Stressful, fast-paced and super-challenging aren’t three words that normally come to mind when I think about the Chinese tile-matching game of Mah jong, but it’s exactly what happens when Mah Jong and Zuma collide in Liong: The Dragon Dance.
Set in a locale resembling ancient China, the story goes that groups of daring thieves are stealing all the Liongs (sacred dragon symbols) in the kingdom. After breaking in and taking the Liong, the thieves form a long, snaking line consisting of various mah jong symbols as they run towards the gate to escape – just like the balls advance slowly towards the idol’s mouth in Zuma.
You can temporarily slow the thieves’ progress by matching tiles on a mah jong board that clears a corresponding symbol on the line and causes it to pull back from the gate. If you manage to clear the entire mah jong board before the thieves reach the gate, you win the round, rescue the liong, and earn the emperor’s favor.
The game offers six different tile-sets. There’s the traditional Chinese tile sets of course, as well as numbers, oriental patterns, icons, and nature (animals and flowers.) As you travel throughout the land rescuing the colorful masks, they’re displayed on a wall for you to admire up close. You can also unlock additional secret levels by collecting various awards for completing in-game milestones. An exotic and interesting soundtrack rounds out the experience.
Traditional mah jong is a game of relaxation and strategy, where every move must be carefully considered based on the fact that a wrong move could seal off a tile forever and make the game unwinnable. Liong: the Dragon Dance, on the other hand, is a game of split-second decisions being made under constant duress.
Even adults will find the second of the three difficulty levels quite challenging (to say nothing of the hardest mode), especially once you’ve run out of opportunities to re-shuffle the tiles and have to start the level over each time you run out of moves. (A new shuffle is earned every 10,000 points.)
The game throws the occasional crutch your way in the form of special tiles that, when matched as a pair, grant a temporary bonus. There are arrow tiles that cause the line to roll back a lot; fire tiles that destroy part of the line, pause tiles that stop the advance of the line for a short time, and hint tiles that show possible moves by briefly illuminating the tiles.
But even these helpers, combined with turning on menu options like slow motion mode (which makes the thieves advance more slowly) or a mode that color-codes tiles to make matches easier to see, doesn’t make too big of a dent in the difficulty.
In the second gameplay mode, Puzzle, the goal is not to match two tiles to clear them from the board, but to match one tile from the mah jong board with the corresponding tile on the liong itself to make the line shorter. This mode doesn’t seem work as well as the main mah jong mode since you’re often left waiting around for the correct tile to show up in the line in order to make a match. It’s for the same reason that the bonus Bingo game, which uses a similar principle but with numbers on a bingo grid, is also not especially compelling.
Liong: The Dragon Dance isn’t a game to be conquered easily, so gamers looking for a relaxing, hand-holding ride will probably want to look elsewhere – unless they opt for Easy mode. But having the patience to persevere through the game’s 60 challenging levels (more than 100 counting both modes), will definitely give players a well-earned sense of accomplishment when they finally do reach the end.