Here’s an indie morsel: Bret Airborne. It’s a match-3 RPG (which is possibly the most bizarre genre to be so over-used) with some genuinely original ideas. Well, at least I’ve not encountered them before. Airship combat (in the loosest sense of the phrase) as you explore islands and fight enemy ships by matching three things at them to death.
What gives the game a different edge, albeit a slight one, is the mechanic of the playing field. The grid is divided down the middle, with your opponent’s tiles on the right, yours on the left, taking it in turns to make moves. You can only move tiles on your side of the grid. However, match them to tiles on his side, and that still works, and better, counts as piracy. And match four or more in a row and that central line shifts over a column, and your turn continues. Do that a bunch of times in a row and you’ll have all but one column of the grid until your turn is over. And as small a difference as it is, it’s an interesting one.
Another change from the norm is the ability to switch two tiles that don’t match. It’s your turn over, with nothing immediately achieved, but it can be used both to try to set up your next turn (risky, since the opponent can get over to your side if he’s lucky), or even better, sabotage a potentially powerful next move from him by moving something out of the way.
The rest is pretty much Puzzle Quest, nostrils and all. Cannonballs replace skulls, and red/green/blue gems power up your chosen skills. You pick up gold along the way, which can be spent in shops to pick up new bonuses and attacks, and naturally face opponents with a broad range of these for themselves. The rather enormous difference between this and PQ is, unfortunately, a lack of finesse. The whole presentation is rather crude, the characters looking a little bit like school exercise book doodles rather than something more professional. Of course that doesn’t impact significantly on the core game.
Then the bigger surprise, defeat actually matters here. In PQ and most of its brethren, defeat is pretty meaningless – you just start the battle again. But here you have a limited number of repairs for your ship, which when exhausted gives you a game over. A game over! When did you last see one of those outside of a Roguelike? Which is a great thing, although somewhat tempered by what I think is the game’s main issue: the grid is pretty small. When you’re taking it in turns on the same grid, or playing in real-time against an opponent, that’s less of an issue. But here you’ve mostly got half the grid available, and if luck doesn’t fall your way, defeat becomes a frustrating inevitability. Of course the opponents have just as much luck, good and bad, as you.
But as is the nature of these things, that always seems fair when it’s in your favour, and like the game’s cheating when it’s not. But when loss is important, those moments where the enemy gets the most extraordinary run of luck aren’t so easily dismissed, and given the small playing field, fighting back without the resources appearing for you is impossible. One particular enemy had the ability to prevent my using my powers, an ability which stacked up until I was just pointlessly flailing, and his victory was inevitable. In a second attempt, I ended up having an absolutely fantastic back-and-forth, the two of us both nearly losing, almost fully repairing, and then nearly losing our ships again. And my victory only made it the better. But that was only because, for whatever AI reason, he chose not to stack the Poison Cloud against me this time.