Inside Pulse 12

Review: Spooky Mall (PC)

Spooky Mall
Publisher: Alawar Games
Developer: Malesta
Genre: Time Management
Release Date: 01/26/2011

So a couple of years back, I reviewed Diner Dash: Flo on the Go. (The name still haunts me.) It was my first foray into the casual time management genre, and while the game wasn’t impressive, I found the idea to be fun in short bursts. I figured maybe if Zoo Games wasn’t handling the property, that maybe I’d enjoy myself more.

Enter Spooky Mall.

This game came up for review and I decided to give it a chance. I figured that none of my fellow writers would be chomping at the bit to play it, and I was curious enough to see how a second attempt would try out. You might think I was jumping the gun comparing Spooky Mall to Diner Dash, but as you’ll soon see, the comparisons run quite deep.

Unfortunately, not all of those comparisons are good ones.

Modes

The setup for the game is amusing, but not really interesting. A young woman fresh out of college is desperate for a job when a potential employer offers her the chance to manage a mall. Needing to pay off debts, she quickly agrees, even though it’s midnight. The mall, as it turns out, is the number one shopping center for all kinds of ghosts and otherworldly figures.

It doesn’t really pan out to anything interesting, because there is no narrative here. After the setup, there is no mention of what’s going on. You simply play through the levels. I was kind of curious as to what her reaction would be to seeing a grocery store full of ghosts. Oh well.

That’s another thing. This place is called a mall, but the five stores you manage all sell nothing but food items. You run a grocery store, bakery, butcher shop, fish store, and a delicacies shop. That kind of thing bugs the crap out of me.

There’s only one mode in the game, and that’s the basic level progression. You play through levels until you unlock the next store. Then you start all over again until you’ve beaten them all. Nothing carries over from store to store, so you’re essentially playing through the same thing five times.

All in all, the game hangs its hat entirely on one mode. That mode is uninteresting, monotonous, and has no story to back it up. I found it an utter disappointment. At least Flo on the Go had extra modes for me to fool around with.

Graphics

I can’t really describe the graphics for this game. It’s like a bobble head bred with a cheap cartoon. It doesn’t look good, but I’m not really against it. It’s just weird. The giant headed customers and employees have a few basic animations and such. Each of the special characters has one of their own, and these are the most interesting visual moments in the game. Even then, the art style is still such that it feels odd.

Even after significant reflection, I still can’t figure out the art style. There’s nothing spooky going on here, because the cartoonish graphics make even the headless horseman seem like a joke. Also, all of the ghosts are basic looking people with ghost tails instead of legs. It doesn’t help that they’re buying ice cream and carrying legal tender.

Overall, this game isn’t a graphics powerhouse in any sense of the word. It was never going to be, really. However, it still looks stupid, for lack of a better term. It’s almost like a really dumb brand of Fisher-Price toys in video game form.

Audio

There are only two things to talk about there. They would be the sound effects and the music.

The music is pretty tame, which is yet another problem. This is called Spooky Mall after all. This is the kind of music you’d find in a low tier platformer on the SNES. It’s light, campy, and not all that fun to listen to. It fails to elicit any atmosphere that would fit the concept, or even the reality of the game. It blended in to the point of being background noise.

The sound effects are perfectly fine for what they are. The sound of the cash register is nice, as is the perpetual noises being made by shoppers. Grumpy grunts and satisfied hums are the bulk of what you’ll hear from them, though some of the special characters get unique sounds. It’s nothing spectacular, or even that good, but they do the job.

Gameplay

This is where the comparisons to Diner Dash are made, though there are certain differences that keep it from feeling like a direct rip off.

Each level has you attempting to appease your customers. For starters, this requires you to stock shelves. You have a shopping cart that make a certain about of restocks before you need to visit the storeroom. A huge part of the strategy is figuring out which shelves to prioritize. Customers will clue you in as to what item they’re going for via an icon over their head. It’s your job to make sure the item in question is available.

There are other actions that need to be taken as well. Some customers will have questions about an item, which you need to respond to. Also, trash can occasionally fall on the floor. You’ll need to sweep it up and place it in a bin before it sours the mood of your customers. There are multistep items, such as a sandwich, that require you to take ingredients from multiple shelves and combine them to create the new item.

All of this is done with simple mouse clicks. You need merely to click an area to interact with it. There are no minigames for stocking or making sandwiches. Each action takes time though, represented by a meter that fills up as you perform it. You can also setup many moves ahead, which is helpful. For example, if you need to make the ice cream soda, you can click each of the shelves in turn in order to get all of the ingredients in one smooth motion. You can’t cancel a chain once you make it though, which can be frustrating if a tricky customer comes in at the wrong moment. This keeps you from trying to plan too far ahead.

Each customer has a mood meter than drains when they have to wait. If a customer gets too angry, they’ll flat out leave the store. Their happiness at check out determines how much or how little cash you get, which matters for your score. Customers will also occasionally try to steal from you. If they’re not caught, you lose cash. Some customers are easier to deal with than others. In general, the older customers will be more patient. This adds a layer of strategy when dealing with huge crowds.

Now we get to specialty customers. These come in all shapes and sizes. The most common examples are superheroes, clowns, and vampires. These customers all have a special effect, either during their shopping, or after check out. For example, if you keep a hero happy, he’ll refill your stocks after he pays. Napoleon is like a regular customer for the most part, but he’ll randomly start giving speeches that halt all of the other customers. These guys always take precedence because they have the largest effect on your score.

Between each level, you’ll be presented with upgrades to your shop. Almost all of these simply allow you to hold more stock on a shelf. You buy upgrades with money earned during levels, so you can replay early levels to get enough cash to afford every upgrade. New sections to your store are constantly being added, so keeping up with the upgrades is paramount to your success. This part of the game takes some strategy to tinker with, but you can easily grind for cash, so it’s not that impressive.

Overall, this game plays very simply and solidly. If you like time management games in this vein, you’ll find the gameplay matches up pretty well. This is a game about survival more than making chains and combos though. That’s the biggest difference between it and Diner Dash. What’s really disappointing, though, is that the gameplay never evolves or changes. As such, it can get old very quickly, but I’ll touch upon that more in a different section of the review.

Replayability

There are a hundred levels, but that number is deceiving. For starters, there are five different stores, each with twenty levels. In order to unlock the next store, you don’t need to complete every level. Also, at some point, there will be no new upgrades to buy, which means progression has ended. Also, each store progresses in the same way. You start with a few shelves and easy customers. You quickly expand your store and your clientele as you complete higher levels. It’s a process that repeats itself four times in this game, and that’s just not interesting.

Also, levels are quite short. Most are a couple of minutes in length, meaning that the total amount of gameplay is a few hours at best. I also found it really easy to achieve a rating of “Excellent” on the first try. The game lets you know that reaching this milestone is the point of the game, so being able to reach it so quickly diminishes any replay value.

Without any extra modes, there’s nothing here to keep players coming back. As such, this game lasts significantly less time than comparable titles. I got way more time out of Diner Dash, and that had half the number of levels.

Balance

As long as you can prioritize, this game will be no problem to work through. There were probably three instances where I wasn’t able to get an Excellent score on the first try. One of those times was because of a glitch, while another was early on when I was goofing around. That leaves one real incident, and even that didn’t come up until the final store, so that wasn’t entirely surprising.

I suppose if you have terrible reflexes and/or you don’t pick up on which customers need the most handling, you might have some trouble getting good scores. In that case, it turns out that replaying the levels gives you the exact same timing and patterns. You need merely study the tough spots and you’ll be able to push through no problem.

If you’re looking for a challenge, this isn’t the best place to look.

Originality

Well by now, calling this game a rip off of Diner Dash should seem like the wrong thing to do. And it is. While it hails from the same vein, it has enough differences to stand as its own title.

That being said, this game doesn’t offer any substantially new content to players. If you’ve played any time management game before, you know what to expect here. The surrounding aspects of the game don’t do anything original either. Had it gone for a truly spooky atmosphere, I might have to give it some points. Alas, it fails on even that basic idea.

Addictiveness

Like most casual games, Spooky Mall is initially quite addictive. The game has a fast pace and the rush to refill shelves and deal with picky customers is quite fun. However, this feeling ebbs away slowly but surely. This is because every stage goes the same way, and each store fills out in a predictable manner. There’s nothing new and/or exciting to discover after the first half hour of gameplay.

I’ve played less engrossing casual games before, but that’s really all I can say in the game’s favor. The initial attraction was soon overcome by tedium. It was a grind to push on, and I only did as much as I did for review purposes. Left to my own devices, I would have stopped early on and never looked back.

Appeal Factor

Because of the misleading premise and utter monotony, I can’t see this game gaining much of a foothold. The only audience out there for it are the people who really dig the genre. Even then, a generic Diner Dash clone is probably a safer bet.

There is some fun and strategy to be found here, but there is precious little of it. The whole point of a causal game is to keep players coming back for more. This game simply offers no incentive to do that. As such, it will have a very limited audience.

Miscellaneous

I found a couple of annoying glitches in the game I feel I should mention.

Firstly, during one level, I had a customer come in. Almost randomly, a piece of trash appeared in front of her. This is supposed to tank her mood, but not send her out the door. Instead, she ran out immediately, costing me my ranking. I retried this level multiple times, and earned the same result every time.

Another glitch I got happened more often. There would be a customer asking for information about an item. I’d go that customer, but nothing would happen. I’d have to sit there and watch the customer slowly get angry enough to leave. This was extremely frustrating and again caused undue harm to my score.

The game also had lengthy load times, often lasting well over thirty seconds. My computer might have been partially at fault, but I’ve run other games without this much trouble, so I can only assume something was up with Spooky Mall.

All in all, the game doesn’t leave the best of impressions.

The Scores
Modes: Poor
Graphics: Very Poor
Audio: Below Average
Gameplay: Decent
Replayability: Bad
Balance: Poor
Originality: Dreadful
Addictiveness: Very Poor
Appeal Factor: Bad
Miscellaneous: Very Poor
Final Score: Very Poor Game!

Short Attention Span Summary

Spooky Mall does more than simply not live up to its name. It presents a basic gameplay style that has limited appeal at best and then fails to deliver any substantial content to back it up. It ends up being monotonous at best, and downright boring at worst. Still, it’s not a “bad” game. If you end up finding some enjoyment out of it, the hundred or so levels will probably be enough to keep you going. If you try out the demo and like what you see, then perhaps this game is for you.

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