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June 2024

Hamster Scramble

Platform(s): PC
Genre: Puzzle
Publisher: IndieArk
Developer: Treasure Coast Games
Release Date: Nov. 9, 2023


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PC Review - 'Hamster Scramble'

by Cody Medellin on May 22, 2024 @ 1:15 a.m. PDT

A fusion between match-three puzzler and platformer, Hamster Scramble takes the versus puzzle game genre to the next level by giving players the ability to swap into their opponent's section to attack their puzzle board directly!

Puzzle Bobble or Bust-A-Move, as it is known in some areas, is a bona fide puzzle game classic. Like Bejeweled, Puyo Puyo and Tetris, Taito's game design was near-perfect, and its influence can easily be seen by the numerous clones, especially in the mobile games market. Trying to do something different with the formula is always welcome, and that's what Hamster Scramble tries to do, but the execution leaves much to be desired.

Puzzle games don't usually need a story, but this game features one anyway. You play as a pair of human fraternal twins, Kaden and Quinn, who are left in charge of taking care of the hamster village while the normal caretaker Capy the Capybara goes away for a little while. The duo decides to go exploring a nearby cave since nothing ever happens in the sleepy village anyway. They return sometime later to discover that they were wrong, as most of the hamsters have left, and the few that remain are trapped in large plastic balls. With no time to lose, the kids chase down the gang of rats responsible for this mess.

As alluded to earlier, the game follows the puzzle format established by Puzzle Bobble. The top of the screen contains an assortment of different hamsters trapped in different colored balls. You get colored hamster balls of your own that you throw to the top of the screen, where you try to match three or more balls of the same color to make them disappear. Since this is set up as a competitive puzzle game, your matches send another row of balls to your opponent's playfield and vice versa. The ultimate goal is to ensure your opponent's playfield reaches the "game over" line before they do the same to you.

The changes that Hamster Scramble makes to the formula are actually quite numerous. While the top half of the field is populated by hamster balls, the bottom half has your character running around, platformer-style, instead of being stationary at a bubble cannon. There are platforms you can jump up to, and you'll do plenty of moving around, since there are loads of hamsters that you can capture and use as balls to throw into the field. Once you decide to throw your ball, you'll be stationary and get to move an arrow to determine your throwing angle before you let go. You can get out of the throwing stance any time you want, and you can even throw the hamster back onto the platforms if you decide that you picked up the wrong color, but the cancel meter takes a long enough time that it feels like a very big penalty for getting the wrong color.

Another change has to do with how you can disrupt your opponent. Aside from the traditional mechanic of making big matches to send random colors to your foe's side, you can also transport to your opponent's field and physically stun them for a limited time. You can also outright steal their hamsters and push them to your side or throw hamsters you catch onto inopportune spots to mess things up before you return to your side of the board.

The ability to disrupt your opponent's round is a fun twist to the main game, but the rest of the new mechanics don't necessarily make Hamster Scramble that much fun. The platforms are solid, so you can't jump through them like in other platforming games. That's an odd design choice, since the thrown balls can pass through the platforms. Hamsters can sometimes bunch up together, so getting the color you want is a crapshoot if they don't move away from one another. Aiming feels sluggish, and the aim assist arrow has to fully animate every single time you change directions instead of immediately presenting you with the line. The accuracy of said aim assist is also questionable, as there are moments when you'll swear the ball has a clear shot only to see it stick to another nearby ball and clog up the path. The platforms also offer no advantage to the ball-throwing. As a whole, the additions feel like gimmicks that slow down the pace more than enhance the experience. In a genre that values speed during a match, that's a pretty big detriment.

The game suffers greatly from two big issues. The first is the tendency to forget that you're using a controller, which the title recommends over a keyboard and mouse combo. This doesn't affect gameplay, but menu navigation can be a nightmare because of it. Going into the store menu and using your controller to get out can be a crapshoot, since there are moments when backing out returns you to the store menu and the cancel prompt is still visible. Going to multiplayer and backing out of those menus encounters the same issue. In both cases, you'll need to use the mouse to completely exit those screens, making the user experience less than ideal.

The second is that the characters you interact with are too small. If you're using a desktop monitor, the characters are visible but rather miniscule compared to the environments. You'll be able to see exactly which hamsters you need to get, but it doesn't feel so bad since you're sitting close to your screen. Play this on a TV, and it becomes much tougher to see any characters unless you have a very large screen and are sitting at a less than optimal distance. Even then, it feels like the characters and hamsters could have been scaled up a bit more without affecting gameplay, so making everyone so tiny isn't exactly a sound decision.

There are several modes. Store mode has you going through over 60 levels with various goals that mix up things from PvP battles to simple puzzles where you just need to clear the board. A nice bonus is that you can play through the story in local co-op, which is a very welcome touch that we hope to see in other puzzle games. There are local and online versus modes, and while you'll need to rely on friends to get online matches going since the community isn't there, the network performance is solid. You can also craft your own puzzles with a fairly intuitive toolset, but it relies heavily on keyboard and mouse controls to navigate, and there's no easy way to share your creations with others.

From a presentation standpoint, Hamster Scramble is fine if you can live with the aforementioned small character sizes. The character styles are fine if a little too simple-looking, but the constant black line squiggle animations give off a stylized look. The colors are bold enough to make the environments look decent, and the effects (punches and bubble pops) are fine. The game features no voices, and the sound effects are decent. The music is fine if forgettable, as the same tracks are used far too often. For those wondering, there is no ultrawide monitor support.

If you're a Steam Deck user, the experience is both good and bad. The game only supports 1280x720 instead of the device's native 1280x800, but it still occupies a good deal of screen real estate, and the game is locked to 60fps. The battery life on a full charge comes to roughly four hours on a Steam Deck LCD version. This is nice, but it is also where the good news ends.

There's no Steam Cloud support, so you have to stick to one device unless you don't mind starting over and unlocking the levels on other devices. The loading screens fluctuate wildly in resolution and size, and the menu transitions play strangely to the point where you'll see the game display oddly for a few seconds before it returns to normal. In gameplay and in the village, the size of the characters is miniscule. Even though the screen is closer to your face when compared to a PC monitor or a TV, the hamsters and your character are tiny enough that you can make out only the most important details, like location and color for everyone except for the rainbow-colored hamsters.

Lastly, the game issue of sometimes forgetting controller functionality during menu transitions is enhanced on the Steam Deck, as you'll be forced to either reboot the game via the system menu or call upon the device's on-screen keyboard to navigate because trackpad functionality is hit-and-miss. That issue is concerning for a game that recommends the use of a controller.

You have to applaud Treasure Coast Games for trying something new with Hamster Scramble. The idea of catching the colors you have available and being able to have more influence on disrupting your opponent has real merit. If you're seasoned in the puzzle genre, the unnecessary platforming — combined with tiny characters, slow speed, and some functionality bugs — makes this game more of a slog than something enjoyable. Unless you're more forgiving of the game's flaws, you can safely pass.

Score: 5.0/10

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