Cipher Zero isn’t giving away much — almost like it doesn’t even want you there to begin with. Its main gameplay interface is minimal, devoid of detail outside of the focal puzzles and occasional scattering of digital noise. The only feedback being on whether you’ve solved the puzzle, or haven’t — an affirmative jingle for success, a jolt-like buzz complete with a glow of orange, if you haven’t. Your reward for solving said puzzle? More puzzles and not just through that same template of grid-based squares amid an endless black void, but on top, the digitized landscapes that accompany your journey. Something to inquire over or merely a cosmetic backdrop to break the prior minimalism apart?
Developer Zapdot’s iteration on rule-based, deciphering of such grids, strips all unnecessary details out of its delivery. No dialogue, no direct narrative, no suggestion that these puzzles serve some otherwise grander delivery waiting to pounce further down the line. Albeit none that are easy to spot. Cipher Zero is a cold, blunt, often apathetic kind of puzzle game — a series of events stripped down to their most logical and mechanical of baselines. Giving so little away and proving entirely unapologetic about it in the process. Which, funnily enough — in a kind of ironic twist of fate — makes something like Cipher Zero an altogether more inviting prospect.
Aided of course by the smart and well-timed introduction of new elements and rules to work out, Cipher Zero‘s almost antithetical approach to presentation is an alluring one. A reflection of the original incarnation over on itch.io perhaps — which you can still access and try out — but in this latest build, presents a brand of minimalism that gives just as much/little away, but whose cyberspace-esque aesthetic unravels in such a way that one can’t help but assume something else is afoot here. As noted, such inquiries on the level-select backdrops may prove fruitless. But even if that is the case, on a purely gameplay/puzzle-solving front, Cipher Zero demonstrates enough wit and knowledge in crafting an ideal difficulty curve to keep that curiosity on just how “complex” these seemingly-simple 3×3 or 4×4 grids can be.
Thus, the fact Zapdot manage to spice things up in delightfully-tricky ways — with little more than a grid of squares — even in the early periods is a testament to just how well designed the puzzles are amid these rows and columns of squares. Or as the case may be, how in certain situations, specific cells and entire rows/columns are taken out. The general premise in Cipher Zero being to work out which squares in a given grid have to be enabled or activated so as to satisfy the criteria presented. What the criteria dictates is not only varied but in Cipher Zero‘s case, given little explanation. Devoid of much explanation as to what constitutes a valid or invalid input. And even when the game presents a handful of introductory, tutorial-esque puzzles to get you accustomed to the new rules, similar to something like The Witness, it’s just as likely players may accidentally stumble into success without properly understanding how they did it.
But again, just like the infamous 2016 game revolving around something as simple and mundane as drawing lines, Cipher Zero‘s equally simplistic involvement on activating/deactivating certain squares remains just as stimulating and just as satisfying to work out. Doubly so when you find yourself in that very predicament. Accessing a stage’s latter puzzles without properly understanding what the trick or the gimmick is…until you do. A later example something which again occurred in one’s own case. Singular dots placed about the grid — an entirely different shape to the lines and diamonds of previous. Early efforts defined by that same accidental stumbling into success until, at last, the trick reveals itself. Or at least…you think it has. Because that’s part of the reason why the variety of puzzle mechanics here works as well as it does. More than just the variety in of itself, but too that assumption of deduction. An assumption that may well prove to be incorrect further down the line, as Cipher Zero requires you to work around two — maybe even more than that — elements at the same time.
Surprise in how far a concept is pushed is always a key and defining factor to any great puzzle game. How any title can take to a premise, build on it and even break from out the conventions it tricks its players into assuming — creating a series of conundrums that may well not be so clear-cut to begin with, but whose rules to solve remain the most tempting aspect of it all. Cipher Zero is very much a game all about dictating its own rules and nothing else. Its minimalist presentation, absentee nature and basic progression could lead to some grand revelation later on or it might not. But at the very least, Zapdot are already proving even in the early stages that it needn’t take some grand canvas to craft a puzzle game as potentially stimulating and as varied as this may be. Once upon a time, I was shocked that something as simple as drawing lines could lead to something special. Perhaps Zapdot have gone one further: the simple act of turning squares on and off ends up instilling a similar response.