Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Quick Review of Quarrel

QuarrelAbout time I started reviewing proper console games, eh? Quarrel, released yesterday for XBLA (earlier on iOS), is a word/strategy hybrid game that plays like a mix of the Letters rounds on Countdown and the board game Risk. The goal of the game is to capture the entire map through a series of battles. Rather than using dice, you use letters. Eight letters are given (for which there is at least one perfect anagram); your goal is to make the highest-scoring single word from those letters, hopefully higher than your opponent's selection. The twist is that the length of your word is limited to however many men are in your attacking/defending territory, so actually playing the vicious 8-letter anagram rarely happens. If you get the higher-scoring word, you successfully capture your opponent's territory (or block their advance if you're defending).

Quarrel comes packed in a tremendously entertaining world, almost parodying itself with how seriously silly the game is (such as the over-the-top DUN-DUN-DAAAAAH music sting when a player's last territory is targeted). The subtle humor of the atmosphere of the game is played up perfectly between the tense "hope my word is good enough" moments. While the gameplay is certainly fun (at least for a word game freak like myself), I can't help but feel the strategic side of the game is a bit screwy. I don't know if comebacks are readily possible when each game is small enough to begin with (I think the standard formula is 4 territories per player); the somewhat linear shapes of the boards might not help this issue at all. That's not to say it's impossible to have upset moments, like a territory of 3 defending itself against an attacker of 8 (not that I'm bragging), but the winner sometimes becomes a little too obvious too early on.

Still, it's nice to have a strategy game like this that uses skill more than it does luck. I feel like when I lose a territory, it's actually my fault, rather than trying to pin the blame on bad dice. Close games can still be quite tense, especially when a tied round goes to whoever submitted their word first. The game knows when to tease you that little bit longer, just to make the reveal of the win/loss all the more amazing. Plus, the word list in this game is comfortably large, and the AI players have a pretty good range of difficulties between them. At a pleasantly low 400MSP ($5), I'd wholeheartedly recommend Quarrel.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Killing Two Birds with One Stone, Four Magic Stars, a Fire Gem, and a Partridge in a Pear Tree

Remember that console rundown I promised last time? It might actually happen soon! Or not! All I can really say is that when Steam sales happen, I tend to buy things. I'm human, you know. As part of my spoils, I ended up buying a couple of games that I've had my eye on for quite some time, but couldn't be bothered to get because they weren't on sale before. After a while, you'd think I'd spring for a banner for the top of this blog that says "cheapest reviewer on earth", but then again, I'd have to shop around first.

The first of these two games was Bejeweled 3. Yes, that Bejeweled. (And I suppose by extension, yes, that 3.) I probably don't need to go over the rules of how to play match-3 games, so I'll cut to the chase and say it's lacking something. You've got Classic mode, where you try to keep making matches until you can't make anymore (which is to say, let a random number generator decide when you stop playing), a Zen mode wherein one can play non-stop while being awkwardly pelted with subliminal messages and mind-altering sound waves, and about twenty different variations on the speed mode. The quest mode houses a number of these, and I've got to say, it's a really disappointing smattering of minigames. It's got only 40 levels to play through, compared to the 100 or so back in the days of Bejeweled Twist. Within about four hours of all playtime, I had already unlocked every mode available in the game, beaten the quest, and received half of the achievements, most of which simply stack on one another (clear 500 whatnots, clear 1000 of the same whatnots, etc.). All in all, it's a disappointing showing.

I do have to give thumbs up to the at least partially-entertaining Poker and Diamond Mine modes. The latter, shown here, is one of those speed levels where you have to clear gems adjacent to dirt to dig through them to go deeper. The Poker mode has you making five-gem "hands", by clearing gems in a certain order to put them on your cards. Both take a bit of strategy to play well, but they also make you realize how much the random number generator hates you. In every game mode (except for Classic), gems fall onto the board such that there's always at least one possible move. Sometimes, that's nowhere near where you want to go. Sometimes, it sets up a never-ending combo that keeps clearing over and over again. No joke, in the game pictured above, I nearly lost on the very first round because three gems of the same color kept falling into place on the right edge of the board, over and over again, while I was left with no move elsewhere and couldn't advance the game (what a time for crummy behavior, right when the blogger is writing about it!). It's instances like this that make the random number generator that chooses the gems for you seem really poorly-designed.

With very little added on to previous titles, and many things feeling broken, I just can't positively recommend Bejeweled 3. Then again, it's also somewhat unfair comparing it to semi-related titles like Twist, where the mechanics worked differently in so many ways. Then again, you're probably playing manly games like Skyrim instead of this, so what do you care anyway.

If you're still with me for some reason, the second game I wanted to share with you is Clickr. Rather than being a match-3 game, Clickr is best described as a match-4-plus-others game, if that makes any sense. You're given a grid with a colored squares, mostly red, blue, and green, plus stars which are wild and stones which are domestica blockers. Clicking any colored square will remove it from the grid, and gravity will drop the pieces above it down. When you create a 2x2 square of any piece, you can click it to remove it from the board, along with similarly-colored pieces of the same color.

Too complex? Try this: Just click until things happen. Unfortunately, for a game that finally takes a novel approach to matching and clearing tiles, the rewards for good play don't seem balanced enough. Clearing consecutive combos without stumbling seems to give bonuses on a curve so flat you'd be better off just playing clicking furiously rather than strategizing. Note that I said "furiously" rather than "randomly", because the game is still complex enough that it requires some thought, but too much and the game just bogs down.

Now that I've gotten my biggest complaint about Clickr out of the way up front, what of the rest of the game then? There are four modes to choose from, two puzzley clear-the-items-to-meet-a-certain-requirement modes, plus two clear-things-to-attack-your-opponent modes. (Actually, I guess there are five modes if you count the multiplayer mode, but I haven't tried that yet.) These modes all seem to be connected through a currency system that seems to be just as unforgiving as the combo system for good play. In playing the game, you can earn a handful (maybe five or so) of "cubes", but you get 100 every time you fulfill an in-game achievement, most of which are just things that you do while naturally playing, or worse, spending those same cubes to unlock new modes.

Despite a similar brokenness to the mechanics of Bejeweled 3, Clickr still seems to have some good entertainment value to it, even if only because of the chipper graphics and sound effects (think Yosumin, if you can remember that far back). Don't quote me on this, but I'd guess that I'll probably play more Clickr than Bejeweled 3 from this point in, though they'll both have to be wedged between the many awesome console games I'll be reviewing! Or not!