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Review: Concrete Jungle

I first came across Concrete Jungle at EGX Rezzed in 2015. Hidden away next to what was arguable an extremely busy multiplayer game, lead (and only) developer Cole Jefferies introduced myself and a friend to the game with a flurry of enthusiasm. With some hesitation, we both sat down to try the game, discovering that the brightly coloured indie title had a challenging difficulty curve and a delightful sense of humor. Departing Rezzed, we looked forward to hearing more of Concrete Jungle, especially with the impending release date within the next year.

Fast forward to October 2015 and Concrete Jungle bursts onto the scene, with full release on Steam, Humble Store and Itch.IO. Now, with the ability to play the game in full (rather than just the versus mode we attempted at Rezzed) the game’s full potential began to shine. As an overview, the game feels influenced and reminiscent of row-clearing games such as Tetris, combined with the city simulation rules and standards of Sim City. Whilst the game doesn’t focus on the ‘build’ of a city into a gigantic metropolis, it does utilise the same guidelines (such as not putting a brewery or a power plant right next to a school) in a Hearthstone-esque deck-building puzzler.

So let’s start with the basics. You begin with a selection of cards prepared for you on the left hand side; each card has different attributes, some of which are positive, and some negative. With each placement of these cards on the playable grid you can affect the score of each square. Your aim is to ensure that each row of squares is completed equalling the specified number of positive points, in order for the rows to clear (from left to right). You then progress across the landscape to the designated end point (neatly identified not only by the city-scape map filling with blue at the top left, but with a nice hefty trophy on the row itself). You can try to obtain as many points per row as possible, making use of nifty combos and building residential/commercial/industrial blocks, linking them with special cards which give combo points across the entire block. Now, whilst this all sounds very positive, the challenge comes from certain cards (and later on, additional players) giving negative points.

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As you progress, more complex deck-building puzzle elements come in – such as each card having two numbers associated with it, one of which assists the player with purchasing cards and obtaining skills, whereas the other slowly increases the challenge and increases the required number of points per row. Usually the cards with more negative squares on contribute more to new cards and skills, so utilising them at first may not seem ideal but do provide long term opportunities; whereas primarily positive cards will increase the number of points required per row, which may seem good at first but then comes back to bite you when you don’t have good cards for combos or point levelling.

Further to this, is the development of various characters, each with their own varying skill tree (we played as Lainey, our quirky and chipper tutorial guide and all round bad ass, voiced awesomely by someone with great dynamics for enthusing expressions into simple, mere words). You can develop these characters and the decks you use with them across the available campaign missions. You can also use some of them in the alternative modes – outside of the Campaign, there is a solo mode which allows you to play without having to stick to a certain campaign objective as well as classic mode which removes deck-building and is, according to Steam and the Concrete Jungle website, most closely resembling that of Cole Jefferies original title MegaCity. If this isn’t enough to whet your appetite, a local multiplayer option where you can fight it out for space on the grid is also available – turn based battling with friends, negative points flying everywhere… as if there was no other opportunity to fall out with your buds.

This continual effort of balancing several different elements is key to most card deck games, the clever use of stereotypical ‘city build’ guidelines gives the game its own identity. Alongside the neat, crisp art style and humor of the dialogue, Concrete Jungle becomes a welcome time sink which not only provides a welcome challenge from other easier puzzle games available on Steam, but something which boils down to the heart of gaming – it’s just fun. I personally, find myself raging quite easily when I get myself into a sticky situation in puzzlers (perhaps I am just not someone who can think very far ahead, or perhaps I don’t level up my deck enough) but even through the frustration the game remains enjoyable and the desire to continue playing thrives on. Whilst some of the deck building skills can be quite complex, the user interface is minimalist and easy to navigate – which leaves it all down to my own poor ability to be able to score enough points, than to blame it on poor design. Damn.

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There is also one key part of this game which I have to comment on – as I partake in a little live streaming via Twitch, it’s actually incredibly awesome to be able to turn any of the licensed music used in the game off. Not only does this mean that any recorded gameplay is not muted or unable to upload, but it means that the streamer and the channel are not left utterly music-less… instead, royalty free music appropriate and fitting to the developer’s idea of the game is used instead of the licensed tracks. It’s the first game I’ve personally seen this happen for; a little silver lining in the difficulties of copyright and intellectual property.

When you take all of these aspects into consideration, it’s incredibly humbling to know this is the work of one developer. The game comes off not only extremely well built, with fantastical minimalist user interfaces and thorough tutorials, but it feels professionally polished. There is this feeling around the build of this game that any and all feedback from initial testers and visitors at exhibitions such as Rezzed has truly been taken to heart; I saw updates in the game that weren’t yet ready at Rezzed that really helped the steep learning curve settle just enough so that it has become more fun than frustrated-rage-quit. Perhaps this almost intimate development process truly highlights what I miss about larger games – that communication, that feeling of value as a player. We can only hope that Cole and other indie developers like him continue in their game development quest; a future of professional produced independent products just fills my heart with joy!

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