As some readers may know, my family and I are huge fans of Toca Boca - on a short list of app developers that, if I did not have the privilege of reviewing applications, would buy their digital games sight unseen, based on their stellar history.
Because of this, I would like to expressly explain that Toca Boca’s new app, Toca Builders, is quite different from their previous apps which have been utterly intuitive and creative open-ended role-playing digital toys for all ages, including the youngest app users as they pretend to play activities such as tea party, store or restaurant.
Toca Builders is quite a different experience, geared towards 5+, a building app that transports players into completely open areas to build on, styled like a vast, empty island, as water, the reflection of one's builds and rarely even fish jumping can be seen if one looks over the edge of this island, a point of view that I find quite captivating. There are also partially build scenes that one may come across when starting a new scene such as a forest or a port that do a nice job of giving users a partially built world one can add on to, jogging my creativity to add more related structures like a tree house or other smaller boats that I have tried my hand at building.
The actual game play is charming as it is engaging as players find themselves alone on this island with builders - robots as my son likes to call them - as they perform the construction and painting as they are being controlled by the user.
Instead of stacking Legos or building a structure by hand, imagine doing so with the aid of a Da Vinci Surgical Robot, using controls that in turn move the arms of a robot which then stacks the blocks in question, making the experience as much about the process of building as the outcome created, as here one must select the correct builder to perform tasks that one may take for granted while building with blocks by hand.
Users will delight in the sheer creativity of how these characters perform their tasks, and do note that one can change the vantage point seen with the movement of two fingers on the screen to see the world created at every angle - a wonderful, necessary detail that I find quite interesting.
Four of these builders partake in the construction with building tasks broken down into one per character.
There is Blox, who lays down the first layer of bricks and also delights in smashing bricks in his path that are in his reach up to three bricks high. The sight of Blox smashing bricks is utterly satisfying, with minute details included such as a puff of brick dust seen with each smash, as are smaller pieces of rubble that disappear, adding to the richness that one would expect from Toca Boca.
Vex is the go-to character who enjoys stacking blocks up to six blocks high and is a great character to create walls or other 3D structures. I adore his ability to jump over blocks in his path as well as his ability to jump from the blocks he has stacked on his way to continue building.
Stretch is a builder built on an accordion hinge that can be raised or lowered to allow this character to reach up and place a brick anywhere including directly off the ground in a way that defies gravity, as well to smash bricks in her upwards path.
Connie is a crane-like builder who can pick up and move any brick - great for block removal as well as adding blocks to structures, but be aware that Connie does not produce her own blocks; she must build with found bricks from other sources. I do enjoy her ability to run like a four-legged spider or crab, moving in a choice of any direction.
I also love to watch where these first three characters produce their bricks, be it from a backpack-like device, having a brick drop from one’s lower half as if laying an egg, or popping out of the head of stretch. I have really enjoyed each of these delightful details a great deal to say the least.
Two painting builders are also available to work: Cooper, who loves to paint the ground while rolling on a marble controlled by a track ball that players move with a finger, and Jum-Jum, who is great at spray painting all surfaces, including all angles of three-dimensional shapes created by other builders.
Jum-Jum as a character is uniquely stationary. One controls where the spray or paint will land, aiming the paint shot instead of moving this builder - a mild issue as Jum-Jum can’t be moved out of the way of other builders or structures under construction.
Although I would not calling the controlling of these builders as intuitive as, say the serving of cake seen in Toca Tea Party, children of the target age of five and up and their adults will be able to figure this gameplay out - a learning curve as challenging as the building itself.
Each of these characters has the ability to face all directions as users may pull a lever that turns the builder to the right or left, ultimately rotating in a full circle if a player chooses. After tapping to have the builder face the direction in which to walk, another button pressed starts the builder on his way - either in a slow, deliberate, block-by-block fashion or having the character run with abandon by holding the button down. Sometimes the track ball is used instead to control the builders as they scurry around.
A very nice variety of colors is available to choose from in terms of painting the blocks, ground, or with Jum-Jum’s trunk-like sprayer. I also admire the ability to move these characters around the screen, with their painting or brick-building turned off to better position these creatures before beginning their work.
This app, aside from its obvious creativity, is excellent for problem-solving in terms of how to make these very differently functioning robot-like creations work together to build projects devised by the user.
As one can imagine, the building possibilities are endless as are the brick pieces one has access to.
My five year old son can spend a good deal of time working with this app, keeping him utterly quiet as he paints and constructs. He has shared, however, his disappointment with the fact that each block is the same size and can be stacked only in the linear fashion of one on top of the other, as if his bucket of blocks at home were fast in terms of colors and sheer amount, yet were all square - a disappointment as my son enjoys different types of triangles, cylinders, arches and other architectural blocks a great deal.
For me too, it is the lack of curved edges that gives me momentary pause, as there is a harshness which comes from consistent use of right angles seen during our builds.
Also of note is the ability to build only six blocks high, creating a specific scale as this is how high a building can be built. This being the case, each block is 1/6 of a single story building, making it difficult to create small details such as wild flowers or a garden to scale, as well as make larger multi-story structures impossible. The resolution of images painted on the floor of these worlds can also look as if they lack resolution, especially if trying to create a curved edge - a pet peeve of mine that many will not be distracted by.
Working with Toca Builder, my mind wandered to the movie Silent Running starring Bruce Dern where Dern plays a botanist in charge of taking care of the Earth’s remaining vegetation while traveling through space, alongside his trusted service robots whom Dern has anthropomorphized. Although not the only character in this film, the scenes that still play in my mind are those of stark isolation as Dern is all alone except for his robot helper companions working together to maintain the plants on board - moments that I found fascinating yet painfully lonely.
To me, this Toca Builders app seems a little lonely as well, as one builds what amounts to a ghost town of sorts, as no other characters exist in which to interact with what has been built. Sure, the builders are cute to watch as they move about, but they are not substitutions for other characters that one could possibly build or articulate, and my son was disappointed not to be able to build a car to drive on the road that he created. I am happy to say that upbeat music is heard while during this app, hampering the lonely tone that I sometimes feel, which I am thankful for.
There have also been times that the bureaucracy of having to choose the correct builder to move a brick becomes too much for me, as I would rather drag a piece to its rightful place or remove a brick in my build with the drag of a finger.
Even with these notes, the endless amount of choices one is offered is never-ending and hugely impressive, an app that asks much of its users in terms of focus, making this a great app to look into for home as well as school environments.