The line between a soothing, relaxing puzzle game is often a thin one. The design of the puzzle obviously contributes most to that, but the right setting and atmosphere can create a relaxing experience out of even the most obtuse puzzles. The Pillar: Puzzle Escape is a good example of that, with a variety of puzzles that range from satisfying to downright infuriating, but a meditative setting that keeps the frustration to a minimum.
The Pillar sees you travelling through a series of serene, brightly-coloured environments, solving a series of puzzles in order to open gates blocking the way forward. Dotted around each new area are tall, red obelisks—the titular pillars—with a puzzle box or two on each side, and still more pillars hide beneath stone pedestals, waiting to be unearthed as you solve other environmental puzzles. Figuring out how to summon all the pillars in each area and solve all their puzzle boxes is the key to making your way through The Pillar.
Those puzzle boxes are the main attraction in The Pillar, making up the majority of the puzzles you’re faced with and also delivering the most interesting brain-teasers to solve. There are a few different varieties, but they tie in to a common theme of filling in blocks on a grid to form specific patterns. Some have you trying to draw links between pairs of like-coloured squares, so that the whole grid gets filled in without any overlapping. Some mark a starting point, from which you have to draw a continuous line through all the remaining squares, again without any overlapping, and with some squares blocked out to make the solution trickier to find. Such puzzles never get especially challenging—though The Pillar draws clear inspiration from The Witness, it’s far from being as devious—but they’re satisfying to solve all the same.
Other puzzles are less about logical problem-solving and more about memory: the puzzle box will quickly show you a series of patterns being drawn across the grid, which you then have to re-create. These are where The Pillar can get frustrating, with the later iterations of this puzzle often asking you to memorise three or four different patterns in a row, each one relatively complex and displayed only briefly, and then reproduce them all flawlessly.
That’s all well and good if your memory is up to the challenge, but if not—mine sure isn’t—there isn’t really any way to solve these. You either just brute force your way through by watching the demo over and over again memorising the patterns by rote, or you keep a notepad handy so you can quickly scribble down the patterns and use that as a reference. Neither option is particularly satisfying, but brute force can be especially tiresome.
And yet, that frustration tends to be short-lived. Everything from the vibrant low-poly scenery and peaceful musical score to the colourful visual design of the puzzle boxes themselves feeds into a near-constant state of serenity in The Pillar. Those moments of frustration, acute though they are, disappear as soon as the puzzle is solved, leaving you to return to the calm that pervades the rest of the game. And for every memory puzzle there’s a half dozen of the more logic-driven ones, with their own intrinsic sense of satisfaction adding to the overall peaceful atmosphere.
Beyond the puzzle boxes at the game’s core, The Pillar regularly mixes things up with a variety of environmental puzzles—looking for hidden clues to combination locks, bouncing beams of light off rotating pedestals, figuring out the right order to press a series of buttons, and so on. They’re not as deep or creative as the puzzle boxes, but they make a nice rest from the “main” puzzles that help keep those ones fresh, too.
The one exception is the final puzzle in the whole game, which is one of the most obnoxious things I’ve seen in a while. It’s a large, relatively complex maze—one that wouldn’t be too tricky when looked at from above, only The Pillar has you working through it in first-person. With a pulsing, intermittent light source that would make it hard to keep track of your surroundings even when you’re not fumbling your way through a maze. The final goal remains constantly visible, but if anything, that only serves as a constant source of misdirection from the winding, indirect path the maze inevitably takes. For a game that’s at its best when it lets you just unwind, and mostly understands how relaxing a well-designed puzzle can be, it’s an awful note for The Pillar to end on.
That final level aside, The Pillar: Puzzle Escape is a great way to just shut out the world and unwind for a few hours. Its colourful world, soothing music, and puzzles that, for the most part, manage to be satisfying without being overly taxing make for a chill, relaxing game.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.