Review: Arkedo Series – 02 Swap! (Sony PS3)

Arkedo Series – 02 Swap!
Publisher: Sanuk Games
Developer: Arkedo Studios
Genre: Puzzle
Release Date: TBA (released on 09/21/2011 in Europe)

So, last month I reviewed a sweet little game called Jump. It was the first in a series of three games being brought to the PSN from Sanuk Games. These games were releases on the 360 a couple of years ago as indie titles, and now PSN users are finally getting to play them.

Swap, the second game in the series, is a completely different game than Jump. For starters, it’s a match four puzzle game instead of a platformer. It also has a more developed story, even if all that means is five or six story screens instead of two.

Either way, I was very excited to pick this game up and give it a try. I’ve liked everything I’ve played by Arkedo Studios, and I really needed a good puzzle game for my PS3. Did I get my wish, or is this a perfect example of a sophomore slump?

Story/Modes

The story is short, but amusing. After a long’s night of heaving drinking (Milk on the Beach), King Kat finds himself far from his castle and begins on a journey to get back to his throne. The plot follows him as he has to play the puzzle game to prove his kingliness. He also swears off of drinking again, but we all know that kitty gotta have it. Anyways, it was worth a chuckle or two, even if it was just a few still shots and text. Arkedo definitely has a sense of humor.

The first game mode is Castle. In this mode, you’re given five challenges that must be completed to move the story forward. These challenges are all point based, but each level has a different theme and it gets progressively tougher as you go. This mode is perfect to get you trained at the game, though the constant pop ups detailing how to make combos gets old. They continue even on the final level. This mode is more introductory then anything else, but provides solid fun.

The main mode is arcade. Here there are three difficulties and it’s pretty much play until you lose. The key feature here is an online leaderboard for each difficulty that even goes as far as to show you the nationality of the top scorers. I don’t mean to brag, but I was top twenty on hard last I checked. Working your way up this ladder is a lot more fun than it is in most games I’ve played. But perhaps that has more to do with this game having no actual multiplayer component.

The final mode is Challenge. Like in Jump, this mode isn’t unlocked until after you clear the story. There are around fifteen challenges that ask you to score a set number of points, clear a set number of blocks at once, or make a large combo chain. A lot of these are pretty easy to get through, but there are several tough ones to keep challenge seekers happy. One asks you to beat the final level of the story mode with one chain. I don’t think I’ll be able to pull that one off any time soon.

Overall, the modes here are nice. Story mode serves as a decent tutorial, arcade has several difficulties, and the challenges keep you playing when you’re done. The only issue I have is that there is no multiplayer in any form. I don’t want to take away points for something like that, but such a mode is pretty standard among similar puzzle games and would have been a blast.

Graphics

Swap keeps things pretty simple in the art department. However, instead of the retro style of previous Arkedo games, it goes for a bright and clean look.

Most of what you’ll see are puzzle blocks. These are plain, but they use several bright colors to pop from the screen. This isn’t just your standard red, green, and blue. Two other block types exist in the form of thunder blocks and clocks. Because of the simple, eye popping design, you’ll never confuse one block for another.

The effects are few but nifty enough. Matching thunder blocks causes a worthwhile explosion, and giant words pop on the screen when you’ve reached new milestones. Even King Kat gets in on the action, performing numerous poses depending on how things are going. The backgrounds change as you progress, and a few blowing clouds or birds keep the game looking like it’s on a frame. It’s nothing special, but compared to something like Mad Blocker Alpha, it was nice.

The graphics for Swap aren’t going to blow anyone away. They’re simple, bright, and help the game along. That’s all you can really ask from a puzzle game.

Audio

The music in this game is pleasant enough. The tunes are pretty passive and purely background fare, but they’re nothing offensive. They can get old during long sessions, but that’s pretty much true for any puzzle game that isn’t Tetris, Dr. Mario, or Lumines. Not living up to those games is nothing to worry about. Still, some more tunes would have been nice.

The sound effects are pretty much what you’d expect from match four puzzler. Whenever you make a move, you’re greeted with a little pop sound. Muffled explosions occur when you make a match. It’s all pretty much standard here.

The game has nothing that will make you want to turn the sound off, but it also has nothing to entice you to keep the sound on. It’s a personal choice. Overall, the audio is very run of the mill.

Gameplay

If you’ve ever played Tetris Attack, then you have a pretty good idea of how this game works, but there’s a twist. You can actually move any piece to any available spot on the grid. The only exception is when you’re trying to move a piece up when there is nothing to swap with. However, you can move a block into midair for a good drop.

The goal is simply to match four like colored blocks in order to clear them from the board and to make points. New blocks rise up from the bottom, and if any block reaches the top, it’s game over. In order to raise your score, you’re going to want to make combos or longer chains. At certain intervals, the rate of blocks coming in will increase. This raises the difficulty and makes you think on your toes. All in all, this is pretty standard stuff for a match four puzzle game. The only difference here is that you don’t have to make a match in order to swap pieces. This pretty much means that you can set up a combo at your heart’s content instead of waiting for the right pieces to fall into place.

There are two different powerups in the game. The first is the thunder block. Match four of these babies up and they detonate, removing a huge chunk of blocks. Unlike a lot of puzzle games, though, this scores you a bunch of points instead of just keeping you alive. They’re also essential if you want to get a clear bonus for not having any blocks on the screen at once. The other item is the clock. Matching these freeze the block’s ascent for a bit, giving you valuable time to clear real estate or set up for a massive combo. The trick with these items is that the more you match, the bigger the explosion/longer the time freeze. Using these items wisely is the key to getting high scores.

One odd thing is the combo system. If you chain two matches together, it doesn’t actually count as a 2x combo. The combo meter starts for every match after the first. So, getting three matches gives you a 2x, four gives you 3x, etc. It can be confusing at first, but you’ll get the hang of it before long.

Finally, I’ll talk about the controls. You can move your cursor with either the left stick or the d-pad. The shoulder buttons speed up the blocks. The right stick, however, is where all the magic happens. After you’ve highlighted your desired block, you can flick the right stick in whatever direction you desire to swap it. Better yet, the cursor will stay with the block you’ve just moved, allowing you to make several moves without constantly fiddling with it. Overall I found the control scheme to be quite good.

So, what we have here is a fun puzzle game with a few tricks up its sleeve to keep things going and to keep things fun. The mechanics are solid, and there is plenty of strategic depth for puzzle fans to get behind. The drive for combos against the speed of incoming blocks is one that never gets old.

Replyability

Clearing the story mode will mostly likely take all but the worst of puzzle gamers under an hour to complete. That might sound really short, but like I said before, the story mode is pretty much a introductory guide.

The bulk of your time with the game will come from the arcade and challenge modes. From there, the amount of mileage you’ll get depends greatly on how much you like the game. If you’re not too fond of it, you’re not likely to get hooked into raising your high score or conquering all of the challenges. If you do like the game, those tasks will be entertaining in and of themselves.

The game isn’t expensive, so even if you don’t play it that often, you’re bound to get your money’s worth out of it. That’s always a good thing. At best, you’ll get dozens of hours worth of playtime for only a couple of bucks.

Balance

There’s an interesting aspect to this game that I haven’t touched on yet. You see, this puzzler isn’t simply about boosting your score. It’s about survival. You might be thinking that I’m stating the obvious, but you just don’t understand the degree to which this game is about not dying.

The blocks start rising pretty quickly. Suddenly, those combos you’ve been building are impractical. You don’t have time to start a t-shaped monstrosity. By the time you get all of the pieces into place, the blocks will be perilously high. As such, the game quickly loses the chance to score big on combos alone. In fact, much of the game is a mad scramble to clear enough blocks until you can set off thunder blocks or clocks. This is a bit sad, and hurts the game, especially since the tutorial is very gung-ho on you getting those big combos.

I’m not saying that you can’t get those combos once things speed up, but you’re going to need amazing foresight and the reflexes of a mongoose do anything substantial. The one thing that does work in favor of your score is that gems and other treasures start appearing. You can’t match these, but they disappear when an adjacent match is made. Clearing these is worth points, so it’s worth it.

Generally speaking, the balance of this game is pretty decent. The constant speed increases keep you on your toes, but you’re pretty much never without a way to get yourself out of any mess.

Originality

Well when it comes to match style puzzle games, the world is full of them. We’ve seen just about every combination possible, and it is incredibly difficult for any one to stand out.

That being said, I don’t know of too many match four games where you can swap blocks without making matches. Think of Bejewled. Try to swap pieces that won’t clear, and its called an illegal move. This game offers more freedom and therefore more chances for actual strategic depth. I like that.

Apart from that though, this game is pretty much par for the course.

Addictiveness

A great puzzle game can suck a player in for hours at a time. You won’t even realize you’re addicted. You’ll start playing with the intention of only playing for a couple of minutes. Next thing you know, you’ve been playing for hours with no end in sight. Between each session, you tell yourself that you’re in it for one more go, but that never holds true. A great puzzle game is like crack.

Swap is not a great puzzle game. It is however, a pretty darn good one. While it may not suck everyone in, diehard puzzle fans are sure to keep coming back for more. For the competitive types, the leaderboards should provide ample excuses to keep coming back. Having some guy from another country sit atop the rankings like he’s king of the world is a surefire way to get your competitive juices going. The multiple difficulties to master are another nice touch.

While I was more than capable of quitting the game, I did find myself breaking it out about as often as I did Jump, meaning I was definitely enjoyed myself. So, while it may not be top of the class, this game is certainly above average.

Appeal Factor

A solid, cheap, puzzle game with online leaderboards and trophy support is a rare thing. Puzzle fans with a PS3 are certainly likely to pick this up, even if they don’t understand what all of this Arkedo Series nonsense is all about.

One thing that could certainly hurt the game’s appeal is the fact that it is two years old and already available on the 360. Still, positive word of mouth plus the game’s debut on the PS3 could give it an edge over similar titles.

Thus, I’m torn on how good this game’s appeal is. Let’s call it pretty good, but not great.

Miscellaneous

I don’t have anything else to say about the game, so I guess this section will just be an overall thoughts bit.

Given how short a development time this game had, it is pretty great how solid it is across the board. Puzzle games are very easy to mess up. Just take a look at 4 Elements and Cradle of Rome for examples. Those are just a couple of games I’ve reviewed personally. Every year, there are scores of new match style puzzle games that come out. And every year, a great many of them stink. So, a pretty good new entry is something to be happy out, and not just for puzzle aficionados.

At this point, I simply can’t wait for the third and final installment of the Arkedo Series. These have been quality games so far.

The Scores
Story/Modes: Enjoyable
Graphics: Decent
Audio: Mediocre
Gameplay: Great
Replayability: Enjoyable
Balance: Above Average
Originality: Mediocre
Addictiveness: Good
Appeal Factor: Good
Miscellaneous: Enjoyable
Final Score: Enjoyable Game!

Short Attention Span Summary

That’s two for two! The Arkedo Series is definitely something that I wish we PS3 owners could have experienced long before, but it is turning out to be worth the wait. Swap is a solid puzzle game with a great deal of strategic depth and enough bells and whistles to keep even the grouchiest of players happy. Hopefully, it will become available for purchase in the U.S. soon. Until then, it might be wise to invest in a European account!

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