It’s always exciting when a puzzle game comes along that doesn’t just dress up a proven game concept with new graphics and power-ups, but actually invents a new way of playing.
Ouba: The Great Journey is one such game. You’ll recognize elements of match-three games like Jewel Quest and falling block games like Tetris (although in this case the blocks fill up from the bottom of the screen instead of the top), along with a unique story that ties everything together into something a little different.
The game’s inhabitants, the Oubas, are colorful and fun-loving creatures that could have come straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. They live in the idyllic village of Oubaville, next to an important waterfall that is the source of the Oubas’ power. Unfortunately, the exiled magician GarOuba, who is jealous of Oubaville’s king, uses his dark magic to destroy the village. The Oubas all flee for their lives, and it’s your job to rescue them before GarOuba can capture them – do so, and they’ll help to rebuild Oubaville and rejuvenate the waterfall.
As far as puzzle game plots go, it’s a pretty good one. And what’s more, the story is very well integrated with the gameplay itself.
You rescue the Oubas by completing puzzle levels that feature a grid filled with different colored bricks and Oubas standing on top of the columns. The bricks represent GarOuba’s magic, and each time the magician waves his staff, another row of bricks appears at the bottom of the screen, pushing the columns higher to trap the Oubas in cages that are waiting at the top of the screen. If this happens, the level is failed.
However, you can shrink the columns by using the mouse to rotate bricks of the same color into lines (either horizontal or vertical) so that they disappear. The goal is to free all the Oubas in the level by shrinking columns down to the bottom of the screen so that they can escape.
One of the biggest differences between Ouba: The Great Journey and a lot of other match-three games is that when a brick is rotated, it stays put even if it didn’t create a matching row (instead of rotating back to its original position). This means you can drag one brick from one end to the screen to the other, one row or column at a time, if you need to. You can also exchange a block with thin air.
These innovations open up drastically different ways of playing from standard match-three strategy. For example, you can slide selected color blocks out of the middle of higher columns so they fall on top of shorter columns to form a match. It also means you’ll never become “stuck” and run out of moves (like you can in games like Bejeweled) since you aren’t limited to rotating neighboring blocks, and there are always new bricks being pushed into the grid from below.
Ouba: The Great Journey has its share of power-ups, including bomb bricks that blow up a chunk of the grid, color bombs that remove all bricks of the same color from the grid, freeze blocks that temporarily freeze the bottom row of bricks to stop new bricks from pushing up, and my personal favorite, the hammer, which lets you go on a short smashing spree and destroy blocks simply by clicking on them.
Other objects are a hindrance instead of a help. Vine bricks, for example, are obstacles that can’t be matched with other bricks and will slowly spread around the board like a fungus unless you explode them by forming matches next to them. You’ll also encounter a sneaky double-agent – a specially colored Ouba who’s actually working as a spy for GarOuba. The idea is to stop him from escaping, because if he does, he’ll work with GarOuba to make the columns rise even faster!
Every so often there’ll be a break in the regular action with a special Speed Round, where the goal is to save as many Oubas as possible in one minute in a pre-set, unmoving grid.
As you save the Oubas, they’ll begin to make repairs to Oubaville – rebuilding huts, planting new trees, building roads and so on – and you’ll see the town gradually begin to come alive once more. You can admire the new and improved Oubaville from the title screen whenever you load up the game, which is a nice way of keeping track of the progress you’ve made.
The refreshing new gameplay concepts in Ouba: The Great Journey work very well for the most part. My main complaint is that the difficulty spikes considerably in the later levels because the game is too stingy in doling out power-ups. It’s also a shame that there are only two modes (the main story mode and a never-ending score-based survival mode), but that will hopefully be addressed if a sequel is in the cards – and here’s hoping that there is.