Review: Cradle of Rome (Nintendo DS)

Cradle of Rome
Developer: Cerasus Media
Publisher: D3 Publisher
Genre: Puzzle/Casual
Release Date: 11/26/2008

I’m not usually one to get sucked up into the vortex of casual gaming. Sure, I dabbled in Peggle and Alchemy, but I generally spend my downtime playing something with a little more substance. Even so, I decided to give Cradle of Rome a shot. It seemed harmless enough. Match gems to get points. What could possibly be so addicting about that?

Famous last words.

Modes

The goal of Cradle of Rome is to build your city so that it becomes the vast empire that it has the potential to be. You do this be gathering resources and using them to create buildings. There are about twenty buildings to construct and each gives you either a new resource to gather or a special power to help you clear the levels.

The game is split into five epochs. Each epoch contains four structures that you can build. Once you’ve bought all of the buildings, you move on to the next epoch. The object is to finish the last epoch before you run out of levels. (There are 100) If you succeed, you win and get nifty little ending. If you fail, the game congratulates you for finishing the levels, but you get a measly ending and are allowed to start back at level 81 on the last epoch to try again.

The only other mode is relax mode. After you complete each level in campaign mode, you’ll unlock that level for free play. You’ll be able to see the shape of the level, but you won’t get an idea of what obstacles you’ll face in each one. It’s a nice feature that should be standard among puzzle games.

My biggest problem with the campaign mode is how easy it is to accidentally start a new game. Every time you open your profile, the options are to continue or start anew. These require touch screen controls, so a bump on the road of a twitch of the wrist and you can erase hours of work with not so much as an “are you sure you want to start a new profile?”

Graphics

The top screen of the DS contains all of your pertinent information such as resources and time left to complete the puzzle. The bottom screen is where the puzzle itself is. That’s pretty much all you need to know.

The top screen has some decent looking backdrops, but since the action takes place on the touch screen, you’ll rarely even notice they’re there. There puzzles all sit on a featureless background. It’s usually just a flat brown color.

The gems that you match do a standup job of looking different enough from each other. The only time you’ll confuse a piece is when it is covered by a double chain. (More on that later.) The most action that you ever get to see are blocks falling to replace the ones you’ve cleared.

It’s a pretty basic package that never wows you, but doesn’t look bad enough to complain about.

Audio

The music in this game has that special quality that most casual games seem to possess. It sucks. The whiny tunes repeat constantly on a loop and somehow manage to sound the same despite being clearly different pieces. (I know it doesn’t make any sense, but that’s how it works.) You will want to turn the sound off after only a few minutes.

Apart from the music, the sound effects don’t do much to change your mind about that either. The resources all make the same sounds when you clear them. You’ll hear so many tiny explosions in this game you’ll thank you’ve witnessed a war fought between ants and termites. The various powers have some sounds of their own when you clear them and use them, but considering the sound quality of these types of powers in other puzzle games, the sound here is a vast disappointment.

I hope you’ve got an MP3 player handy when you play this. It will make the whole experience so much better.

Gameplay

So the graphics are bland and the audio is plain awful. How is the gameplay?

Well, the game is controlled solely by the touch screen. All you need to do is swap gems in order to make vertical or horizontal rows of three or more. You can only swap pieces if they will make these rows, and once the rows have been made, the pieces will be destroyed and new pieces will fall to take their place. If you’ve played any casual game in the past ten years, you already know how this works.

You don’t just play until you reach a certain score though. The object of each level is to break blue tiles on the playing field. You do this my creating matches over them. Some tiles will need to be broken twice and sometimes you will have one or two chains that must be broken first in order for you to break the tiles. The chains will also prevent gems from falling, so huge chunks of each puzzle may be inaccessible at the start.

You’ll also be given various powers that have their own gems that you must match in order to use them. These include the ability to add more time, break a tile, or randomly change the gem on each tile on the board. There are eight powers in total and most of them are dedicated to breaking tiles in some sort of fashion. Hammers will break one tile of your choice. Lighting will break a large chunk of random tiles. Shields will break an entire row of tiles. Etc. You only get to build up the charge to one power per level, but if you don’t use it, it will carry on the next level. Also, if you have to restart a level, the powers and charges you’ve earned will carry over. This means you can restart the level multiple times so that you can have access to every power.

The most important thing to realize is that the gems that are available on each puzzle are random. You’ll always get at least one of each resource and one power, but since there are multiple powers and gems, you can’t have them all on the board at once. This means that each puzzle will be a different playing experience each time you play it. It also means that you won’t always get what you want, and you’ll probably need to restart each level a few times until you’re comfortable with the setup.

All in all, it’s a basic set up with solid controls. The game is simple to play and provides that intangible kind of fun that puzzle games possess.

Replayability

You’d be surprised how long 100 puzzles can last. Once you get past the first forty or so, they start to take a lot more time and thought to complete. You’ll get a solid amount of playtime just the first time you run through.

However, the game doesn’t offer much incentive to play the whole thing over again after you’ve finished. Sure you can jump in at the beginning of any epoch and not have to dredge through the early levels, but one play through will show everything there is to see and then some.

The ability to jump in and play and level for fun in relax mode can add some length to the experience, especially if you get really addicted to it. With 100 puzzles and a random generator, you’ll be sure to get your monies worth with the game even if you don’t play through the main quest more than once.

Balance

The biggest problem with this game is that every level often boils down to there being one piece that you just can’t reach because you can’t make any matches any where near where it is. I had so many levels boil down to how often I was able to build up enough charge to use a power that I can’t forgive the game for it. If not for the powers, it would have taken me months to beat the game.

Also, two of the powers are completely useless after the few dozen levels. The hammer can clear a block, but only one and won’t have much bearing when you’ve got over dozen chains blocking you form clearing tiles. The hourglass is a sham. You might think that adding time to a game where you have a time limit would be useful, but it never is. If there’s one block stuck on the bottom of the level, more time is probably not going to matter. You’ll just have a few more seconds before you lose.

I don’t know what the dev team could have done to prevent these problems, but I guess that’s the risk you take with these kinds of puzzle games. They’re fun to play, but horribly unbalanced.

Originality

For the most part, this is like every causal game you’ve ever played. All you’re doing is swapping gems to make matches.

The only thing that sets it apart is the resource gathering and building construction aspects of the game. You have an actual goal instead of just building up a score. I would like to see more games of this type take this road.

Addictiveness

Somehow, despite god awful music and no balance whatsoever, this game still manages to be extremely addicting. I don’t know what it is about swapping gems to make matches, but these kinds of games can suck hours out of a person at a time.

I played nothing else for a week, despite having the excellent Castlevania and Theresia games I had recently purchased. For a game that has only one trick up its sleeve, this is a hell of an accomplishment. Hell, I even started playing it during an episode of House which just might have been the best episode ever!

If you’ve gotten addicted to games like Bejeweled and Peggle, you’ll find that Cradle of Rome taps into the same centers of the brain and will suck hours and hours from your life.

Appeal Factor

If you’re looking for a new puzzle game, Cradle of Rome might catch your eye because of its price. At only twenty dollars brand new, it certainly counts as a budget game.

The big problem is that this is a casual game. It’s a PC game at heart and if you’ve played it on the computer, you’re probably not going to feel too good about dropping money to play it on the DS. Fans of the game will notice enough changes for the worse that they’ll avoid this game at all costs.

Still, anyone should be able to enjoy the game and it won’t eat a huge hole in your wallet. That’s always a good sign.

Miscellaneous

Despite being fun and addicting, the game doesn’t quite reach the echelon of games like Peggle and Bejeweled. It just doesn’t have that “it” factor that makes those game the classics that they are. That shouldn’t stop you from playing it my any stretch of the imagination though.

The PC version is definitely superior thanks to the villagers you can unlock to populate your city and the superior presentation. If you already have that, there is no reason to pick this up. If you don’t have it and are looking for the next big casual game, this one will satisfy the urge until that game comes out. (Can you say Puzzle Quest Galactrix?)

The Scores

Modes: Enjoyable
Graphics: Mediocre
Audio: Poor
Gameplay: Enjoyable
Replayability: Decent
Balance: Bad
Originality: Mediocre
Addictiveness: Classic
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
Miscellaneous: Mediocre

Final Score: Decent

Short Attention Span Summary

Cradle of Rome is a decent game that is hampered by some serious presentation and balancing issues. Still, it is a game that anyone can enjoy and is a worthy addition to your DS collection if you don’t already own it for the PC. If you need a casual game fix, than Cradle of Rome can fit the bill if you’re not expecting it to blow you away.

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