When Tetris was unleashed upon the world in the late 80s, the action-puzzle genre was born. The game’s abstract simplicity and the player’s battle against ever-increasing tension proved an addictive formula, and even opened up games to a non-core audience; to this day, people who don’t play video games will happily play Tetris. A style of game that has a broader audience than the usual “kids and nerds” demographic is something that game companies are not likely to ignore, and over the years, there have been countless knockoffs and adaptations of the falling-block theme, as well as successful variations on the form, such as Klax, Dr. Mario, Puzzle Bobble, and Money Puzzle Exchanger.

These days, though, puzzle games aren’t really considered material for major releases, and with the exception of the occasional breakout hit like Bejeweled are usually either cheap licensed Flash games or a beginner’s programming project. So it’s heartening to see games like Bombastic keep the action-puzzle flame alive by offering spatial manipulation challenges on a contemporary gaming platform. It’s just a shame the game isn’t very good.

The core mechanics of Bombastic aren’t as difficult to understand as they are to describe. Your character runs over a field of dice, rolling them as it goes. When adjoining dice show the same number on top, they ignite and then explode. It takes two adjacent dice showing a 2-dot face to ignite, three of a 3-dot face, etc., so blowing up a set of 6-dot dice takes a bit of work. Exploding dice will shoot flames out, Bomberman-style, causing a chain reaction in any nearby dice of the same value or one lower. Higher points are scored by keeping the chain of explosions running, either by lining up dice or by running on ignited dice to set up further combos before they blow. It sounds like a total mess, but it’s not hard to figure out once you start playing the game.

Actually, I take that back — it is a total mess. The actual act of rolling a die so that it’s in the right place with the right face showing is something I had a hard time getting the hang of, and it doesn’t help that there is rarely enough room to maneuver in the crowded field. After a few minutes of struggling, though, I realized that the matching game was really secondary, and the way to keep the chain going (and my score increasing) was to simply set up a simple explosion, and then quickly roll one of the ignited dice to 6 before it blew. The subsequent chain reactions easily lasted long enough for me to set up another little combo and chain. Repeat ad nauseum. After putting up with this for 45 minutes without a single break, I finally got so bored that I just let myself get blown up.

The game’s Quest Mode is more successful, since it takes the focus off the drudgery of combos and chains, and puts it onto finding solutions to static puzzles, many of which are quite cleverly designed. It helps that the art design is unflinchingly cute, as the “little devils with angel faces” go off on a journey to find their grandfather, who is probably also adorable. The only problems with this mode are in the nigh-unplayable boss fights, a couple of which are completely unbeatable except through endurance and luck.

Where most action-puzzle games are about finding or creating order amidst encroaching chaos, Bombastic seems to embrace chaos itself, favoring a random and confused style of play over the simplicity that a Tetris or a Bejeweled provide. Playing those games could be compared to raking sand in a Zen garden or walking a labyrinth; playing Bombastic is like herding sheep on a minefield.