Whether you love tennis bracelets or tiaras, Hipsoft’s latest puzzle game, Gem Shop, is sure to put a smile on your face. The game takes many of the best aspects of puzzlers and combines them with the fun of running a small business to create a uniquely challenging title that will have you playing for hours.
At its core, Gem Shop is a well-done” match three” game. Players use the mouse to drag an entire row or column of a 6×6 grid horizontally or vertically, making contiguous clusters of three or more like colored gems in the process, though they need not be in a single row or column (L-shaped matches are acceptable). As these clusters shatter and disappear, new gems fall in to fill the gaps, often leading to more clusters and more explosions in a mesmerizing, point-filled cascade. As you progress, unmovable cracked gems and unmatchable lumps of coal hinder your progress.
So far, Gem Shop sounds similar to most other games in the category, but there’s a great twist. Each level presents you with a series of customers that are interested in buying your jewelry. The faster you match gems (which builds the jewelry), the happier your customers are and the more money you make per sale. With each passing round the amount you need to earn to advance increases. If you miss your sales goal, you have to use one of three retries and hope you can do better next time.
In addition to money, you can also earn “upgrade tokens” by greatly surpassing sales goals or matching trios of gold coins that fall amidst the multicolored gems. These tokens can be used to buy plans for new, more expensive jewelry to sell or special gifts to make waiting customers happy, including very cute espressos, chocolates and elaborately wrapped gifts.
Your personal upgrade strategy and playing style can have a profound impact on the experience. Do you buy the cheap necklace that you can afford now, or save up for the extremely valuable diamond tiara? Should you purchase a lot of gifts to power through the slow times, or trust that you’re fast enough at making matches to keep the customers happy? Each strategy has its pros and cons, and figuring out the one that best suits you is half the fun.
Gem Shop’s graphics are bright, colorful and cute, but the overall presentation suffers from a case of information overload. Managing your customer’s mood, your items, the progress on your current jewelry, your current sales goal, etc. can be a bit tough while you’re trying to focus on sliding gems. Luckily, subtle audio clues (which ring through an excellently catchy classical soundtrack) help you track your progress and let you keep your focus on the game. Playing with the audio off makes for a much harder and less enjoyable experience.
Smooth, intuitive controls will have even the clumsiest of players matching their first gems in no time. At first it’s a struggle just to see the simple matches, but soon simple threesomes becomes second nature and the focus shifts to setting up long cascades of gems. The hypnotic effect of the shattering gems will leave their colors on the back of your eyelids for a while after you stop playing.
The only thing hampering Gem Shop’s highly addictive gameplay is a sloping wall of difficulty that makes it difficult to improve. More expensive jewelry requires more matches to complete, making for more impatient customers and substantially more difficulty with each passing round. As the levels advance, the room for improvement becomes very slim, requiring a series of non-stop mega combos just to create jewelry that your customers are happy about. With only three continues per play, you may often find yourself restarting from the beginning after reaching a seemingly impassable level.
Gem Shop is an innovative, different, and fun diversion for the first couple hours of game play. To some, the game’s extreme challenge at higher levels will only spur more and more obsessive gem matching in an effort to make it onto the Internet high score list. For others, though, this wall of difficulty may lesson the game’s overall addictive properties.