Gem Breaking Proves Supremely Addictive...Again
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Tasked to evaluate Bejeweled Twist, the much-anticipated and much-hyped latest sequel to the flag ship of Popcap's things-to-do-instead-of-anything-else-ever game fleet, there's something I have to get off my chest: I never played the original Bejeweled. I wanted to. Boy did I ever want to. But having spent such a large chunk of my tweens hopelessly addicted to Tetris, I was wary of the glittery game's wiles, knowing full well just how much time and melanin I could lose if I gave it a try "just for a few minutes." Armed with this wisdom, a little willpower, and an eighteen-credit semester, I was able to stay strong, meaning I can't today offer truly meaningful comparisons between Bejeweled Twist and its predecessors, except to observe that they are both shiny.
Did I say shiny? I meant VERY shiny. Shinier-than-an-emo-vampire shiny. Shiny and sparkly and explode-y-into-more-shiny-bits shiny. And, in general, I consider this a good thing. I have a deep and un-ironic love of shiny, and it's a feature of the game that the release materials touted proudly. Popcap went to great effort to create a graphics-rich game experience. Everything from the basic game pieces to the chain meter to the features between levels shimmer, scroll, glow, flash, simmer, or pulsate with well-rendered shine-osity. And as if that weren't enough, there's also a game attached!
Did I say game? I meant games. Probably the nicest piece of innovation in Bejeweled Twist, once you get past the glossy package, is the variety of game experiences offered around the basic game-play mechanic. The basic idea is the movement of gems around a board to create sets of 3 or more. The board is the standard (so I'm told) 8x8 square, holding gems of seven different colors. As in previous games, matching three gems makes them explode to be replaced by gems from above. Also as in previous incarnations, breaking gems makes points which fill a tube which determines when you get to go to the next level, doing certain feats of matching creates special gems that help enhance the gem-destroying process, breaking more gems in a "cascade" nets big points, etc. etc. etc.
The big "twist" is that you move gems by selecting a 2x2 square and rotating the four gems in it one space clockwise (always clockwise) rather than swapping two pieces at a time, and it's legal to make moves that don't create matches. There is also some variation in the special gems you can create. Four gems in a row makes a "Flame Gem" that destroys all adjacent gems if matched, five in a row makes a "Lightning Gem" that destroys everything in its row and column if matched, six or more in a row makes a "Supernova Gem" that destroys everything in its row and column as well as the two adjacent rows and columns, and maxing out the chain meter (see below) creates a "Fruit Gem" that removes all gems of its color from the board if matched and helps remove or lessen the danger of various unfriendly pieces. This basic dynamic is further broken down into "Classic," "Zen," "Blitz," and "Challenge" modes.
"Classic" gameplay starts as a skill-challenge and gradually escalates to a full-on crisis management style of play. In addition to standard gems, it begins introducing "bomb" gems with fewer and fewer numbers of turns you can take without matching them before they send you to the "disarm spinner" (more on that later), "doom" gems that only count down if you make non-matching moves but which are harder to destroy and immobile, "locked" gems that refuse to move until you match them, and "coal" which is ostensibly benign but doesn't match with anything and so begins to choke up the board if you're not careful to blow it up or move it out of the way.
There's a lot of fun and strategic thinking to be had in classic mode, but there are also some things that grate a bit (more on those when we discuss the disarm spinner). I find the escalation of difficulty from level to level a little steep. While the increase of bomb frequency, the decrease in the number of turns a bomb starts its countdown with, the increase in coal, and the decrease in time before locked gems and the doom gem show up in each level each ramp up slowly, collectively those small steps feel like big steps. But since a game of "Classic" that gets to level twenty or higher can easily take an hour, it makes sense err on the side of moving things along.
"Blitz" follows the same rules as "Classic" but on a five-minute timer and without the "doom" gems. It's a fun variant that deserved inclusion in the package, but there's not a lot to say about it other than that. It is my feeling that speed tests generally detract from the strategic quality of most puzzle games, but a lot of people find them enjoyable, so more power to 'em.
"Zen" is a sandbox-like, can't-lose mode where none of the hazards or limitations present in other modes show up to interrupt your gratuitous shiney-splodey fun. You do gain levels (up to 99) but even then your board setup is maintained so you don't lose anything you'd been working to arrange. This, to me, seems like a wonderful innovation on the basic formula, and the general gameplay is stimulating enough that it doesn't get boring. I wish more developers wanting to put out puzzle games that also include elements of time-pressure or other "kill you" elements would include such a sandbox mode. It gives a player room to be, well, playful for a change, as well as get a better grasp of the basic game dynamics.
"Challenge" is a set of thirteen mini-games with seven levels of difficulty apiece. Each game and level has a specific goal, like "destroy 18 gems in one move without lightning" or "keep 20 red gems on screen at the same time". Some have time-pressure and others are straight puzzles. There's a lot of variability in how complex, stimulating, or frustrating each set is, and it's likely that any given gamer will find some of the challenges too hard, too easy, or just not interesting, but there's a good variety and it's just as likely that everyone can find something that they like. Being primarily a puzzle person myself, I was a little disappointed that the boards you are given in the challenges are random rather than designed, but there's still good fun to be had there. I also found it disappointing that there was no acknowledgement from the game when I finally completed all 91 challenges, but ultimately I find that forgivable. Some of the challenges seemed genuinely bent on proving to me that I no longer possess the lemur-like reflexes of my youth, nor the capacity for obsessive focus deserving of a place on the autism spectrum that made me the reigning Tetris champion of my household back in the day. Overall the challenges lived up to the name well enough that defeating them felt like sufficient reward (though some dancing fruit would have been nice).
There is also a two-player "Battle Mode," but it requires each player to own a copy of the game, so I didn't test it.
If you enjoy shiny time-eaters and are able to get through the slightly-higher-than-average learning curve of the rotational motion, Bejeweled Twist is a decent investment. The interface and navigation are solid, the sound effects are well-integrated, and the music is pleasantly reminiscent of an old Eidos Interactive game called "Startopia." The solidly interesting basic mechanic and wide variety of play options make it a good bet that anyone who generally enjoys abstract puzzles games with a smattering of arcade-style action will find something to enjoy. There are some notable flaws, though, and if any of them fall into your personal pet-peeves, you may want to skip Bejeweled Twist until you can find it on the discount rack (or borrow it from a friend who is trying to quit it cold turkey). This brings us to griping about flaws.
The documentation has some significant holes. For a game that is purported to have been designed with a deeper strategic capacity for play in mind, the instructions you get on the details of the mechanics, both in the printed manual and the electronic tutorial, still seem to have been written for a fairly shallow "jump in and figure it out" game. I suppose you can pretend that finding the little rules they don't mention is just part of the puzzle. I didn't find anything to convince me that that was the intention, or anything that it added to the experience. It smacks of a failure to fully grow into the innovation in game-play depth that the developers stated as a goal.
The DS version shows some of the limitations of the platform.
Features available on the PC version (according to the Popcap documentation at http://www.popcap.com/faq/bejeweledtwist/1033/pc/readme.html#top ) were apparently pruned back to make the game fit onto the DS, and it doesn't seem like the developers always chose the most overall-experience-preserving places to make those cuts.
The flow of the graphics begins to slow down on the DS and shows flaws in the animation physics when there are five or more items on the board that require their own special effects (flame gems that sizzle, lightning gems that crackle, fruit gems that glisten, bomb gems that vibrate and so on). I never found a place where it actually hurt the game play substantively, but as I mentioned before, I'm not much of a speed-gamer, and in a game where there are some bonuses attached to making matches in quick succession, there's the possibility that such slow-downs could decrease enjoyment. I'm all for the shiny, but if it negatively impacts game play, it's better to dial it back.
Along that same track, there are places where it becomes questionable whether the game's internal timer stops for the relatively time-consuming animations of the flame and lightning gems going off. In challenges where the timer is visible, it doesn't seem to. Again, it didn't bother me in particular, but I could see where this might annoy people who enjoy trying to achieve speed bonuses.
Another thing that's missing from the DS version is the option to turn off the "hint" feature, or, as I call it, the "auto-kibitz." If you take more than about seven seconds to decide on your move, the game prompts you by showing you a potential move (true to form, it highlights a set to be rotated with additional sparkles). This can be really helpful, as getting the hang of the new rotational dynamic can take longer than you would expect from the average "jump in and play" Popcap game, but it really grated on my nerves both when I was ready to improve my ability to spot moves on my own and when I got more involved in finding deeper strategies for overall play. It's as if the game, fearing that you might not be able to find someone to sit next to you on public transit to offer unsolicited advice on your game play, becomes its own back-seat driver for you...and to more accurately simulate the experience, it refuses to just leave you alone and let you play. If they'd found a way to give a DS onion-breath and photos of its kids the simulation would be flawless, but it does a manful job of annoying the crap out of me as-is.
A further irritation of the game's seeming-sentience is the places where it falls short (bear with me, this one takes some explaining). One of the peripheral considerations in achieving a high score is keeping up a "chain" of match-creating moves without making any non-matching moves. Each matching move fills a space on the "chain meter," and each time the meter fills it increases your score multiplier by one and gives you a new chain to fill. One of the ways to fill multiple spaces on the chain meter is to complete the "bonus challenge" which consists of a sequence of four gem-types displayed under the chain meter. Completing matches of those colors in the order displayed fills up several additional steps on the chain meter and can remove a dangerous gem from the board for you. It can get mightily frustrating when the game hands you a random bonus challenge sequence to complete; for example let's say red, blue, purple, blue; when you're looking at a board that doesn't even contain enough blue gems to make one match. This is frustrating but livable. Part of the game is board-management and cultivating opportunities over multiple moves, after all. But it gets worse.
The big payoff for maxing out the chain meter at x10 is that you are given a "fruit gem." Matching a fruit gem removes every other gem of that color from the board and presents a special "Mega Fruit Bonus" (hereafter abbreviated MFB) challenge sequence in the bonus box which, if completed, awards beau coup points and some cute animation, making it sort of the top-of-the-mountain in terms of achievements that the game acknowledges. Cool, right? Well, only kinda.
The MFB differs from the standard bonus challenges in a few important ways never mentioned in the documentation. First, you only get one shot at completing it. As soon as a move is made that does not satisfy the sequence, the sequence disappears and you have to wait for another fruit gem to get another shot (though the sequence is different every time, so you can't really prepare.) Secondly, only the primary match created by a twist counts; in the standard bonus challenges, the whole sequence of matches that might be triggered by a move are considered a part of that move, and as long as one of the matches made in a cascade fulfills the color requirement of the sequence, it is considered to be continuing the sequence. With the MFB, the moment you make twist that doesn't immediately create a match of the required color, the bonus disappears.
This property alone betrays a poor understanding of the difference between making something less likely to happen and actually making a thing more challenging and rewarding to complete. There is more strategic value in getting a player to look at a board and try to riddle out a way to create a match with a cascade than there is in an inflexible scenario where it's possible to tell concretely in a few seconds whether or not it can be done at all. But the thing that makes it even worse is that the inflexible scenario is presented randomly by a program that, due to its auto-kibitz feature, seems to have some awareness of what moves are possible, and yet completely lacks any care for that when it generates the sequence.
Remember how you only get an MFB sequence when you activate a fruit gem, and how activating a fruit gem removes all gems of its color from the board? When the game generates a MFB sequence, it doesn't even prevent itself from including in that sequence a match of the color that it just completely removed from the board. That's just sloppy and inconsiderate. While one naturally expects limitations in the amount of AI that can be shoehorned into a handheld console, the annoyingly-inescapable reminders that the game is capable of recognizing valid match patterns paired with so thorough a lapse in the application of that recognition where it might benefit the player most gives the impression that either the developers made a bad choice, or the game is out to get you.
Which brings us to the "disarm spinner." The disarm spinner is the mini-game that you get shunted to if a bomb gem on your board is allowed to count all the way down to zero in "Classic" mode (in "Blitz" mode, one zeroed bomb is the end of the game.)
There's something very fishy about the disarm spinner. Ostensibly, it is a pretty typical wheel-of-fortune. The wheel has eight gems on it, and two gems opposite each other are removed and replaced with skulls. There's an oblong overlay across the middle of the wheel, and if the wheel stops with gems under the overlay, you go back to your bejeweled board and keep playing; if the wheel stops with skulls under the overlay, the game is over. Every time you are returned to the disarm spinner, two more gems are replaced with two more skulls, decreasing the chance of continuing. Ostensibly, you need to time the moment that you tap the screen to begin slowing down the wheel, and doing it at the right time is important. The thing about the disarm spinner is that I played over a hundred games in classic mode (I'm not addicted! Just obsessively thorough! I swear!) and the disarm spinner never once resolved itself in a different pattern, and only twice in all those games did the game end on anything other than the fifth spin.
There is nothing in the documentation (surprise) to explain how player input affects the outcome of the disarm spinner, but I am lead to believe that it's minimal at best. The spinner always (always) stops on either the first gem after the skulls (if you win) or the first skull after the gems (if you lose)*. Presumably this saves on memory as the program only has to track how many times you've been sent to the spinner and not the position of skulls and gems, but if you're going to present something as a skill challenge with consequences, there's really no justification for making it inscrutable and inauthentic. It only maintains suspense if you assume the player is never going to try to figure out how to do it better and notice the pattern, which seems like a poor (and somewhat insulting) assumption when dealing with puzzle-lovers.
If the game actually runs on a "five strikes and you're out" policy, that's a perfectly valid rule, but to then present it as a different mechanic entirely shows little respect for the game's audience.
As a minor matter of nitpicking, the space theme, though beautifully executed, doesn't make a lot of sense to me. I realize that as a member of a generation weaned on Pac-Man and reared on Super Mario, I'm expected to be flexible when it comes to game premises that pole-vault past whimsy and land straight in the middle of Dadaist. And for the most part I can handle it. You "explore worlds" by blowing up gems? Sure, why not. And time bombs spontaneously manifest? Ok. And...fruit? Pac-Man would surely approve. But every once in a while a concept falls into whatever the concept-equivalent of the uncanny valley is.
For me in this case, it's when blowing up "coal" creates "geodes." I have no problem with the concept that, in fiction, explosions alchemize one thing into another thing, the same way I'll buy that radiation and gene splicing create super powers. But I know what coal is and I know what geodes are and that is NOT how you create a geode! Why can't blowing up coal create something a little more plausible (like a combustion boost) or a little less plausible (like soot fairies) that could be the same point-creating place holders? Drawing a conceptual line between coal and geodes is plausible enough to mislead but factually wrong enough to make my head hurt.
The basic game play remains good. The only thing about the new rotation mechanic that may be jarring to fans of the original bejeweled is that pieces can only rotate clockwise, which doesn't seem like a big deal until you're working at the edges of the board. Unidirectional rotation means that edge-pieces can only be moved in one direction that isn't away from the edge (downward along the right edge, upward on the left, right along the top edge, left along the bottom). Functionally, this means that the mobility of edge spaces is only half that of a regular space, which makes the 8x8 board feel more like a 7x7 board if you count each edge space as half a space for purposes of play. I'm sure that numerous play options were tested before they settled on unidirectional rotation as the most universally appealing and interface-friendly option, but part of me wishes that they had included a play variant with toroidal wrap-around. Now THAT would be a twist!
And while I'm spit-balling a wish list, it would be neat to have a version of bejeweled with a genuine victory condition rather than a perpetual delay-of-losing. Losing with more points than I got last time still, on some level, feels like losing. Bejeweled Twist does offer an incremental reward system external to individual games, but it's not really substantive enough to sustain interest for the amount of work it takes. For every level or challenge you complete, you get a certain number of stars. Accruing enough stars gets you a new badge and title, resets your star collection to zero, and raises the bar for the next level by twenty-five stars. That sounds pretty fair on paper but there's a limit to how quickly you can earn stars, and going from rank forty-nine to rank fifty takes twelve hundred of them. I had really hoped to reach the final rank (whatever it is) so I could report on whether it's worth it, but I've been playing pretty steadily for a few months now and I feel confident in the likelihood that it's not worth it. I promised myself I would never waste my life grinding for goals I didn't care about when I stopped giving Blizzard my money. But I digress.
The bottom line is that Bejeweled Twist is fun, and I can authoritatively affirm that you don't need to have played another Bejeweled title to find Bejeweled Twist entertaining and generally playable, though the documentation gaps and rotation mechanic mean that it takes longer than usual to get a firm handle on the game. The variety of options offers excellent breadth of play style, and the basic mechanics provide more depth of strategy than I've seen in a Popcap game until now. The MFB problem in particular sticks in my craw, and makes it slightly easier to put the game down, but only slightly. I probably should quit cold-turkey for a while, but I'll definitely be back.
*Since I am a serious pseudo-scientist, I was careful to rule out intra-rater precision error in this observation by randomizing my input. My tools for randomizing the point of player input included a toddler (who really enjoyed it) and a cat (who was indifferent but cooperative), neither of whom were harmed in the process of data collection. If you can think of a better source for random tactile input, I'd love to hear it. I also tried to deliberately tap it at different specific points, but always with the same results.
Rebecca is an incurable people-person. If you wish to try and cure her, she will accept your verbal abuse at : firstname.lastname@example.org.