The tile-matching pastime mah jong originated in China, but according to Mahjong: Mysteries of the Past the game is timeless. As you travel through five historical eras searching for pieces of a missing artifact (more on that later), the inhabitants you meet all have two things in common: one, they all conveniently speak modern English, and two, they’re always up for a few rounds of mah jong.
In Story mode you play scientist Andy Brown, whose colleague has just discovered that there’s a giant meteor hurtling towards the Earth. Coincidentally, Andy has just come into the possession of a time machine so you’re able to travel back through time and hunt for the 10 pieces of a magical medallion that promises to give its wearer power over nature and the ability to rescue civilization from certain doom.
The game’s 60 levels span five historical periods, beginning with ancient Egypt and progressing to the Mayan civilization, ancient Rome, China and medieval England. Ten out of the 12 levels are mah jong challenges – a quick refresher for those not familiar with the game: the object is to clear the board of tiles by removing two tiles of the same type. Tiles are free to remove if they’re uncovered and can be slide to the left or right.
Mahjong: Mysteries of the Past adds a twist seen before in several other mah jong games where you don’t actually have to clear the board to win, but rather simply find the two golden tiles and remove those from the board. The game also offers special blue, red and grey tiles that can be matched with each other even if their symbols are different. There’s a countdown timer as well, but the time limit is always quite generous and time never became a factor for me.
Every sixth level is a curious “match-2” mini-game where you must clear symbols from a grid by matching two or more of the same type. There are also a ton of special tiles, like missiles that clear entire rows, bombs that blow up big chunks of the board, clocks that slow down time, and a brush that colors the tiles above it in the same pattern. It’s not a terribly well thought out concept, especially since the only goal seems to be to get a high score – it’s impossible to actually clear the board because new tiles keep dropping down ad nauseam until the 3-minute timer has wound down complete. Three minutes, incidentally, is too long.
The mah jong portion of the game, however, is quite enjoyable. Each time period offers a unique tile set that reflects the culture you’re currently immersed in. Aside from some of the symbols being a bit hard to discern from one another (the Mayan tileset especially), the tiles are attractive – as are the watercolor backgrounds.
The game offers hints, a “back” button to cancel your last move, a shuffle feature, and the ability to toggle between showing all tiles and only the ones that are free. However, to use these hints you have to spend the points that you earned from matching tiles so it’s possible to run out of aids. This strikes a good balance between offering help if needed, but not too much.
You only really need to use the hints if you get impatient, because it seems like it’s impossible to actually lose a level. If you do reach a point where there are no possible moves left, the game automatically removes a couple of tiles to open up the board.
In between levels you’ll find yourself talking to various characters trying to negotiate with them for their piece of the medallion. The game offers the ability to select different responses during the conversations, but this doesn’t appear to have much of an impact on how people actually respond. No matter what option I chose, I always ended up getting what I wanted.
While the mini-games and dialogue are the weak points of story mode, mah jong fanatics are in the clear as soon as they unlock Classical and Endless Game modes. Classical lets you select from 100 different mah jong board layouts to play on, and you can even select a backdrop of your choice. Endless Game mode is just that: once you clear one board, you get to dive immediately into another one with a new randomized layout and background.
While the non-mah jong aspects of Mahjong: Mysteries of the Past fall a little flat, the mah jong gameplay itself is solid enough to keep fans busy for a while.