Free to play is obviously an effective model on mobile, as despised as it may be. 'Free' games don't get world-famous Hollywood stars to appear in their commercials if they're not raking it in. It's clearly here to stay while companies get millions and millions of dollars from it. And, of course, no one is obliged to play them. (My opinions get a lot more specific when such pay-to-play aspects are hardwired into games aimed at kids, but that's another day's discussion.) However, there's another aspect to these games that I don't think gets talked about so much: that bizarre tension of playing one, hearing the ticking countdown of when it'll stop being fun and start wanting your cash.
That's very much the case with Tiles & Tales [official site], a nice, simple puzzle-RPG that is so clearly intended for mobile that the PC version is in portrait. That outrageously lazy porting aside, it hasn't gone through the transition that many such games make for their Steam release, and has remained "free". Albeit with the option to start spending ridiculous amounts of money from the off. It's just... you don't need to. Here's wot I think.
It's not necessary for a good long while, at least. And the reason I'm writing about this one is it's actually a really good idea, an original approach to a busy genre. It takes the tile-merging of Threes, and adapts it to be a combat mechanic for a streamlined Puzzle Quest-alike. It's 2048 meets 10,000,000. Codename 10,002,048. Your character strolls right at the top of the screen, encountering enemies with numbers above their heads - you need to slide the tiles about to merge those of the same colour, combining red sword tiles to reach a number value higher than that of your enemy. At the same time you need to be combining blue tiles, the highest value blue tile pile on screen after a fight contributing to your goal for completing that level. Then there are green health tiles when meeting places to rejuvenate, purple key tiles for opening chests, golden gold tiles for buying extra skills, and bonus tiles allowing special moves and abilities.
What makes this step up from a Fine Idea to a Good Idea is the need to be thinking ahead as you play - it's all very well having a stack of 36 sword tiles when fighting this 15 point enemy, but you might have been a lot wiser to keep it as a 20 and a 16 for the next fight. Instead you could have tried to pile up some greens in case a health point is approaching, or use the opportunity to gather some gold. You can be working on sliding things about such that you maximise as much as you possibly can, nuts for the winter. And here a game that really doesn't possess any significant depth finds its hook. Despite that constant sense of foreboding that you'll hit that pay wall any moment now.
But it gets weirder. The core game isn't deep at all, and it relies far too heavily on that laziest of RPG tricks of increasing the enemy's hit points by 10 while increasing your attack points by 10, or whatever. Your abilities scale just a fraction of a step behind their strength, and the illusion of progress is tissue thin. Of course, your progress requires the spending of in-game items, and it's here that it's going to get you, isn't it? Sure it's throwing gold at you each level, but what about those pink diamonds it keeps reminding you exist? The ones that cost £4 for 250? Surely any moment those will be required? Except no, the gold is enough to level 15 at least, a good few hours in.
This generosity continues with the completely bizarre ability to replay older levels at no "cost". Traditionally this manner of games restricts how much you can play in a day without spending more, preventing you from grinding your way to in-game richness by requiring you spend real money to revisit previous levels. Not here. You can go back and play a challenge just a couple of steps back to mine it for the outpourings of gold it offers, as often as you want. Since the levels themselves vary very little (it adds in tile effects by certain enemies, lifted directly from Bookworm Adventures of all places, but the variety this adds is minimal), it's not like replaying an old level is much different from progressing - this isn't about being dazzled by exciting new developments, it's about surviving another round of the puzzle game.
And so I've kept playing, kept waiting for it to not let me, and kept playing some more. I'm not sure they've mastered their business model here. The one place I have found to spend pink diamonds is when you lose. If you die in a round (which I've so far experienced only because it simply didn't offer me the number of red tiles I'd need, or placed them so I couldn't combine - that's fine, that's the nature of these games) you can spend a diamond spinning a wheel that'll either restore your health, or restore half of it and throw in another bonus. Die again and it's two diamonds. But if you keep up with upgrading skills, so tiles become worth more, your own hit points swell, and you get more slides per turn, you can stay on top of things enough that death isn't too close a threat. The game gave me 18 diamonds for free, and I've still 15 left. (Which puts the 250 for £4 in an interesting perspective.)
You can spend diamonds on topping up gold levels for upgrading skills, or on potions to improve your stats in a level. Or they can be used to just straight buy in-game gold. The most it lets you spend in one go is 2,199 diamonds for 100,000 gold, which would cost around £32. (As is the way of these things, you can either buy 1250 diamonds for £16.02, or 3250 for £40.06.) The largest amount of money you could idiotically spend with a single click is a ludicrous £80.14 on 7,000 diamonds. But did I mention, I've used about 3?
I'm level 18 now, and it's distracted me for a day. For free! I'm not quite sure why they've allowed that to happen, but I'm pleased they did. Were it to have the greater depth of a Puzzle Quest game I could see myself getting really drawn in, but as it is it's a really neat example of the genre that still feels disposable enough that I'll not be bothered once it finally does want my cash. It waited too long! If they'd an ounce of sense they'd drop the IAPs and just stick a £5 charge on the game. But until they cotton on to that new-fangled notion, if you're after a smart implementation of Threes-like input and tile-based battling, Tiles & Tales does that, and is free!
Tiles & Tales out now for Windows and is on Steam for no pennies at all.