Review: Gem Quest: 4 Elements (Nintendo DS)

Gem Quest: 4 Elements
Publisher: Storm City Games
Developer: Playrix Entertainment
Genre: Puzzle
Release Date: 04/19/2011

For whatever reason, I don’t immediately cringe when I see the Storm City Games logo on the corner of a box. This is despite the fact that the only other games I’ve played from them were Monkey Madness and T.A.C. Heroes. These are two games you’ve probably never heard of, unless you’re an avid reader of my reviews. Click on the links if you want, but I’ll warn you now: the games sucked, and I didn’t like them one bit.

One might wonder then, why I would volunteer to review this game. Perhaps it was because of the misinformation I received that this game was something like Puzzle Quest. Perhaps it was because I’m poor and I’ll take all of the games I can get a hold of. I’d like to think it was because I’m willing to give any publisher or developer a chance to prove my poor opinions of them wrong.

Whatever the reason, here I am with another game from them. I can say that of the three Storm City titles I’ve played, this was my favorite. Does that, however, mean the game was actually any good? Read on to find out.

Story

Yes. There’s a plot to this game. It goes that a peaceful land is thrown into chaos when the four altars of the elements are destroyed. Each altar represents either fire, wind, earth, or water (sadly, there is no heart). Also, the great books that house the secrets of magic have been ruined. It falls on you to to around and restore the books to pristine condition, which will somehow fix everything. That’s the setup, and also all of the plot you’ll get. The only character in the game is a wizard who sends you out on your journey.

The basic setup is that you’ll have three parts to restoring each book, with each part having its own unique mini-game that you’ll need to complete. For starters, you’ll need to retrieve a key that opens the lock on the book. You do this through a hidden object game. Then, you’ll actually start restoring pages, which you do by completing gem matching puzzles. These are the heart of the game. Finally, when you’ve done that, you’ll need to play a spot the difference game in order to get a finished product. You have four pages chapters each with four pages per book, leading to a total of 16 different pages that need to be filled out.

As far as other options go, the game is lacking. There is no free play mode and very little that you can customize in terms of preferences. You can change the language and mess with the sound. There is a high score feature, but it keeps track of overall score on all of the levels. This gives you no incentive to try and perfect a level.

Overall, there is very little meat on this game’s bones. You have one option for play, a weak narrative, and an uninteresting high score system. I wasn’t impressed.

Graphics

The screen you’ll see the most is the puzzle screen and thus, by default, you’ll see countless thousands of gems while playing this game. Each book of magic has its own designs for gems. For example, the earth school has a bear paw print for its red gem, while the water school uses a seahorse. On top of that, you have mystical energy (more on that in the gameplay section) that is a different color for each section. Still, there aren’t enough differences to really make things worthwhile. One screen might as well just be any other.

There is some fantasy style artwork in the game. However, it appears it has been severely compressed in order to fit the screen, causing all of the pictures to be muddled and blurry looking. This is especially a problem when you have to spot differences or find hidden objects. It looks bad and it worsens the playing experience. That is far from an ideal combination.

Overall, the graphics are bland at best and negatively affect gameplay at worst. This is not one of the better looking games on the DS to be sure.

Audio

The most prevalent bit of audio is the music. It consists of the typical medieval style music you find in a lot of puzzle games. On its own, it is inoffensive and pure background music. You don’t really notice it. That is normally the case, but not here. The music was so poorly implemented that it skips and jumps a lot. What this creates is an actively annoying quality that made me turn the sound off as often as possible. The only time I played with the sound on was when I was listening to see if there were any new tracks.

Sound effects are the only other thing worth talking about, but saying that is a stretch. There are a small handful of sounds in the game, each of the very unimpressive and typical of the genre. If you’ve heard one sound in a puzzle game, you’ve heard them all. They’re not actively bad like the music, but they’re still just there.

Gameplay

I’ll go about each gameplay type in the order they appear as you play.

Firstly, you have the hidden object mini game. For each level, you have four objects you need to find. However, each of these objects is broken into several pieces, each of which you must find. Each object must be used on the map itself. For example, you’ll need to use that knife to hack away at some bramble that is covering another piece that you need. This is a pretty nifty concept and one that you don’t see often in these types of games. However, the poor visual quality of the puzzles makes finding anything annoying. You’ll find that several objects are neatly hidden because of how muddled things are.

The meat of the game is the matching puzzles. The goal here is guide mystical energy to an altar at the end of the puzzle. You do this by breaking tiles. How do you break tiles? Why, you simply match three or more gems. This isn’t a gem swapping affair however. Instead, these groups will already be on the board, and you need merely to slide your stylus over the pieces you wish remove. Gems must be linked either vertically or horizontally. Any time you link five or more gems, you’ll get an explosion that emanates from the last piece in the chain. This gets bigger the longer your chain and clears a lot of tiles.

Things aren’t always so easy though. There are several obstacles to worry about. There are narrow sections of the puzzle that don’t offer many chances to make matches. Some blocks are frozen over, preventing you from breaking the tile or removing a gem. Rocks can’t be cleared except with explosions. There are yet other blocks that can only be removed by arrows, which are on the board. You need to feed the energy to the arrow in order to set it off. This creates some scenarios where you clear tiles away from where you want to go in order to get to an arrow.

There are four different power ups you can earn while playing. Each has a meter you need to fill by clearing corresponding gems. Green gems let you use a shovel, which will break any regular tile. Red gems give you the bomb, which clear gems, ice, and rocks from the board, but don’t break tiles. Yellow gems give you the power to swap any gem for any other gem (they don’t need to be next to each other). Finally, blue gems allow you to randomize the board. There are several spots where you need to use a power in order to move on. You start with these powers and never get new ones.

It is a pretty interesting puzzle experience. Whole sections of puzzle will be left behind as you clear spots for the energy to flow. There are plenty of chains that occur, such as arrows setting each other off and clearing huge sections for you. There is some strategy to be had. You don’t want to bother with sections if they don’t lead you to where you need to go. I like the idea, overall.

However, there are two big problems that kill it dead for me. For starters, the game will automatically follow the energy, moving the camera without your permission. Every single level, there were multiple times where I wanted to make a chain or start working on a section, only to have the camera move away from where I wanted to be. Worse still, the camera will occasionally follow the directions the energy is flowing while not actually showing the energy onscreen. This means you’ll end up in some random section you don’t need to be.

The other hiccup is that you’re locked to a small radius surrounding where the game thinks you should be. You can’t explore around in order to plan ahead, and if you get stuck, you can’t build up your powers by clearing tiles that need to be cleared later on. Instead, you have to match gems right where you are until you get enough to move on. It’s stupid. Some of these maps are huge and full of places you should be able to work on. There’s no excuse.

The last section is a spot the difference game. These are boring, suffer from the poor visuals, and I just as often just used hints or tapped random areas to get past them. There was no need for this kind of thing.

Overall, the gameplay has some interesting ideas and plays with the genre a bit. However, the mechanics don’t do the idea justice, leaving the player with an annoying experience with little to keep you engrossed. The superfluous game types don’t help much either.

Replayability

The game took me roughly six or seven hours to complete. There are a total of four hidden object puzzles, sixteen difference puzzles, and sixty-four gem puzzles. Most of the game’s length comes from the sheer size of the puzzles, because they get pretty huge. It’s a decent length that fits industry standards for this type of game.

However, there is absolutely no replay value. With no free play mode or random generator, you have nothing to do but simply play through the story mode again. The only reason the game gives to do this is to get a new overall high score. However, the nature of this puzzle game doesn’t lend itself well to high scores. You see, the goal is to win, not to score points. If you’re scoring too many points, you’re not playing it right. As such, I can’t imagine anyone caring about their score.

This is a one and done game to be sure.

Balance

With sixty-four puzzles that get harder and harder as they go, you’d think that maybe once, someone like me who isn’t too skilled, would have lost. I didn’t. Skeptics might say that my vast experience with games, as evidenced by the games I’ve reviewed alone, would mean I’m not so unskilled. However, trust me when I say that all I really do is brute force my way through games. The only genre I feel somewhat comfortable at a competitive level with is wrestling. Even then, that is relegated to recent WWE titles. I only recently got my Black Ops kill/death ratio in the positive, and the only people I was beating on Marvel vs Capcom were people with one or two fights to their credit. I’ve come to terms with my average skills.

This is why I was shocked when I beat each puzzle on my first try. Some of these were seemingly harder. They got longer as you went, there were huge sections you had to clear of rocks and ice before you could even attempt at breaking tiles, and the space you got to work with got downright miniscule. However, I beat them all first try. This is because the game is too easy for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, the amount of strategy you really need is minuscule. Since you can’t plan ahead, you only need to focus on small sections of real estate at a time. Also, since scores aren’t really important, there is little incentive to form long chains except for when you need to clear obstacles. Even then, it takes so little time and effort to earn the power ups, that you’ll rarely be stuck for long. I just plowed my way forward, forgoing all sense of strategy. It worked like a charm every time.

Puzzle games shouldn’t work that way.

Originality

In the world of puzzle games, Bejeweled has made it very fashionable to focus on gem swapping. When I find a puzzle game that doesn’t do that, I make sure it gets some attention for it. This may be a match three game, but it does enough different to keep it from feeling like a clone.

That being said, this game isn’t going to earn too many points for originality. There’s nothing it does that really sets itself apart from the pack. Sure, you don’t swap gems, but that’s like giving a first person game a high pass just because you don’t shoot guns. These thing happen sometimes.

Addictiveness

I didn’t really care for Cradle of Rome all that much. I don’t think Bejeweled is all that great. However, when I start playing either game, I end up playing for at least an hour, usually more. Those games are like crack. Once you start, you can’t stop. With Gem Quest, I never felt that way. I was more than willing to put the game down after a minute or two. The only reason I kept playing is because I wanted to get the game over with as quickly as possible.

The reason the game isn’t addicting stems from the same problems I mentioned in the balance section. The game doesn’t present any challenge and the scores don’t mean much. On top of that, there are no incentives to play the game again, the story is minimal, and there are no multiplayer options. I can’t think of a single reason to keep playing this game. I’d rather go play something like Galactrix again, and that is a game I may never wash the taste of out of my mouth.

It is rare that I come across a puzzle game that doesn’t invite the player to get sucked in. This is one of those cases. That doesn’t bode well at all.

Appeal Factor

Chalk this up as another game that Storm City has released to no press whatsoever. The game had been out for a week before I got it, and I had never heard of it before. Gamestop didn’t have any copies available to purchase, and Amazon was already offering deep discounts on used copies. Good luck finding this game anywhere but online. At least if you do go for it, you’ll be able to get it for less than twenty bucks, which is pretty good for a DS game.

For puzzle fans, there are some nifty ideas at work here. You’re not going to be impressed or immersed in the game’s offerings, but you might find some things to appreciate. I can suggest so many more puzzle games that are more deserving of your time. There isn’t much of a reason to pick this over them.

Miscellaneous

If a puzzle game has levels, like Gem Quest does, I think it is pretty much expected and required for the game to offer some sort of free play option. Going back to a tough challenge and trying a different strategy either to get a better score is a staple of quality puzzle games. Look at Peggle. Everyone I know who has played that game has gone back to improve their score, get medals, and try out different strategies. You can’t do that with this game. You’re only replay option is simply to go through the whole game again. That’s a bad move.

Thematically, I can see why they added the spot the difference/hidden object games to the fold. The idea is to add variety and have it make sense. However, they don’t add much. Again, you can’t replay them for starters. Also, there are so few of them, they feel like they were tacked on. I think all of the hidden object games combined didn’t take as long as a single level in all of the similar games I’ve played recently. There was just so need.

I’m calling this my favorite of all of the Storm City games I played. That’s basically because it never pissed me off, I never hated it, and it isn’t so epically bad that I’m going to curse the developers. This is just another puzzle game among the countless puzzle games on the DS.

The Scores
Story: Poor
Graphics: Poor
Audio: Bad
Gameplay: Mediocre
Replayability: Very Poor
Balance: Bad
Originality: Poor
Addictiveness: Very Poor
Appeal Factor: Below Average
Miscellaneous: Worthless
Final Score: Very Poor Game

Short Attention Span Summary

The score may be down in the dumps, but I feel that reflects Gem Quest‘s overall quality. While it isn’t the worst puzzle game I’ve played by far, it just does enough wrong to make it something I wouldn’t want to spend my free time on. If you’re looking for a puzzle fix, I can suggest plenty of better titles on the DS. If you just need to kill time, this game might work, provided you understand that you probably won’t get your monies worth out of it. As such, it isn’t worth recommending.

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