four or five, I suspect monotony would begin to settle in; and 180,000? I’ll put it this way – if there’s an achievement tied to that, we might be looking at one of the rarest in history.
So that’s A Weekend in Puzzleburg. Nothing more, nothing less. Ironically, it’ll only provide about a weekend’s worth of entertainment. Whether that’s worth twenty hard-earned squid is your call to make. What was promised as a life-simulator-meets-RPG-meets-puzzler only really delivers on one of the three. Puzzleburg itself feels decently alive, and you’ll remember most of its inhabitants long after you put the controller down. But the tedium that sets in as a result of the mind-numbing puzzles and half-baked quest gameplay puts major dents in the experience. For some, the fleshed-out virtual holiday will be enough to call this a recommend; but for brainteaser aficionados, this is one getaway you’ll want to get away from.
A Weekend in Puzzleburg is available now on PC.