Successfully blending mah jong with Zuma and bingo, offbeat puzzler Liong: The Dragon Dance was nothing if not ambitious when it launched several months back. Sequel Liong: The Lost Amulets takes an equally innovative approach, mixing hidden object play with typical tile-matching challenges, albeit not always to best effect.
While returning fans may appreciate the gesture, and newcomers will be amused, a few design quirks ultimately hold the title back from true greatness.
Per the storyline, five amulets are prized for their ability to keep the elements in balance. Your mission: Find them, and restore harmony to nature. Thankfully, the process is mostly a fun one, with an alternating series of challenges offered in Adventure Mode. (A solid Traditional play option is also available for those seeking classic tabletop action, though bonuses like the ability to undo moves and eliminate entire tile sets in one swoop add fanciful elements.) Here, players split time between interactive scavenger hunts and scenarios that demand you match playing pieces bearing identical icons to retrieve magical letters that spell words like “rainforest” and “palm tree.”
Annoyingly though, hidden object stages – viewed from an overhead perspective – involve hunting for dozens of tiny items like padlocks and yin-yang medallions on the same, albeit attractively-rendered, boards. Tracking down 26 individual (and inexplicable) doodads from hammers to bugles and antique phones or spotting a dozen differences between two pictures isn’t just monotonous either. It’s also highly frustrating, given that generalized descriptors may throw you for a loop, with several objects depicted on each environment that could technically fit the bill, yet only one the intended target. For example: Good luck determining whether “brush” refers to a hairbrush or paint brush – and which one in particular.
As for mah jong-inspired vignettes, you’ll basically face a stack of tiles stamped with one of multiple user-selectable graphic sets – animals, ciphers, rainbow patterns, etc. – that need to be cleared on each level. Five randomly chosen tiles appear on the bottom of the screen, letting you know which patterns can currently be matched. Removing squares from the grid simply requires clicking to pair uncovered tiles whose icons correspond to those in your hand. As a bonus, the currently selected tile levitates and sparkles if potential moves still remain on the board, useful for identifying multiple tile-eliminating (and point-boosting) opportunities.
While not as challenging as the classic game of mah jong, given that you won’t have to think ahead as much or worry about running out of possible moves, it’s nonetheless an approachable and endearing play twist. We just wish the pacing weren’t so scattershot or needlessly drawn out at times, as you wait for the exact tile needed or a wildcard bonus to randomly appear.
Between an intuitive interface, pleasingly-animated backgrounds (think glittering flames, fluttering butterflies and moving characters) and a soothing, Asian-flavored instrumental soundtrack, the package ultimately comes together rather well. Collectible jade pearls – earned by locating them on stage backgrounds or spinning a wheel of fortune to play optional bonus mini-games like geometric jigsaw puzzles and origami pattern matches – merely add extra intrigue. These baubles, also regularly doled out as rewards for sharper performance, are used to purchase tile-shuffling or -destroying power-ups and hints. As such, you’re given continued incentive to go that extra mile, and some measure of control over your own fate.
Regardless, what we have here is a mostly likable, if often needlessly bland mix of activities, none of which prove spectacularly compelling unto themselves. And while it all gels nicely, occasional grammatical hiccup and low-key narrative aside, the whole doesn’t truly add up to more than the sum of its parts. Make no mistake about it: Liong: The Lost Amulets is an above-average outing that scores for its great graphics and variety of featured activities. But experimental approach notwithstanding, it’s hardly the true showstopper we’d hoped for, reinforcing that the series still has a lot of room to grow.
Lacking its predecessor’s polish and split-second thrills, yet proving its slick production values and forward-thinking mindset can translate to other play styles, the game is definitely worth a look. Just go in knowing that several of the title’s 100-odd levels, and its more relaxed pacing, aren’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. (Green, natch…)