Looking at its trailer, Chained seemed to have everything I could’ve asked for in a short puzzle game on Nintendo Switch. Between a gameplay system that’s easy to learn, yet hard to master and an interesting story hook to motivate the mechanics, I was greatly looking forward to giving this a whirl. Though the final product wound up lacking slightly in some areas, I still had a fantastic time with Studio Digital Caffeine’s console debut, and I’m greatly looking forward to seeing what else the team can do down the line.
The beginning of Chained immediately brings to mind the cult classic film Office Space. A new machine-learning AI security system named Scout has been gaining popularity in the financial market and has put protagonist Cole out of work. In an act of revenge, Cole begins to hack into the systems he once protected, stealing fractions of dollars at a time in order to expose vulnerabilities in Scout and put its creators out of business. But things quickly spiral out of his control when a pair of sisters suddenly show up and blackmail him into providing shelter.
The story Chained presents isn’t anything to write home about, but it doesn’t feel like it’s meant to take a leading role here. Instead, it’s here to motivate the gameplay mechanics. I still would’ve liked to have seen a bit more to the story though, as it’s largely predictable and ended practically right in the climax. Extending the story even a little bit could have helped tremendously.
While the story is a little lacking, the gameplay more than makes up for it. Chained is centered around a simple concept. You are given a random string of numbers from 0 to 9, and your goal is to shift these digits one step at a time to make a connected chain of consecutive numerals. These chains could be completely ascending, completely descending, or a mixture of the two. You’re given a set number of moves in which to make as many chains as possible, with each one earning you a bit of cash and extra moves.
Of course, Scout stands between you and total dominance. Scout’s primary function is to trace your hacks. If you stay in the program too long, the trace will complete and you’ll be kicked out with nothing to show for it. By completing chains, you also attack Scout and eventually can disable it temporarily. It is only when these moments line up with the brief window between chains that you can safely escape with your earnings, making for a great risk/reward system.
In addition to tracing you, Scout can also attempt to be a nuisance by attacking your chains. These attacks can range from reversing your controls on a single number to locking it in place. Thankfully, these attacks are introduced over time as Scout learns to deal with your repeated attacks. Given that your objectives each chapter generally involve completing the same task in higher quantities, this is one of the few ways Chained makes you feel like you’re progressing. For the most part, you can easily manage attacks, but the attacks in which numbers can get locked can occasionally leave you unable to complete the chain if you don’t plan around it.
You aren’t completely left out to dry against these attacks, however. Partway through the story, you’ll gain the ability to purchase upgrades that can help in your fight. Two of these are passive abilities that let you earn more money per chain, in addition to reducing the trace meter per chain. The other two abilities are active powers, allowing you to reduce the trace meter by a large amount once per hack and to instantly complete a chain as long as you have charges towards it. These powers can be upgraded with the cash you earn, making them more effective as you progress.
As much fun as I had solving these puzzles, I have a few minor complaints here. First, I found that the difficulty was a little on the easier side for me, even in the final chapters. In one late chapter, I was able to complete 94 chains in a single hack pretty easily due to an increasingly high move count and my ability to keep the trace meter practically at zero for a large portion of the hack.
My other real complaint is that I found it hard to figure out how much cash I was earning each hack. In theory, the feedback from the game I was receiving should’ve been enough to accurately figure out my takeaway, yet I almost always wound up with an amount I wasn’t expecting. This isn’t to say the game is necessarily wrong, since there could be factors behind the scenes that go into that calculation. I just would’ve appreciated a bit more clarity in what that calculation is.
Overall though, these complaints are pretty minor and didn’t do much to detract from the overall experience Chained provided me with. Over my roughly three-and-a-half hours, I had an absolute blast with the game. The core gameplay mechanic seems like such a simple concept, yet Studio Digital Caffeine found a way to make it incredibly engaging. If you’re into short puzzle games, Chained is definitely worth a try.
A review code was provided by the publisher.