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‘Inbento’ gives food for thought

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Inbento
Inbento on iOS.

Less than a mile from where we live is a place called Little Tokyo. This Japanese American fabric of Downtown Los Angeles is home to a robust community, history, and restaurants aplenty. You can stop by a number of these multi-generational restaurants and partake in a classic Japanese meal: bento boxes. They are humble, modular vehicles for rice, fish, and veggies (both fresh and pickled). Each bento is an extension of love from the chef to their patrons. Playing Inbento reminded me of these boxed lunches–curated with care from these local businesses. 

Inbento is a grid-based, bento-themed, puzzle game where the goal is to match an incomplete or mismatching box to the one shown. You are given limited choices in filling gaps, swapping pieces, and replacing items–leading to a reverse riddle of operations similar to Sudoku or crossword puzzles. As your little kitten avatar grows up into an independent young adult cat, the bentos that you put together become less straight-forward, and multiple mechanics are juggled simultaneously.

Inbento is a cute game with a lot going on under the hood. The graphic design is bold, instructive, and effective, communicating its gameplay step-by-step like a recipe book. The music that is present is piano-centric and child-like. The simple melodies composed by Rafał Samborski go in circles and get lodged in your brain, much like the melodies of a music box. As the levels get more difficult, the game tutors you seamlessly whenever it introduces a new mechanic. Before you know it, you’ll be deciphering salmon roe and tamago like no tomorrow.

After hours playing this game, you can feel how confident the designers were in their mechanics. Everything seems to work out and the satisfaction of boxing another meal, with squishy sushi sound effects and all, contends with the best catharsis of any good puzzle game. While I was playing on the Switch, I could easily see people playing Inbento on their commutes and breaks on the go.

Inbento
In-game still.

But this by no means is a dime-a-dozen Bejeweled clone either. Later levels pose a significant threat to your time, pride, and sanity. The option to play a couple levels ahead is a welcome addition as well, and is a feature that feels like a no-brainer to future contemporaries. By World 8, the training wheels are completely off. I wish I could tell you that I was clever enough to have beat the game at the time of this review, but alas I am no bento Iron Chef yet. Curse you 10-6. Curse you.

But while Inbento exceeds at simplicity, the game suffers at times by being too lean on some features. The difficulty scaling cannot be ignored. The game is a struggle to play later, which is too bad because the small world that 7 Levels built here is wonderful, and it would be great to experience it outside of the puzzles. A simple hint feature would have alleviated this inconvenience. Having difficulty tethered to canon in this way makes the game inaccessible to a younger demographic or for folks that just want to spend more time with Inbento in a more narrative way. A music test or soundtrack mode would have also been welcome to more freely enjoy the charming tracklist.

Your preference for puzzle games will determine whether or not Inbento is for you, but you may be sucked in and then later frustrated that the world the game teases you into is gated by your own aptitude. There should be a healthy argument of whether or not puzzle games should be critiqued on their accessibility. Beyond that for now, Inbento is a good time, and not a long one. Just like the bentos you painstakingly concoct, Inbento is a snack; woefully small, but grateful to have had.

This version of Inbento was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch.

Inbento is developed by 7 Levels and is available on the Google Play Store, the App Store, and Nintendo Switch.

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