Sometimes you’re just chilling and think, “I want to play a puzzle game,” but you’re not looking for some huge brain teaser or high tension competitive puzzler. You want something to sit down and vibe with. And so, you end up impulse buying something familiar, something that you know that you can cruise through. And that kinda game for me was a Picross game.
More specifically, I got the Switch version of PictoQuest, a picross game with light RPG elements by NanoPiko. In PictoQuest, a young boy and girl from Pictoria go on a quest to restore paintings that were ruined by the dreaded Moonface, solving picross puzzles to loot treasure and fight monsters.
You get to choose a boy or a girl avatar at the start. It honestly doesn’t matter besides changing your avatar on the map screen, because the two are canonically traveling together as the pre-boss dialogue indicates. You clear levels to advance on the map and take detours to do sidequests or to go to the shop. And also I’ll be real, just give us the option to access the shop through a menu, you really don’t need to make us go around a map to one of the many identical shops in the game.
Enter a level and you’re presented with a picross puzzle. So if you never played picross, you’re filling out spaces on a grid, with numbers on the edges indicating how many squares exist on that horizontal/vertical line. If a line says “3 and 5,” that means there’s 8 squares to fill in, but they are separated into non-adjacent lines of 3 and 5 squares with the line of 3 being more to the left/higher up. Using that information, you fill out the squares that you know are guaranteed to be correct and then branch out from there. You fill out squares until it forms a vague picture, which is then shown in proper form afterward; as PictoQuest has fantasy JRPG theming, all of the pictures you make depict things that you’d see in fantasy games, like swords and archers.
Speaking of which, how does the JRPG theming matter in PictoQuest?
There are two types of levels: one where you’re opening treasure and one where you’re fighting monsters. The former feels very nothing, with mistakes just deducting an honestly small amount of money from you. It’s just standard picross otherwise.
The latter level type is more engaging. Combat acts as a sort of timer for you, with monsters having an attack gauge that fills up over time with them striking when it gets full. They will also attack immediately if you make a mistake, so mistakes feel more meaningful in this level type. When you fill out all the correct squares on a line, your character attacks, which not only lowers enemy health but also depletes the attack bar, saving you some time. There’s actually some mild multitasking if you’re fighting multiple enemies, because all enemies have their attack gauge fill up but you can only attack one at a time, so you’re going to have to rotate between enemies while solving the puzzle to juggle their attack bars to prevent taking damage. It’s this kind of combat where I think PictoQuest is at its best.
You can also get items to use while solving puzzles, through either buying them or by getting them as sidequest rewards. You can also get them if you solve a certain line within a quick time limit, but I’ll be real, that’s poorly implemented; the line in question is always randomized and the timer is so low that the only way you’re getting items this way is if you’re lucky and it shows up on a line you already figured out. It’s kinda bad.
You got your health pick-ups, but you also got the power of Orbs. The Thunder Orb will fill out/cross out a designated 3×3 grid, which doesn’t sound like much in the later levels where the grids are bigger, but it always provides a step in the right direction. There’s the Ice Orb which freezes enemies, saving you from one free hit. But the most important one is the Fire Orb, which highlights all the boxes to fill out horizontally and vertically from a space you choose; if you got a good memory, this is the shit.
So I keep mentioning the sidequests, so I’ll talk about those. Across the map there are a few NPCs who will have you solve a past puzzle with a condition tacked on, like solving it within a time limit. You get some fun dialogue with these characters, but my problem is that it doesn’t commit itself fully to the dialogue. You get dialogue before a quest and shortly after, but if you try talking to an NPC again you just get a generic “you already talked to this person” message. There’s also dialogue before starting boss levels (which is also the only time your avatar characters talk), but there’s no dialogue afterwards, which robs a proper sense of a resolution.
It’s a weird thing to complain about, sure, but I think having a style is important to a game. A style can help establish the soul of a game. It’s why I thought Danmaku Unlimited 2 was a nothing game – I found it so painfully generic that I didn’t feel as engaged as I would have been with other games of the genre and find it unmemorable outside of using it as an example to make this point. My problem with PictoQuest in this regard is that it takes steps toward establishing itself as a picross game in a jokey JRPG setting, but because it doesn’t fully commit, it ends up feeling somewhat shallow.
In fact, if you want a picross hybrid game that fully commits to its theming and setting, there’s Murder by Numbers, a visual novel/picross hybrid that uses picross puzzles as a device to advance the story.
However, if you’re just here for some picross, PictoQuest succeeds in that front. Even if I didn’t think the game’s style was fully put together, I still found it addicting as a picross solving puzzle experience. I think the combat works and I think it’s a more engaging experience when you’re fighting multiple enemies, but overall, yeah, it’s picross alright.