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Wot I Think: Bookworm Adventures 2

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I kan spel reel gud! Hear iz mi reevoo off Popcaps brand nu puzzle-actchun gaym Bookworm Adventures: Volume 2, wich haz mayd mee evun betta at spellink. I hop yoo lik it.

Turns out there’s an awful lot of acronyms and three-letter Latin words I’ve never heard of. If I’m ever stuck for a word in Bookworm Adventures 2, sequel to Popcap’s much-admired ‘toon spelling/roleplaying game, I can generally tap in two consonants and a vowel and I’ll get through, despite having learned precisely nothing.

Such a thing isn’t terribly satisfying, of course. I was much happier when I defeated a murderous gingerbread house by typing ‘gardening’, or a drooling, ogre-like Tweedle Dee with ‘xanax.’ Two Xs, mofo! MEGA-POINTS.

Essentially, it’s violent Scrabble. The longer the word you manage to construct out of your random grid of letters, the more devastating the titular Bookworm’s next attack upon whichever fictional character made flesh he’s currently having a spell-off against. It works marvellously as a casual game because it doesn’t require any gaming ability, but it works equally marvellously as a more traditional game because it nonetheless conjures up the peaks of triumph and troughs of defeat as chasing around a bunch of guys with guns.

Little in the way of time limits and a super-intuitive click-what-you-obviously-need-to-click control system means the challenge is not of your reflexes or technological aptitude, but simply of your mental acuity – both in terms of constructing impressively big words, and in terms of augmenting them with coloured powertiles and the occasional potion to manage your health and better whittle down the enemy’s. Easy to learn, slightly more difficult to master and all that – but never that difficult. A working knowledge of the English language is all you really need to blast through it.

In a lot of ways, you couldn’t think of a more RPS game (in which I include you good people as well as the benighted Hivemind). It’s funny, it’s joyful, it involves wanton aggression and it’s about showing off one’s word-power. Popcap may be a terrifying mega-octopus wrapped around the entire casual genre, but between this and the sublime Plants vs Zombies, they’re no longer simply sewing up the market – they’ve very much found a voice of their own. It’s funny and modern, and tied in so thoroughly to the sort of sense of silly-meets-satirical humour that’s prevalent on the web. Lolcats with a literary vein, almost.

Perhaps there’s occasionally a trying-too-hard element to it that won’t sit well with anyone who’s not keen on the ironic kitsch of Peggle and Plants vs Zombies, but BA2 really goes for it in terms of silly enemy design (earless tigers!) and in its unnecessarily but pleasingly elaborate descriptions of said enemies. It grows ever-weirder and more playful as it goes along: there’s consistently a real anticipation for whatever ridiculous thing it’s going to throw at you next.

And just as well, because the comedy is the only cast-iron reason to buy this if you already own Bookworm Adventures 1. As with the underwhelming Peggle Nights, Popcap don’t seem terribly interested in shaking up their own formulas in this sequel. In terms of mechanics, it is in practice identical to BA1. You’re creating words from letter tiles – and it’s not like there’s been a whole new English dictionary to add in since the first game.

Sure, there are additions – more magic tiles and combo attacks, a bunch of diverting minigames and achievements, and the introduction of a choice of companions who provide some constant, passive buff. It’s significantly better-presented too, particularly in the far more elaborate enemy animations (sadly, Popcap remain steadfast in their long-term refusal to stray from an olde worlde fixed resolution, but to my fuzzy eyes it stretches up to a proper big boy size without too much nasty blurring). Again, you’ll stick with it as much to see what craziness totters onto the screen next as to beat it.

Still – it is the same game, and ultimately the same experience. The charm and absurdity of the enemies will dissipate once you’ve been through the main campaign once and resort to the minigames and achievement challenges, so you’ll wind up only concentrating on mega-words, and not really what’s happening on screen. I do feel mean to criticise this at all, because it really is a super-fun time and a testament to how close to the top of their game Popcap now are, but I can’t help but wish they’d been a little bolder underneath BA2’s surface. They’re certainly honing their form, voice and polish, but after the wonderful inventiveness of Plants vs Zombies, I’d hoped this would pack a few more suprises. A multiplayer mode or a more meaningful choice of abilities whenever Wormboy levels up would have made all the difference, I suspect. That said, Walker adores it a little more than I, but that’s probably because he gets a kick out of beating anyone who gets an apostrophe wrong to death with their own shoes.

If you missed Bookworm Adventures 1, do go straight for this: it’s lovely, smart, funny and crazily compulsive. If you didn’t, well, you know exactly what you’re in for. But you also know that means a guaranteed good time, and this time around with a lagoon of added charm and giggles. Oh, and fear not an excess of dictionary-fascism, should you be a little on the grammatically-challenged side: it’s surprisingly accepting of colloquialisms and even the odd gentle swear.

Demo here, if you’d like to make up your own mind.

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Alec Meer

Senior Editor

Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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