When the Nintendo DS was first introduced in my house there was one game that I played above every other title. Brain Age. Maybe it was the perfect storm of having a new toy in the house and only one game that I could play that the kids couldn’t (or didn’t want to). Maybe it was the fact that Sudoku was an integral part of the game. Or perhaps it was the idea that I could exercise my brain each day for just a few minutes and through either real science or placebo effect, I felt smarter after giving a good run at the game. Then again, it could have been the pleasant geometric face of Dr. Kawashima greeting me each time I fired up the game. Of any of these potential choices, Brain Age proved one thing: video games don’t have to be violent. Video games don’t have to be twitchy. Video games can be smart and educational.
I’m not certain why my game time with Brain Age dropped off. Probably some other shiny new game took my fascination, or perhaps my kids had found a game that required more of their attention than my daily brain exercises. Regardless, Nintendo managed to prove a point to the world at large, that handheld gaming didn’t necessarily have to be about catching them all or taking a dog for a walk. Now I know that handhelds are viewed with a much different regard in Japan than in the U.S., but you know that something is working right when my wife’s aunt out of the blue decides to buy a DS so she too can exercise her brain. Gaming is for everyone. If the game is right.
Despite numerous efforts by other developers to grab a piece of the newly found “mental exercise” gaming buyer, nothing since the original Brain Age has caught my attention and kept me wanting to come back for more each day. That is until I began playing XDev Studio Europe’s new PlayStation Vita title Smart As.
Smart As is a brain exercise game that uses the strengths of the Vita to create a fun, humorous and challenging title. Broken into three main sections, Smart As offers Daily Training, Free Play, and Smart As World noggin-crunching options. Daily Training presents a once-a-day series of puzzles which test and measure your brain in four distinct areas, including Observation, Language, Logic and Math. Once the Daily Training is completed, a score is evaluated and tracked as your Brain Power.
Completing Daily Training each day unlocks new challenges in the Free Play section which can be played again and again to help increase your daily Brain Power. Five unique challenges can be unlocked for each of the four distinct methods of brain measurement. Within each of the five unique challenges, there are four levels of complexity which can be further unlocked. Each challenge starts at Easy but earning three stars on a particular difficulty will unlock Medium, Hard and eventually Genius. What makes these challenges fun is the bright, bouncy visual presentation, the dry, yet encouraging wit of the narrator (John Cleese!), and the gobs and gobs of stats the game keeps track of.
With over 20 different quizzes spread between the four main sections of mental exercise it is a bit hard to pick out which ones are the best, but I do have a few favorites.
Live puzzle makes fun use of the front or rear cameras to capture a picture of a real object and scramble it into a set of puzzle pieces which can be tapped to rotate or swiped to move into the correct spot. Since the puzzle is live, moving the Vita can help to figure out where pieces belong as any sections of the puzzle which aren’t rotated correctly become obvious that they are not positioned as they should be.
Word Wheel is another favorite of mine. Letters are dropped on a wheel which then needs to be rotated so that the correct letters can be tapped in the right order to spell out the expected word. The puzzle is timed and each letter placed incorrectly (and thus tapped back onto the Word Wheel) causes a five second penalty per letter to be tacked on at the end of the puzzle round. Playing on Easy, Medium and Hard is fairly simple, but on Genius difficulty it gets tough when you tap out the wrong word and need to put many letters back onto the wheel while precious extra time is lost. Keeping track of the letters as they are added to the Word Wheel is key, but can definitely be a challenge on the Genius difficulty.
While not necessarily one of my favorite quizzes in the Math category, one that uses the Vita in a clever way is the Bubble Sum quiz. Holding the Vita up and aiming the rear camera around the room points a cross hair type cursor, at which point pressing the right or left shoulder button shoots a bubble to complete the equation at the bottom of the screen. As the quiz difficulties increase so to do the equations being displayed. To add to the chaos a bit is the fact that some of the bubbles that can be targeted are not in the initial view of the camera, so swinging the Vita left or right will uncover additional potential options to reach the solution.
Some of the quizzes also utilize the AR cards that shipped with the Vita. One downfall of this tech is a need to carry the AR cards with you. I don’t typically carry the cards around, but in a pinch I was able to find a mock image of the AR cards via my iPhone that worked out just fine. Maybe I haven’t spent enough time with any of the AR enabled games, but I don’t see any difference in how the Vita (at least in Smart As) differentiates identifying an AR card and continuing a puzzle versus simply using the camera and imposing Bubbles in the framed view to provide a puzzle. Regardless, the AR component works and adds a weird (but cool) interactive experience on screen with objects nearby.
While each quiz stat is tracked for the intended purpose of showing your own improvement, Smart As World also connects those stats to everyone else around the globe. Smart As uses Near (a feature of the Vita that is underused by way too many games in my opinion) to find challenges, post challenges as well as compare stats with fellow brain athletes. Not only does Smart As use Near for stat comparison, but it also features a fun Free Play Style booster with Street Smart challenges. These regional challenges appear whenever you load up the game in a new area. This feature is one of the more compelling reasons for owning a 3G Vita. Not having to worry about finding a wi-fi hotspot in order to load up local challenges to feed the need to top the challenge charts is a blessing.
Smart As World sorts the stats for each challenge in a myriad of ways, ranging from All Time, Active, Global, North America, US, regional, near and of course friends on your PSN friend list or Facebook (if folks so choose). At the beginning of each Daily Challenge, Smart As asks a simple question such as “Do you prefer to watch movies or read a book?” and then groups gamer stats to each question answered. While this isn’t necessarily relevant, the data that is provided is really interesting to see over time. As expected (at the time of this writing at least) folks who read books are on average smarter than folks who would rather watch a movie, yet people who prefer theme parks are smarter than those who prefer a museum.
This sort of charm and data interpretation is what makes Smart As so much fun. Not only is the presentation smart, but the game never condescends. The lack of derision is largely due to the cheeky narration performed by the aforementioned John Cleese. There is something disarming about Cleese’s proper British voice that almost pokes fun of a low score yet gives a polite pip to encourage another go.
Smart As is a damn good reason to own a Vita. Quick Daily Training, yet deep lasting Free Play challenges mixed with friend’s scores as well as global leaderboards offers an enticing reason to come back to the game each day. Smart As also takes advantage of the Vita’s many hardware capabilities to great success, utilizing the cameras, gyroscope, rear touch pad, front touch screen and buttons naturally and effectively. Seriously, Smart As is a fantastic game. You’d be a dummy to pass it up.
+ Fun, daily training
+ Deep challenges to stretch all aspects of mental capacities
+ Natural use of all features of the Vita
+ Plenty of challenges offered through Near and Smart As World
– Some challenges are very difficult even on easy
– Use of AR cards can be inconvenient
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Developer: XDev Studio Europe
Release Date: 10/30/2012
Genre: Puzzle/Brain Training
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Source: Review code provided by publisher