Release date: December 03, 2021 (Switch release)
Rating: E for Everyone
Platform: Nintendo Switch, Android & iOS, & PC via Steam and itch.io
A code for this game was provided by Thalamus Digital.
I said as much back in our overlook of this month’s Switch releases, but I’m a sucker for a smart little puzzle game. Sudoku, Picross, oh h1, you name it – and the Switch’s balance as a handheld with a fairly large screen makes it a great format.
Especially when a game needs to be super-readable like the proven-successful Word Forward.
In fact, if anything, that’s one of the game’s greater strengths; with just a splash of color, patterns, and animation to cheer up its palette, Word Forward is almost minimalist in its visuals. But that just lets the player get right down to brass tacks:
The goal of Word Forward is pretty simple – eat up all the letter tiles on a board by forming them into words.
That’s it. Turn all the tiles into words, and don’t leave any standing. It’s dead simple, but that also makes it wonderfully flexible – to the tune of 500 unique puzzles. And that second goal – don’t leave any standing – prevents you from brute-forcing the game by pattern recognition. With every move, you have to think just as much about which tiles you don’t use, and where they are on the virtual table.
In fact, it caught me off-guard, and I flunked the very first level multiple times by leaving myself with just a handful of unusable tiles. The game can be surprisingly tricky starting out, but that only makes it all the more gratifying when you fully grasp the premise. It’s the kind of puzzle you can develop a “strategy” for.
And once you’ve got a taste for that, it becomes absolutely addictive.
There’s a few power-ups to grease the wheels. You can swap a tile around if you’re one vowel away from “TYPEWRITER”, for example, or nuke that pesky “X” clean off the board. You’re even rewarded with more power-ups for forming long, impressive words, and a shiny gold star for clearing a puzzle without using any.
It’s a dense little bundle of pattern recognition and decision-making at every turn, which makes for that wonderful kind of game where you can play for ten minutes and feel like you’ve gotten the full experience.
( P.S. – I like to work from the outer edges on in with longer words; I find I get stranded less that way. )
A Bit Backward
The main snag, of course, is that the game relies heavily on the player’s English vocabulary. If that’s your strong suit, you may struggle with Word Forward. Then again, tons of video games test your physical reflexes, or pattern recognition, or even your on-the-spot math skills. You just have to be prepared for a slightly different challenge – and the game never punishes you for insisting that “TOHAN” is a valid word, anyway. At worst, some puzzles may require a bit of guessing until you’ve learned something new.
The other little corner case is that the “shuffle” power-up can be a bit of a roll of the dice. In theory, it randomizes every letter on the board to un-stick you from a corner. In practice, it doesn’t check that the remaining tiles can form a valid word, so you may be stuck with three Z tiles and a K, forcing you to re-start the puzzle. It pushed me to abandon that option entirely, which added to the game’s challenge in a way that I don’t think the developers intended.
The touchscreen controls, on the other hand, are a mixed bag. On one hand, swiping across the screen feels smooth and natural. On the other, you naturally block part of the screen when your hand when you’re building words this way. So few games use the Switch’s touchscreen well to begin with; it’s a shame to see one fall just short, and not even for any technical reason.
All in all, though, these are all paper cuts at worst. And not a one of them distracted me from enjoying the game once I hit a groove with it.
To the Point
At the end of the day, Word Forward is a perfectly solid puzzle game. Its clear design makes it accessible to anyone with fair vision and a good grasp on their dictionary. There’s a deep enough well of puzzles that you could sink either thirty minutes or thirty hours into the game, potentially over the course of years. And, once you’ve got the hang of it, the puzzles are right-sized to make it excellent for quick pick-up sessions.
In short, it’s doing exactly the thing it sets out to do. That may not be the most impressive thing in the world, sure. But for the price of a sandwich, it doesn’t have to be. A tiny, well-tuned game is just as worthy as a part of any puzzle-lover’s game library.