I would like to see the genre renamed please. “Match-3-or-more”. Matching just 3 is for loser wimps. I’m all about matching 5. The great-granddaddy of this ill-named puzzle favourite is Bejeweled, and PopCap have just released its third (well, nine hundred and seventeenth) incarnation, simply called Bejeweled 3. So has dragging gems into same-coloured lines changed dramatically enough to warrant yet another game? Here's Wot I Think.
Er, yes actually.
Aside from the new modes of play, the array of new minigames, and the utterly bonkers woo-nonsense of Zen mode, there is one tweak that completely revolutionises Bejeweled, changing it from casual game of the lunchtime bored to something bordering on an arcade game. You can take your next turn before the last has finished.
So once more you have an 8x8 grid of coloured jewels. (A clue about this game: loading it up to remind myself of the dimensions, I’m now fighting the urge to play some more.) By swapping with adjacent gems you align rows or columns of three or more, causing them to disappear, with new gems falling from above to fill in the space. Do that a lot.
Then of course there’s all the various bonuses – although PopCap have been very restrained in their numbers. Connect a row of four and you’ll create a gem that explodes when removed, removing a few from around it. Connect a row of five and you’ll get a gem that takes out all of a particular colour. Then do something slightly more complicated involving two lines at once and you’ll get gems that’ll take out their row and column entirely. (Okay, I admit I went back and played a bit more to get those correct.)
What’s always upset me about Bejeweled before is where it fell short of what I’d argue is the best match-3 ever, Zoo Keeper: it wouldn’t let you make another line of gems until it had finished faffing around with animations and dropping in new gems elsewhere on the board. And that’s changed. Finally Bejeweled can be played at pace, and it’s a small change that significantly ups the fun of playing. It means it can be played fast. If you're good, you can now play a lot better than someone who's less so.
So the new modes. You’ve got Classic, which offers you the main game, letting you progress through levels, aiming for a high score.
There’s Lightning, which gives you one minute to get as high a score as possible. However, there’s a twist – you can collect gems that offer bonus seconds. Once your time is up their total will be added as bonus time, and this repeats as often as you’re able to gather new seconds.
Quest mode puts together a bunch of minigames based on the theme, with particular challenges to complete. There’s five sections, each with eight games. But, well, there’s no quest at all. Which is a giant shame. This could have been a fun chance to put in a mini Puzzle Quest – something PopCap has yet to try. But absolutely nothing of that nature is in there. Complete all 40 challenges and you get an achievement, and a gold wreath around the menu option. Huh.
You’ve also got some sub-modes, which unlock as you play, and you can find them for yourself. But special mention to the splendid Poker mode, which sort of combines basic poker rules with Yahtzee, letting you create five-card hands based on which gems you clear, trying to get those worth the most points. It’s particularly engaging.
And then, well then there’s Zen mode. It’s as if they’d hired Uri Geller, Paul McKenna and “Dr” Gillian McKeith (if you are what you eat, she must have eaten an awful lot of idiot) to create them a game mode. (Please bear in mind this article is entitled “Wot I Think – skip ahead six paragraphs if you don’t want to read my laughing at this rubbish.)
It’s basically a lot of fluff to justify a more relaxed version of the game. So you can put rainforest sounds in the background. Or rain. I like the rain.
Then it helps you to modulate your breathing. Which is nice enough, although personally the moment I start being conscious about my breathing I only get incredibly stressed that I’ll forget to and drop down dead. It even has the noise of someone else's breathing by which to time yourself, but this only gives the effect that you’re being permanently called by a heavy breathing pervert, and is pretty sinister. (Even more creepy was my switching it off after the game took a breath in, and worrying that I might kill it.)
Then you can add Mantras. These consist of positive thinking, prosperity, quitting bad habits, self confidence, or weight loss. Or just general positive statements about how lovely you are. So along you can chant, presumably between deep breaths, “I love courageously”, or “I accept that things come to an end.” Under Weight Loss it first offered me, “My body is perfect right now.” Which isn’t exactly the most inspiring of statements to convince me to shed the pounds. And then just some nonsense, “As I change my thoughts, my body changes.” But no matter how furiously I try to think that I’m a cat, I remain disappointingly human-shaped. It also decides metaphysical debate by letting me know that “I’m more than my body or brain.” Perhaps I’m part post box. Maybe a little bit of aeroplane. I can’t help thinking its saying, “Lose some weight, fatso, or you’ll die,” would be a lot more effective. (Of course, this isn’t the first time PopCap have been ridiculous about losing weight.)
Then there’s Binaural Beats. Sounding to me like complete claptrap, and certainly having attracted a lot of woo rubbish, it does seem there’s some evidence to support these left ear/right ear sounds causing relaxation. However, the game’s warning that they can cause hallucinations and so on is utter nonsense.
However, any hope of this being sensible is lost when you pick “Chakra Circle”, which will, it informs, “help you align your auras and improve overall energy flow.” What this “energy” is it fails to explain. And I keep my auras very neatly aligned, thankyouverymuch. Never mind that Chakra Circle, Chill Cycle, Euphoria, Lucid Dream, Meditation, Pain Suppressor, and Sleepy Time are all absolutely identical.
But, hilariously, despite all this flim-flam, the game still explodes and electrocutes and fizzes and pops just as it does in any other mode, making a mockery of any notion of relaxation.
But that silliness aside, there’s one pretty big issue with what’s otherwise a really elegant, splendidly presented, and extremely slick puzzle game. It’s the way it game overs.
While Zen mode actually offers an endless game, the main Original mode will end your game once you have a grid with no more possible matches. Which is something that’s absolutely not your fault. Certainly you can sometimes make a move that will ensure another, but often there’s only one left on the grid, and if it doesn’t drop down anything else that matches, it has nothing to do with you. So you’re chasing a high score until an arbitrary barrier drops down between you and the game. It’s essentially Buckaroo.
I wish there could be a mode of the game where you at least get a couple of chances for the grid to rearrange (as with PopCap’s Chuzzle), or a timed mode where you’re racing against a counting down clock for each level. Let that clock be tougher to beat with each level progression. Essentially, let it be Zoo Keeper, I suppose. It seems such an obvious mode to include, its absence is disappointing. Then high scores would be at least heavily weighted in favour of skill.
That aside, this is a splendid puzzle game. It raises Bejeweled to the high standards I expect of PopCap games, where Bejeweled Twist fell so very short. It really is tremendous.