Ever since Cipher Prime appeared five years ago with their browser-based sound puzzler Auditorium, I had my sights on the small developer from Philadelphia. Each of their previous offerings had a very distinct, clean look and feel about it. Compared to the sparse aesthetics of their other games, their latest release, Intake, looks downright messy. It’s still very much a Cipher Prime game – this is apparent at a glance – but it appears like they threw a bunch of different elements together, some of which just don’t seem to gel as well as they should. That being said, how does it play?
While each of their previous games is a slow burning puzzler (Fractal), about experimentation (Auditorium), or both (Splice), Intake is a frantic, twitchy action game that wouldn’t look out of place on a mobile device. It is all about pills. Lots and lots of them, dropping from the top of the screen towards the bottom. Your goal is to prevent that from happening, by clicking on the falling pills and making them burst into fine powder. To make things harder, pills come in two colors, and to have them count towards your level goal, you need to sync the background color to the pill you’re clicking on.
The right mouse button will take care of that. After you destroyed a set number of pills, the next level starts, offering a slightly higher difficulty. With a total of 75 levels and a difficulty curve that ramps up considerably after just a handful of stages, you’ve got your challenge laid out for you. Thankfully, you can unlock a set of helpful power-ups with the points (or “vitamins”) collected on previous attempts. This way, you get more lives, the ability to slow time, invincibility for a couple of seconds, or you get to zap a couple of pills at once with a handy lightning attack. All those upgrades can be unlocked in any order, and they add some much-needed variety to the game.
Progression is tied to unlocking more power-ups and, of course, simply getting better at the game. In other words, you are mostly grinding in order to improve. This is a double-edged sword: of course the game is meant to be played repeatedly and often, but on the other hand, longer sessions of Intake really take their toll. I spent half an hour with it in one sitting, and I noticed myself actually getting worse. Your trigger finger will get tired after a while, and the visual onslaught makes it hard to concentrate. Therefore, Intake is best enjoyed in small doses, pun intended. This is the kind of game you should probably play between long sessions of more serious fare, or simply to loosen up after staring at Excel spreadsheets all day.
The game certainly makes it easy to get into the swing of things. I like how visual and audio cues give an indication of your progress, such as a bar filling up in the background or a crowd cheering louder the higher your combo streak gets. You won’t be tempted to steal a glance at your score or multiplier while playing and focus instead on the frantic clicking. However, especially those audio cues tend to tread the very thin line between useful and annoying. That cheering, for instance, cannot be toggled or turned down and clashes with the music, which in itself might not be to everyone’s taste. It’s the ubiquitous dubstep soundtrack, and while there are five tracks in total, you have to unlock them using those precious vitamins you’d rather spend on more useful upgrades. If you’re allergic to dubstep, you can just turn down or mute the music altogether.
The arcade screen aspect ratio, which only fills part of your screen and is known as the Yokotate mode, might be the cause of some confusion as well. It makes Intake look like a cheap mobile port, which it really isn’t. After all, if the playing field would span the whole screen, the game would probably be nigh unplayable. It’s certainly hard enough as it is. Incidentally, I’m sure the game would be terrific on a mobile device, with touch-screen instead of mouse controls. Unfortunately, you’re not able to rotate the screen so that the playing field fills most of it. This feels like a missed opportunity: if your game makes use of the Yokotate mode, you might as well go all the way and make it feel just like an original arcade experience. For all its missed potential, the inclusion of not one, but three colorblind modes is commendable and should really be expected for any game by now.
The game is also fiendishly hard. I’ve only made it to level 36 so far, and apparently less than 5% of all players have beaten the game at the time of writing. Truth be told, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to beat it; I certainly lack the persistence to see this through to the end. Don’t get me wrong here, this is a fun game and I enjoyed it. I only wish its presentation wasn’t all over the place. In the later levels, you’re wreaking so much havoc that half of the screen is covered in powder and debris, which makes it very easy to miss one or two pills, and this means one of your precious lives will be lost. A leaner, less cluttered presentation would have helped immensely to make this more accessible and less frustrating.
There are leaderboards, but I would have loved them to be more integrated into the game. If they popped up each time you saw the game over screen instead of being hidden away in an extra menu, there would be more friendly rivalry between you and your Steam friends. It works for other games, and I don’t see a reason why it shouldn’t be a big part of Intake as well.
Conclusion – Is It Worth Your Money?
Intake is a good game, but I cannot help but feel a little disappointed. I probably expected it to have a little more substance, especially when compared to Cipher Prime’s other games. As it stands, I’m somewhat hard pressed to recommend the game at full price, considering it’s a title I will only pick up and play every so often, and which I’m probably never fully going to beat. On the other hand, Intake recently got its launch price cut in half, and it’s certainly worth a gamble at $4.99 if frantic, dubstep-infused arcade clickfests sound like a good time to you.