99 is the Loneliest Number
When you're playing Fortnite or PUBG, things can feel pretty desolate. Even with dozens of other players around you, there's a lot of walking about with nobody in sight, distant gunshots being the only indication that you're not alone. Of course, the contrast to this is that the scale, combined with the one-life-per-game mechanic, can lead to some of the most thrilling skirmishes to be had in a modern shooter, creating a duality of the highest highs and the lowest lows. Tetris 99 tries to transplant this concept to the game that ended the Cold War*, but far too much ends up lost in translation.
The basics are the gold standard that Tetris games of the past have established: you can drop tetrominoes immediately, store a piece in reserve, and perform t-spins to slot pieces into trickier spaces. Everything feels and plays just as it should, but the battle royale twist complicates things a bit. Like most competitive puzzle games, clearing lines will send garbage lines to other players that push up their board and make things more difficult, but since you're competing against 98 other players, you have a choice in who to target. Using either analog stick, you can decide to target a specific player or put four different groups in your crosshairs: random opponents, players close to losing, those attacking you, and players with badges. As you knock other players out of the running, you slowly earn badges (including any that your victims may have had), which increase the amount of garbage lines you can send by up to double. This all puts a bit of strategy into playing the game, at least in theory.
Unfortunately, these features rarely come together well, and the game never truly captures the feeling of scale that other battle royale games do. Sure, things can sometimes feel hectic as you catch glimpses of players throwing garbage back and forth, but since you're, you know, playing Tetris, it's hard to focus on anything other players are doing. Even when you're knocking players out yourself, the lack of meaningful feedback combined with the pace and entrancing nature of a traditional game of Tetris makes it easy to lose sight of anything but incoming garbage, including which players you should be targeting. I've found that it's best to go for KOs when your board is in a good place and ward off attackers when it's not (going for players with badges if you're feeling frisky), but the sheer amount of random factors means any success achieved through targeting players is almost incidental. Despite having a ranking system, there's no rhyme or reason to matchmaking, so Grand Masters can be matched up with rank 1 players that have "mom" or "dad" as their online handle. Being able to target random players also means that, regardless of your station in-game, you can be singled out and ganged up on for no particular reason, sometimes even at the start of a game. The player count alone turns Tetris 99 into a bit of a mess by default, but these mechanics push things over the edge, too often amounting to an experience that—even with 98 rivals—feels like you're just playing Tetris in a void, with success and failure determinant on whichever way the wind blows. It's true that it can be exhilarating should you end up in a 1-on-1 showdown with another player, but the game's finest moments coming at a point where it most resembles a traditional versus match held in any other Tetris game is more damning than anything.
The game is also pretty light on features. This is a rare Tetris game where you can't just sit down and play a classic round without any gimmicks, leaving you with nothing to do without a WiFi connection. There's a statistics screen, but it doesn't track your improvements on a game-by-game basis, instead hosting a fairly standard list of grand totals and single-game records. It's normally something I don't care too much about, but analytics like knowing your average finishing position would give it more of a rewarding feedback loop similar to the multiplayer shooters that inspired the game's battle royale gimmick.
It might sound like I'm really tearing into Tetris 99, but it's still a Tetris at heart, so it's not like that itch isn't scratched. There's as sound of a foundation as you can ask for, it's just unfortunate that the battle royale flavor of the game feels a little undercooked. There's definite potential here, and it can hook you in no different from any other decent Tetris game, but barring a sequel or a series of updates, you're left with a hollow novelty. It's ultimately worth a look considering the price, but it's hard to stick with it when recent games like Puyo Puyo Tetris and Tetris Effect manage to do so much more with the franchise's seven pieces.
[*Tetris did not end the Cold War.]