Release Date: May 28, 2008
One of my guilty pleasures in life is sitting down with the newspaper or whipping out a puzzle book and working through Sudoku challenges. The Japanese number puzzle is normally played on a 9x9 grid, with players tasked with filling in all of the rows, columns, and boxes so that each contains the numerals one through nine, and that each of those numerals only appears once. It can be quite a mental challenge, and finishing a puzzle usually results in a good deal of satisfaction. Now, this cranial workout has been digitized and placed on the Xbox Live Arcade, and all I can really say for the result is, well … it's Sudoku.
Buku Sudoku is an unusual beast in that it tries to take a tried-and-true puzzle formula, throw it up against the wall of Xbox Live, and see if it sticks. On the plus side, the game does feature a number of different grids (in addition to 9x9, you can play on 6x6, 8x8 or 12x12), as well as a handful different background themes to help set the mood for your gaming. Each background features a different graphical interface and background music, and they are all distinct enough from one another that you will likely gravitate toward a certain theme. One word of warning though: You should avoid the one that puts you in what appears to be a child's playroom. Its overly colorful interface and annoying kid music will make you want to tear out your hair long before the puzzle is complete.
The title features both single-player and multiplayer modes, with each holding its own suite of challenges. The single-player feature will let you choose either a casual or a timed game on one of three difficulties. These games are pure Sudoku, exactly the sort of thing you would expect when you crack open a puzzle book. One annoying thing about the game is that, with only three difficulties, it is kind of difficult for your average Sudoku player to find a challenge that is appropriate. I normally gravitate slightly toward the harder end of the spectrum, and I found myself struggling over the "medium" puzzles. I once jacked it up to hard, got about three numbers filled in, and then completely hit a wall. On the other end of things, I found the "easy" puzzles to be too simple and was able to solve them in a little over a minute. It feels like there is a difficulty gap that should be filled with one more level of challenge, and yet we are left hung out to dry.
To help those like me who can't find the sweet spot, Buku Sudoku offers a pair of "helpers" that can be used to ease your frustration. The first is Autopencil, a device that will show you, whenever you are hovering over an open box, exactly which numbers can fit without disrupting the already-established board. The other helper is a logical error detector, which will help you detect wrong answers. On its "simple" setting, the detector will only tell you if you have made an error based on the established board; on its "advanced" setting, though, it will tell you if any number is incorrect as checked against the final solution for the puzzle. Perhaps the most troubling thing about these helpers is that, if both are used, they can make even the toughest puzzles too simple, and being able to utilize them and still get most of the game's Achievements cheapens what is already a fairly hollow accomplishment. If you are only going to use these devices in rare instances when you are truly stuck, then they are quite helpful, but if you lean on them as a crutch, then you are really doing yourself a disservice.
One thing Buku Sudoku offers that sets it apart from its pen-and-paper cousin is online multiplayer. There are three different modes to choose from (co-op, duel and team battle), and each can be quite fun and entertaining. Co-op is exactly what it sounds like, with you and another player trying to fill out a board in the fastest time possible. Duel pits you against another player, but with a twist. Anytime one of you manages to complete a line, column or box, the other player loses a portion of his numbers that have not already been locked in. It's a fun tweak to a straight-up race to the finish, and being able to completely stymie an opponent by removing critical numbers is enough for a few maniacal cackles. Finally, team battle pits you and a teammate against another duo in a race to finish the puzzle first. It's not a particularly exciting mode, but at least if you lose, you can always blame it on your partner. While it's abnormal to think of Sudoku as anything other than a solo affair, these extra modes can be quite rewarding for those who would like to match wits with other number junkies.
One thing you may be wondering about is controls. Considering that you can't very well write on your screen and that this isn't a DS game so there's no stylus, the question becomes how you transfer the numbers from your brain to the screen. Buku Sudoku actually handles the issue quite elegantly by giving you a number of options and letting you find your own natural fit. The default control scheme has you moving your cursor to different boxes with the left thumbstick, while the right thumbstick handles choosing the number. However, there are a number of other options, some of which use the triggers or the face buttons. There are even setups allowing you to play the entire game using only your right or left hands. It won't take long for you to find a control system that you like and will stick with for the duration of your time with the title.
At the heart of the decision on whether or not to buy Buku Sudoku lies the question, "Do you really need to buy a digital version of a game you normally play while taking a break from video games or during commutes and plane rides?" Honestly, if you are looking to stick with the traditional, solo experience, then you don't need this game. The super-simple visuals and sounds, coupled with the fact that you are just playing the same game as you would with pen and paper, means that your $10 would better be spent on a new book of puzzles. However, if you are interested in the online component and can see yourself happily whiling away the hours challenging others to duels or working out those tough challenges with a friend, then you'll probably be pleased. Either way, you can take comfort in knowing that this is a safe purchase, and not one of those Xbox Live titles that looked good sitting on the shelf, but ended up ugly when you actually started playing.
Whether you're a Sudoku vet looking for a new challenge or a newbie wondering what all the fuss is about, Buku Sudoku does a fine job of bringing the phenomenon to a digital audience. Its only real shortcoming is that in some cases, it is content to be complacent, rather than moving the genre forward.