Saturday, March 27, 2010
Indie Game Review -- War of Words
Once upon a time I, like many other gamers out there, became horribly addicted to Puzzle Quest and its part-Bejeweled part-RPG formula. Something about taking the boring menu-driven battles of most RPGs and replacing them with a turn-based match-three puzzler made the game, a game with the most cliche plot and paper-thin characters, probably one of the biggest overnight successes in the last decade of gaming. There have been a few attempts since to emulate that formula with varying degrees of deviation and success. The latest attempt is War of Words, a game ditching turn-based puzzle gaming for real-time word finding, from XBLIG developer ScrumThorax.
The story of War of Words, a game best described as an RPG blended with a fast-paced word search, is that you're out to find your kidnapped mother and sister. Along the way you'll do battle with goblins, dragons, guards, and evil sorcerers or WordSmyths (things are always more mysterious when you replace 'i' with 'y'). Battle consists of trying to make words out of the rising tiles on your side of the screen while your opponent does the same. Longer or more complex the word, much like in Scrabble, the more points the word is worth and the more it'll fill a meter. Fill the meter, you do damage. Keep doing this until your opponent keels over or until they do the same to you. To assist you in this you have a selection of spells (up to six) and can buy items to replenish your health and magic in the heat of battle. Win and you'll gain experience and gold to help make you stronger and, eventually, you'll face the final boss (there's gotta be one). Pretty basic RPG formula and, believe me, it's as basic and cliche as they come.
The presentation hits well where it needs to with the combat, otherwise it's mediocre at best and laughable otherwise. Your enemy avatars are pretty generic looking, one of your spells summons a "stone" that looks like a giant black blob drawn in MS Paint, the overworld map looks like a treasure map doodled overnight, the story text could be entirely skipped with little to no consequence, and I swear the main menu/overworld map music has an MP3 skip in it. However, since you'll spend 85% of your time in combat, the only valid complaint I can have is that, when tiles become affected by a spell, they become really difficult to read. Everything else seems pretty well planned. Text is large enough to keep from becoming an eye strain during battle, which is good because, like I said, it's where you'll be most of the time. In the end, the presentation gets by and, appropriately, plays second fiddle to the gameplay.
The main draw of the game, the word-based combat, is as addictive as it is an original and fresh idea within the genre. Over the course of ten hours or so of play I rarely had an issue with any of the game's decisions regarding word legalities, and the few I had felt like nitpicking more than anything. With 170,000 words there are bound to be some issues one way or the other. The control itself is done well, with your left stick moving your cursor, 'A' selecting a letter, 'B' deselecting the last letter picked, and 'X' entering the word. Your right stick and 'Y' are used for spell selection and casting. Right Trigger raises your tiles up faster to give you more letters to pick from and Right Bumper deselects your entire word. Really, the only thing that could make this better would be a touch screen and a stylus.
Once you get used to what button does what it's all down to your ability to pick words out of the alphabet soup in front of you. In the heat of the moment you'll probably be picking out "cat" and "porn" before you start hitting the harder words. The game actually starts out with the common letters and, eventually, works its way up to the fun stuff during later battles. I actually wish it didn't do this just because those later battles get pretty difficult, due to the letter pool and due to your opponents becoming insanely strong. You're allowed to use items during battle to replenish your health and, if it wasn't for this, you'd die each time after the first hour of play. I had times toward the end where I used five or more potions over the course of incredibly long battles and would still end up losing. If you plan on having an easier time with the later enemies, you should look forward to a few hours of grinding and buying potions. An adjustable AI difficulty might have been a good choice for people who don't frequent the local Scrabble circuit.
If you play straight through you'll be looking at 8 hours or so, willing that you don't die much. There really isn't much to do afterward aside from play against others or try for in-game awards. There are treasure chests to find that require you to solve a riddle, some tavern puzzles that require you to hit a certain score with a fixed set of letters, and the usual grind to try and max your character out for fits and giggles, but with no side quests and no online play your journey is a once-through. Really, though, this isn't a bad thing as you're getting a lot of fun and entertainment for your 400 MS Points. This game is an easy recommendation to any fans of Puzzle Quest or word games in general (and will at least be something to keep you busy while waiting for Puzzle Quest 2). With better presentation, online play, more things to do and some customization, would fit in perfectly as a full-priced XBLA game or Nintendo DS game. Here's hoping for a sequel.
War of Words was made by ScrumThorax and is available on XBox Live for 400 MS Points. Completed every quest on the map after roughly 8-10 hours, died a lot, and was told that my best words were "murderer" and "carapace". This didn't make me feel any better about myself, believe me.