Lots of words, but little variety
Alpha 9 is a new grid-based word-spelling game with a sleek minimalist design and a vast dictionary full of fun words that are just waiting to be formed to score the biggest point clusters. Because why spell things at all if you don’t strive to make those impressive eight-letter beasts, am I right? But despite showing off a few neat gameplay mechanics and a calmingly cool atmosphere, the lack of progression or long-term playing incentives leave this one feeling more like a breezy spelling test, rather than a full-fledged spelling bee championship.
Think of a giant board of Tetris, only with each tiny individual square containing a letter that you’ll need to use in order to form all of the words that your brain can possibly muster. Making words of four letters or more will clear out an entire horizontal row, while lining up three of the same letter in a vertical column will create a wildcard tile that can be used as any letter when creating your words for big points. When you’re really on a roll and have cleared away more letters than you have new words to spell, you can always hold two fingers on the screen to make more letter blocks start piling on from the top at a much more rapid rate.
But now the catch is that you’re only ever allowed to make words horizontally, which is done by holding down on a letter and dragging your finger sideways until the word is fully highlighted. Luckily, you’re also able to vertically move a single letter block up and down to whatever position you like, so long as you stay within the same column it started in. It’s certainly an interesting mechanic, and one that can almost feel a little jarring at first: not only do you have horizontal words to be matching, but you also need to be mindful of all the new words that you can potentially set yourself up with by using vertical maneuvers at the very same time.
At the end of each play, you’ll be presented with your wordlist for that game, your highest scoring word, and how many points you scored overall. Unfortunately, the game as a whole just doesn’t have enough features or long-term incentives to keep players spelling for very long. Alpha 9 currently features two different game modes: Wall and Clock. The Wall mode is easily the more exciting of the two, with flurries of letters constantly falling from the top of the screen, and players spelling until one of their vertical columns gets too tall and results in a Game Over, just like in Tetris.
Clock mode features an unmoving screen of letters that’s always filled to the brim, and has you passively making words until the designated timer runs out. I was at least expecting a more frantic version of the game here, where players would need to match words in quick succession in order to keep their time from counting down, but it’s easily the most relaxed version of a “Clock” mode that I’ve probably ever seen. It’s actually a challenge in itself to complete a 10-minute game of Clock without growing incredibly bored halfway through. At least the soft techno soundtrack is nice and soothing.
In both Wall and Clock, there are no levels, no penalties for failure, and no real goals to work towards, other than beating your own high score, or clearing enough letter blocks to purchase new color themes in the game store. While the different color themes certainly provide a refreshing change of scenery for your constantly refilling spelling canvases (I’m especially fond of the “Limelight” and “Seawaters” themes myself), they’re just not enough to keep the overall experience from feeling a bit dull or stale.
At the end of the day, the basic idea for Alpha 9 is still incredibly sound. The few new twists it adds to the traditional spelling gameplay, not to mention the smooth touchscreen controls and slick in-game interface, will quickly spell out words like “promise” and “potential” from the moment you first start to play. But missing additions like a rewarding sense of progression, or even a more fully realized time attack mode would have gone a long way towards making this one mobile game you simply couldn’t spell without!