Rather than stay safely locked in your cozy, heated home this winter, consider getting out and exploring an ancient land of mystery and wonder instead.
Thanks to Realore Studios’ new pattern-making puzzler Age of Japan, anyone can now enjoy a quick jaunt to the Far East without leaving their desktop. Or, while we’re at it, risking embarrassing pat downs and/or cavity searches at the hands of overzealous airport security guards…
Neither as deep nor as involved as the best the genre has to offer, there’s fun to be had here nonetheless, courtesy of two individual play modes: Arcade or Puzzle. The former presents a time-based challenge, demanding you clear each stage (a grid of object-filled squares located atop a picturesque, animated background) of colored tiles before the clock runs out. The latter follows a similar slant, but in lieu of making players stare down a ticking stopwatch, vexes you by limiting the number of total moves you’re allowed when solving every puzzle.
Essentially, the play-by-play action’s the same as in most other titles of this ilk. The basic mechanic around which everything revolves: Clicking on two tiles (filled with Asian-themed items like black urns, blue pearls, purple fish and green leaves), which causes them to swap positions. Make a match – created by placing three or more similarly-adorned squares next to one another, which causes them to disappear from the board – by doing so, and you’ll score points. Any squares featuring gold or silver coloring will also lose this highlighted shading, with the level ending when you’ve removed all colored squares from the board.
Every few stages, you’ll also face bonus rounds as well, which give you a set amount of time to make as many matches as possible. Create enough via controlled tile swapping or the chain reactions which follow as a result of squares disappearing and others falling downward to take their place, and you’ll earn special broom power-ups. Brooms may be used during active play to sweep away, or eliminate, an object from any single tile.
Of course, later scenarios introduce obstacles such as specially highlighted squares requiring that multiple matches be made atop them. Or, while we’re at it, locked tiles that won’t move until incorporated once or twice into a match. It’s from these stumbling blocks, as well as level designs featuring narrow columns or hard to reach corners, that actual challenges come. Frankly, were it not for these conventions, the game would be unexpectedly simple, with helpful objects – not to mention handy power-ups like bombs, shape-changing objects and wild-card squares – popping up too frequently.
To give you an example: Prior to playing the current contender, I’ve never seen a game initially populate stages with items in such a way so as to accidentally unlock tricks and traps before the excitement even begins. Blame overly generous object-randomization routines, which can also be a pain from time to time, since you get so used to having your way that it’s all the more annoying when a dry spell strikes.
We’d also like to have seen more variety in the backgrounds, despite pleasing touches like leaves which float in the wind as they drop from trees and lights which twinkle enigmatically beside mist-shrouded temples. But don’t be fooled by such complaints: As an atmospheric soundtrack and surprisingly fast-paced play prove, there’s plenty here to draw the eye and keep you happily glued to the PC for hours on end. More energetic than its peers, yet also less flashy or complex, it’s the type of title that’ll quickly lull you into a Zen-like, finger-twitching trance.
To be blunt, Age of Japan could have benefited from a little more polish, tighter programming, a proper storyline and greater flash and dazzle. But amidst this particular season’s backdrop of wintry winds and steely gray skies, the title’s sharp visuals, solid action and tried and true play mechanics will have you wistfully pining for distant shores nonetheless.