Tuesday, 17 January 2012

More Of The Same, But Not As Lame

A while ago I was really "into" casual games, for several reasons. I would download several of the traditional 60-minute-demos, decide on a worth candidate for my hard drive and, maybe once a month, treat myself to a variant of Match 3, Time Management in cafes, or the odd Tower Defence. Good times, but sooner or later oversaturation started. There are only so many screens with jewels on a grid you can stare at before you realise that you've probably seen the best of them already. The last game I actually purchased was Plants vs. Zombies. And my game folder these days is pretty lean anyways- I still have Puzzle Quest and Bejeweled Twist, though, because they really never chease to entertain and relax me.

One of the slightly unusual games I seriously played the hell out of back in the days was Treasures Of Montezuma. When it was released it had some novel small gameplay twistst to set it apart from other Match 3 games, and it looked and sounded really nice. I reinstalled it when I bought my new PC last year, and kept it around for a second play-though that I never really finished.

ToM is you basic Match 3 with coloured stones on a grid. Instead of earning points by making groups, you must match specific tokens with a small gemstone on them, and there is a goal of gemstones to collect per level that quickly rises to ridiculous numbers. Add a somwwhat generous time limit and catchy music and you got a good casual game.

The gimmick of ToM was a system of "totems" that you could buy and upgrade. Each token was activated by making two matches of same-coloured stones in a row, and each one had a specific "special ability"- one collected all gemstones on the board for you, another added time to your level counter, the next dropped random minur goodies, and so on. The totems became powerful tools, but with some skill you could win about half the levels without them- but none of them was useless, and since you could upgrade them as you saw fit they allowed for different strategies, too.

ToM had a sequel that I never bought- I played the demo and found it too similar to the original, and even worse, they had opted for the then-standard cartoon style that did not mix well with the realistic backgrounds and tokens of the game.

And just today I saw Treasures of Montezuma 3 on a shelf. I picked it up with mild interest; real life, the BakeSale and some other projects had and have a cruel impact on the time left for actually playing a "real game". I'm still struggling to win over Morrigan in DA Origins, and the Fallout 3 GOTY icon is crying at me when I switch on my computer. But you can ALWAYS spend a few minutes with idle gem swapping.

Okay. Now the first thing about ToM3 is, it is almost a carbon copy of the original game. Everything returns. You got the nice lush backgrounds, you still are somhow sitting in the jungle matching stone tokens, and every bonus and every totem is back too. Even the music is pretty much the same. The resolution is higher, the graphics have a more polished look, and there's a pointless but impressive intro movie, but that is IT. Look at ToM3 and you see ToM, slightly upgraded. The cute archeology student's gone, though, and there is no attempt to tell a story. Instead you have a couple of treasure chambers where you unlock chest after chest by scoring as many points as possible.

The second thing about ToM3 is, they changed ONE gameplay element. And somehow that one change makes ToM3 a totally different game. ToM was drawn-out, forcing you to collect 5, 10, 15, 20 and so on gemstones in the roughly 40 levels. There was no increasing difficulty, it was just that you needed a much longer time for each level.

In ToM, you have one minute per level to score the hell out of the board. One minute. You can still use the orange totem to add a few seconds, and there's the familiar "mini-clock" goodie, but really, you have 60 seconds. After that the game times out, your score is collected, and if you managed to score enough points to unlock the next seal on the treasure chest you're working on, great. If not, repeat.
And repeat.

Because a minute is nothing. In terms of playing a game, a minute really doesn't count. It's no time at all. If you screw up, you do NOT feel especially anrgy that you wasted a lot of time only to fail. Hell, let's try again, what's a minute? And maybe next time the grid will offer you a better setup, you may be lucky and find enough red tokens to trigger a few explosions, and if not... hey, you've just played TWO MINUTES.

Each session is a frantic fight. The game really fights you all the way; some of these chests require HUGE scores to unlock. Maybe you won't even be able to earn that score yet, because your totems aren't powerful enough. In ToM the totems really are more than a powerful tool, they are pretty much your only way to victory as soon as you go past level 5. You'll always be glad to beat a level and get a star to upgrade them.

The totems really are your friends here. Maybe the only friends you have, because the game surely is NOT your friend.

That being said, the game DOES offer an enourmous amount of nice, sometimes great eye candy. Unlike other games of its ilk ToM3 allows you to make matches while sliding animations and special effects are still playing, meaning that you can make more matches while all around you stones zip around, explode, and lightning shatters the grid. It can feel pretty intense and is always satisfying, especially since you are the one who causes all the sparkle, though maybe sometimes by accident.

That minute is intense. As soon as you hesitate for more than two seconds a hint will pop up, because you really can't affort to lose those two seconds. Every match counts. It's frantic. It's no longer the gentle beast that ToM was, it's gem-matching on crack.

If anything, he game repeats a flaw that was already noticeable in the original- "bonus" objects really obscure the tokens they are placed on, and it's frustrating to see, out of the corner of your eye, that you just missed a match that would've granted you triple score. But that's really the only complaint I shall utter, for this game does most things right (while doing nothing new).

And it's totally addictive. It DOES nothing new, it just once again proves that casual games have one ace up their sleeves- little time commitment needed.

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