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Into The Spine of: Grindstone

A different time.

Idon’t usually feel FOMO about platform exclusive games. I’d love to play Fable 2 someday, mind you, but I’ve always found my way around these imaginary backlogs throughout the years. Seeing Grindstone as part of the Apple Arcade lineup as an Android user, however, felt different. Capy Games’ catalogue always had a certain charm, and it was present here as well. I thought that if there was a studio that could make an interesting spin on the three-match genre, it had to be this one. And I wasn’t wrong.

I started playing it on December 15th when it launched on Switch, which now feels like a lifetime ago, and the initial presentation was enchanting. The snow covering the rooftops and windows of the tower, all sorts of vibrant decorations within those spaces. It was a cozy atmosphere that immediately grabbed me, despite the fact that in this side of the world Christmas always takes place in the Summer.

This was also the time where I had told myself I would actually take a couple weeks of rest for the first time in… forever. All my previous holidays and trips had always involved work in some way. And if they didn’t, I’d often be the one compensating that with deadlines. But I needed a full stop after what had been a tough year in several ways. So I played Grindstone almost every single day during the following weeks.

As I was finishing the last few bits of work left before starting my staycation, I started building a routine of sorts that was unexpected at the time. As a full time freelancer, lunch time can be anywhere from 10 minutes to a couple hours, depending on the day. It’s usually the former, but I’ve been getting better at it since the start of the year. Grindstone was a great help to establish that pause on my everyday routine. I knew I could sneak in a couple levels during that time. And so I did, time and time again, as my enjoyment kept growing stronger with each victory and unlocked item.

The foundation is simple. Your job is to kill as many enemies as needed in each level, grab the gem, and make your escape. You do so by matching the same color of enemies to perform a streak chain, and if you’re lucky, you will stumble upon a gem that allows you to change colors on the fly and push that number even further. You can take as long as you need to plan this ahead. It’s only when you’re ready that you can press a button and see your strategy come together, as the main character rushes and slices swiftly through the helpless fiends in a gruesome, engaging way.

Levels become more complex over time, of course, but I was able to stand my ground for a while. I would usually try and get everything from a level before leaving (sometimes there’s a chest that requires a key being held by an enemy, for example), but I wasn’t letting it stop me from progressing further. I knew there were hundreds of levels ahead of me, so why the rush? I could just go back to previous areas at any time and try again.

I think my encounter with the first boss also marked the first time I felt truly challenged by the game. I had learned the basics and even mastered some of the early mechanics, but this was an obstacle worth defying. I went back to a couple levels to gather more loot and build tools (there are special attacks and even potions that you can bring with you, but usually have a hefty crafting cost) to better prepare myself. And I eventually beat it, which felt great. Grindstone had just started. I had a whole holiday ahead of me. And I had finally made a routine for myself, finding that “lunch game” folks often gush about.

This followed me onto the new year, but I knew that my staycation had a due date thanks to a couple commissions from December. I was incredibly fortunate of this, of course, especially since January tends to be a quiet month in this line of work. But having all that free time to myself was liberating — despite the fact that the pandemic hadn’t gone anywhere.

All the while, Grindstone began to turn harder than I expected. I shouldn’t have been surprised given it’s in the name, but some levels demanded quite a bit of grinding to get through. There were a couple times where I was able to escape by a scratch, but I inevitably had to return to those areas again sooner than later. It’s the expected pace of a game that could have easily had microtransactions like the many in the genre that came before it. While I did get through dozens of levels despite the increase in difficulty, time began to run out, and my old ways came back.

Losing touch with this routine is something that pains me to this day. In other circumstances I’m certain I could have kept on going, but once work returned, other responsibilities, life changes, and unexpected things started happening. New years tend to bring all of this. But I wasn’t quite ready to let that brief, yet memorable period of my life go so soon.

Grindstone has been on my mind since — not just because this review was way overdue, but because I haven’t been able to replicate that period again. I’ve had some quiet weeks and even quieter weekends as I continue to work on my bad habits and take better care of myself, trying to ignore how the world continues to go to shit at every possible turn. As I’m typing this we’re about to enter a strict quarantine period yet again as Covid cases have risen exponentially in the last month. It’s supposed to last for only a couple days. But I heard the same thing last year when all of this began. At least vaccines are a real thing now, but appointments won’t start happening until the second half of the year for folks like me.

My personal life has taken many turns since my staycation, too. It’s one of the best years I’ve ever had. And it’s also one of the worst years I’ve ever had. Along with getting some rest, my free time always go to other responsibilities. I barely leave the house either. And time becomes even more finite than before.

Grindstone is a clever and wonderful game, but I was a fool for believing that it would always be easy. Nothing ever is. That period of my life I sorely miss might as well have been a mere illusion, and there is no way to go back to it and experience it all again. But I believe I can still salvage that routine. I can try and make it a part of my own once more. At the very least, it will serve as a reminder of a time when things were less monotonous.

By Diego Nicolás Argüello

Founder and EIC of Into The Spine. Probably procrastinating on Twitter right now. Talk to him about pinballs, Persona, and The Darkness. @diegoarguello66

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