Pattern-matching puzzler Azkend‘s chief innovation isn’t its haunting atmosphere, lilting Far Eastern soundtrack or even admittedly gorgeous presentation. (Although they are major pluses, elevating the title to that elite rank of games you can tell received the royal treatment when it comes to both manpower and production values.) Rather, it’s the way in which the outing buffs and polishes an oft-explored formula to an undeniably brilliant shine, proving that even the most cliched design conventions can still be used to tremendous effect, if given the proper time and tender loving care.

Consider the storyline, which instantly hooks viewers with its suspenseful premise of a visitor to foreign lands who finds themselves strangely called back to the Orient years after finding a mysterious artifact which changed their life. A masterpiece in minimalism, although you’re drip-fed little more than a line of dialogue here, a new picture of a snowy mountaintop or remote pagoda there, one can’t help but keep at the tale to see what develops. Likewise, basic play’s setup couldn’t be more nonchalant either, as – faced with a randomly-shaped grid of item-bearing hexagons at each standalone level – you simply attempt to make chains of three or more similar objects.

Per usual, doing so merely requires clicking and dragging your mouse over said parasols, leaves, seashells, flowers and chalices in linear order, with any matches made instantly disappearing from the board. (Following which, gravity causes higher-situated items to tumble down and take their places.) To win each stage, you must convert each tile’s backdrop to blue by making a match using it, then – once all hexagons have been colored in – lowering the bit of talisman which appears afterwards until it touches the bottom row of the pile. The whole time you’re playing, the clock is slowly running out, with only a limited amount of seconds afforded to beat every scenario.

Predictably, the further you progress across the brooding mountain range that passes as Adventure mode’s campaign map, the likelier you are to encounter obstacles including steel tiles, iced-over tiles, locked titles and spreading tar. To get ahead, you’ll eventually be forced to counter each or all on any single level (which may further constrain movement by way of choke points or only a limited selection of initial items) by making multiple or adjacent matches using these playing pieces.

If it all sounds a bit too familiar, don’t be fooled. The first twist here is that any time you utilize a previously untapped hexagon you’re awarded a lightning rune. Fill your Thunder Meter with five, and an equal number of electrified bolts crash onto the screen, randomly destroying certain items and coloring in their tiles. (Thankfully, the computer generally focuses on those targets most helpful to the player.)

The second is that if you link larger numbers of objects in one fell swoop, you’ll receive an instant bonus in the form of a series of extra lightning strikes that are awarded for joining 7 hexagons at once and every 3 in the same sequence thereafter. Grab enough talisman pieces, and you’ll be able to access their special powers too, with participants able to select one patron artifact before each stage. Connect four or more items corresponding to these powerful treasures, and shooting stars come crashing onto the screen, bombs explode in a jaw-dropping display of smoke and flame and tile-destroying rays of light spray out in random directions.

Amazingly, the fun doesn’t stop at these selectable special weapons and bonuses’ stunning accompanying pyrotechnics either. Although groups of levels are set against the same, static backdrop, these environments (composed of still, but pretty pictures) color in more with each stage passed. Fill in enough, and you’ll get to play a “Where’s Waldo”-type mini-game that challenges you to spot certain objects or portions of the scene highlighted in a viewfinder.

While ultimately a fleeting amusement, there’s plenty of incentive to participate in these diversions too, with extra seconds permanently awarded to your total available time on every successive encounter the more you successfully spot. Throw in a full-fledged survival mode with levels specifically keyed to each talisman as well, and it all makes for one heck of a lot of eye candy and replay value.

On the downside, veterans can blaze through the core tale in just a couple afternoons, assuming the action doesn’t prove too deja vu-inspiring or repetitious. And certainly, options to pick your preferred bonus (though not all, such as the extinction talisman, are that effective or interesting) combined with frequent lightning strikes speed up the pace and increase chances of triumphing all the more. But really, as much as beginners will immediately cotton to the quest, and longstanding genre stalwarts can’t help but be amused by how fresh and perky a previously stodgy and overused gaming trope suddenly feels, well… Suffice it to say that we’re giving this total surprise gem two enthusiastic thumbs up.