If I didn’t tell you that Geisha: The Secret Garden is the first project from French developer Casual Box, you’d probably be able to guess it anyway. Games like Geisha almost always result from the blend of bold creativity and muddled execution that you see most often in first-time creators. What Casual Box has tried to achieve here is a clever reinvention of the basic match-3 puzzle game using mahjong-like tiles, a zen gardening mini-game, and Japanese-themed visuals to create a relaxing atmosphere where players pit themselves against an ever-growing flood of titles that need to be eliminated by matching them into groups of three or more.
The tiles in Geisha may look like mahjong tiles, but they don’t behave like them in any way. You can only move tiles horizontally, but this is less of a limitation than you might think. As long as you don’t run the game’s generous timer down, you’ll find it easy to make enormous chains of tiles as you progress through the game’s eighty levels. If the timer turns out to be a problem, you can swap to Relax mode to get infinite play time.
The game tries to offer some extra challenge in the form of gimmick tiles you can’t move. Some tiles you can use by clearing away the snow or leaves covering them, while others like the stone and ice tiles must be broken. Only the ice tiles are a significant obstacle, since they can’t be matched. Your goal in the game is to meet each level’s win condition while also earning lots of coins by matching coin-tiles, which earns stars. Gaining stars unlocks the game’s three legendary dragons, who let you do stuff like earn coins faster or double your timer.
You get a lot of magic abilities and tricks you can use to destroy tiles rapidly. Matching four or more tiles causes random wind tiles to spawn. When moved, a wind tile will eliminate all tiles to the east, west, north, or south of it. Matching or destroying tiles builds up your magic meter, which unlocks elemental powers. You proceed from the weak Steel power that eliminates a single offending tile, to the potent Wind power that eliminates all tiles of a given type.
Once you’ve earned coins, you can spend them to customize a garden layout you’re given at the start of the game. There are twelve customization pieces you can buy, with prices ranging from 50 to 500. Every piece can be upgraded up to three times and moved about freely. You can’t sell back or remove any of the pieces if you get tired of them, which is frustrating. There’s really not enough in the game to buy, either, so expect to be flush with excess cash long before you beat it.
Geisha recommends that players tackle it on Normal difficulty, but this doesn’t really work as a challenging match-3 game. There’s no real sense of logic to the difficulty curve, with some levels spawning tiles that just don’t make any sense given the win conditions. Some of the game’s early levels are brutally difficult, while the final levels are relatively easy. Playing in Relax mode makes the game a pleasant way to unwind, but can also highlight the basically repetitive nature of the game. There are also some issues with iffy controls that grow more irritating the longer you play. Clicking on a tile that’s next to the one currently highlighted is basically impossible and on Normal difficulty, you will lose matches over this.
Since Geisha: The Secret Garden has no real plot or characters to speak of, it also doesn’t have anything like a real ending or a real story. You begin in summer and see an end credit roll after completing all the spring levels, after which you’re back at the first summer level. Beating the game frankly felt pointless, since I ran out of garden pieces I wanted to buy and bought all of the dragons before the game was really half over. Casual Box clearly has some interesting ideas about match-3 gameplay, but Geisha is a little too half-baked to really do much with them.