In a software lineup crowded by physics puzzle games, any new physics puzzler needs some kind of hook in order to get players’ attention. Gerbil Physics from Pencel Games does this by being astonishingly cute and occasionally clever. How important is that cuteness? Having played every single Xbox Live-enabled game in the genre, I can assure you that Gerbil Physics’ abundance of personality is most appreciated. On top of that, it also has the pedigree of originally being an indie game for Xbox 360, much like Shoot 1UP and IonBallEX, making it equally worth a look.
Rescuing gerbils from the darkness
Unlike most physics puzzlers, Gerbil Physics has an actual story with introduction and ending. The evil Toad King hates gerbils – especially cute ones. He imprisons countless gerbils in blocks and uses them to build monuments to his own greatness. By demolishing these monuments, players can save the gerbils and restore happiness to the kingdom. As for the Toad King, he certainly resembles the Frog King who helped Lemmiwinks the gerbil in seasons 6 and 15 of South Park, doesn’t he?
Too cute to ‘splode
As I mentioned, Gerbil Physics’ best quality is its abundance of adorable artwork. Outside of gameplay, you’ll catch such heartwarming glimpses as a ninja gerbil vanishing into smoke on the title screen, a gerbil pirate trying to look menacing during a loading screen, and more. Though I love the external (non-gameplay) artwork, it’s not perfect. Much of it displays compression artifacts, and backgrounds meant to look black instead show up as gray. Considering how much of the game is focused on these illustrations, it’s odd that the developers utilized a very lossy saving format for them.
During gameplay, gerbils come in a variety of shapes and sizes (cubes, spheres, and triangles). They blink, sneeze, laugh, and make other high-pitched sounds as they wait for you to solve the puzzles and set them free. Explode a bomb and they go flying, resulting in a variety of surprised expressions. Watching these gerbils is so much more fun than the generic blocks of Implode! and even the circular protagonists of iBlast Moki.
It’s not just the gerbils that lend the game personality, either. Sit at the title screen for a while and bombs will eventually knock the letters of the title away. The backgrounds are mostly well-drawn, with the exception of the blurry mess of a fire background that appears in a handful of levels. They all make smart use of parallax scrolling to create a sense of depth – not something you see in too many puzzle games.
Sound-wise, I love the gerbil voices. The single piece of music fits well, but eventually grows tiresome. As with most mobile games, a few extra songs wouldn’t have hurt.
Each level contains a unique arrangement of gerbils to rescue. The goal is to get every single gerbil (excluding alarm gerbils) to fall below a yellow horizontal line. To do this, you’ll make use of a limited number of bombs. Tap anywhere on the screen to set the bomb and its timer starts. Once it goes off, any nearby gerbils will go flying.
The greatest gameplay difference between Gerbil Physics and other bomb-based physics puzzlers is that here you don’t arrange all the bombs and then activate a detonation. Instead, players can tap multiple locations, with each bomb immediately starting its countdown. This makes the gameplay feel slightly less linear and predictable, for better or worse. Some levels can be completed with a single series of rapidly-placed bombs, for which the player receives a Wipeout rating (contributing towards a few Achievements).
Later levels introduce two extra tools to work with: exploders and disintegrators. Exploders pop instantly but with less force than a regular bomb. They’re useful for moving gerbils shorter distances. Disintegrators instantly remove a single gerbil structure without any sort of explosion. You’ll sometimes need them to remove stone gerbils that are otherwise immune to explosions.
Going for the gold
As with bombs, any unused tools contribute to the player’s score at the end of a level. Chain reactions – knocking multiple gerbils below the line simultaneously – also award a ton of points. Reaching a certain score at the end of the level gets you a gold medal, as with most games in this genre. Replaying levels for higher scores is much easier since the version 1.1 update, which brought the game’s interface up to modern standards. However, that only applies to the pause and level completion menus. Gerbil Physics still lacks an instant replay button during gameplay (unlike most other physics games), so players have to pause a level by hitting the Back button and then choosing to retry – an extra step.
Gerbil Physics launched with 72 levels (as compared to the XBLIG version’s paltry 24), several of which come from the XBLIG sequel Gerbil Physics 2. The recent update bumped the number of levels up to a whopping 84. Some levels can be completed in just seconds. I even got gold medals on my first try many times. But other times, the solution will be far less clear, requiring multiple attempts to pass, let alone get a gold rating. Some stages are just plain clever and fun. My favorite is a Space Invaders-themed level later in the game, complete with slowly descending ‘invaders.’
As you’d expect from a physics puzzler, many of the Achievements deal with earning gold medals and Wipeouts. The Achievement for getting 72 gold medals would have been pretty tough prior to the update. Games like this are bound to stump you now and then, at which point a savvy player would turn to the internet for help. But not every level’s solution has been posted online, so I could see some players (like me) getting stuck with a few golds short of the goal. Thankfully the update’s levels 73-84 contribute towards the Achievement, providing a welcome bit of wiggle room. Check out Arsenic17’s Achievement Guide for more details.
Besides the standard ‘cheevo goals, the game also includes seven level specific ones. These include beating a level using only one tool, under a certain time, and even making a gerbil spin around a bunch of times. ‘Penguin lover’ proves to be the second-hardest Achievement in the game, as it requires players to beat level 72 without any gerbils touching the stage’s penguins. Still, by following a guide anyone should be able to get it within 10 minutes or so.
Gerbil Physics is definitely one of the top physics puzzlers for Windows Phone. A certain roughness betrays the game’s indie roots, which shouldn’t be too surprising considering Pencel games consists of only three people. But those people put a lot of heart into their product, and it shows. Anyone who loves animals will find themselves smiling at the bevy of adorable rodents on more than one occasion as they work through the game. Heck, these gerbils are so lovable they even have their own merchandise store. Achievement hunters will want to give Gerbil Physics a look too, since the completion time clocks in around five hours of relatively painless gameplay.
Gerbil Physics costs $2.99 and there is a free trial. Get it here on the Windows Phone Store.