I can recall the exact moment in my life when I realized that match three games were a guilty pleasure addiction. At the time I was working for a certain telecommunications company that has a logo reminiscent of The Death Star. I had just been promoted as a DSL support manager and the company had wanted us to provide 24-hour support so I was working the graveyard shift. Providing 24-hour support for a product also meant that unless there was a major outage, after 9PM back in those days, my job was a desolate wasteland. No calls came in and we couldn’t call customers. Naturally, I found myself looking for anything to occupy my time and help me stay awake.
Sometime around the wee hours of 2 AM or so I stumbled across Shockwave.com only to find myself completely enamored by a little jewel matching game. For the life of me now I can’t find the actual game, but I know that it wasn’t Bejeweled (though of course it may have been). All that really matters is that during that late night indulgence of gem-match gaming, I became acutely aware that casual games could be just as addictive as deep turn-based strategy games, MMOs or any other game that offers that instant gratification always compelling gamers to play one more turn.
I can’t even begin to guess how many hours my family has spent playing the Puzzle Quest games on PSP and DS. Basically, I find myself a little bit like a crack dealer in my house. I installed Bejeweled 3 on the family room PC last year and every so often I will walk by and find any one of my three kids glued to the screen matching gems. My wife devoured Bejeweled 3, and to help feed her need to match the glorious gems while adding more to her addiction, she discovered Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook (which adds another social twist to the game). I avoid playing any Facebook games because I know that the social slant (while in most games becomes nothing more than a method of spamming friends about a game) is the modern evolution of leaderboards on old arcade units and chasing scores on simple “casual” games can quickly become my downfall.
While I was excited to see that Puzzle Quest had been updated to work on the PlayStation Vita, after copying over my game saves, I quickly realized that while the game looks amazing and still has the deep immersion with its RPG hooks, I wanted to play something fresh on the Vita. Fortunately, Alawar Entertainment has released a version of its popular Treasures of Montezuma for the Vita. When it was initially released I will admit that I was not exactly a fan. My biggest problem with the game was that it felt too much like a cash crab where the only way to be able to truly enjoy the game was to constantly buy additional gems.
That statement may not make a lot of sense, so let me back up a bit and explain. Each round lasts only one minute. When the game first launches, players have five hearts. The hearts are like quarters to put into an arcade machine. Use a heart, the game plays, but after one minute the round is finished. During that one minute, a lot can happen, including tokens exploding through bolts of lightning, dynamite, or even token eating plants. The visual flash on screen makes for a chaotic minute, but as it is so short lived, using the remaining hearts is a compelling no brainer. To add to the flashy chaos on screen, some of the tokens have gems embedded in them. If three colors are matched and a gem is embedded, then that gem is collected at the end of the round. Gems can be used to enhance the one-minute round by allocating totems and bonuses to the field of play. Each totem or bonus costs a set number of gems, but the benefits can provide multipliers that not only increase the number of gems embedded on tokens, but also experience points gained as well as the overall leaderboard score.
What initially turned me off was the very obvious push within the game to buy additional gems from the PSN Store. The ratio of winning gems during a match to the cost of buying totems and bonuses to enhance the game was clearly not in the favor of gamers’ wallets. Not that I can blame the developers, as Alawar Entertainment released the game for free and they have a perfectly legitimate mechanism built into the game for making money. I’m just not easily suckered into buying my way through a gameplay experience (especially since the gems spend at such a quick rate).
My view of the game has changed drastically within the past week or so, however, after a new patch was applied to the game. The patch tweaked a few things within the game (and also included Trophies) that help to better explain some of the concepts surrounding the totems and bonuses as well as provide a clearer tutorial. I think the game likely had the same premise, but the in-game explanation was not as clear as it is now. As I mentioned above, the gems that are earned during a round can be used to enhance the random specials that fire off during gameplay and increase the chance for more gems to be earned. What is more clearly explained after the patch is that the bonuses and totems can be rented but aren’t necessary to play a round.
What this means is a round can be played at any time as long as there are hearts available to spend. But gameplay doesn’t have to involve the totems and bonuses. Obviously the game is a hell of a lot more exciting when all manner of flashy chaos is lighting up the screen, but for folks like myself who don’t want to spend money in order to keep playing, this patch finally makes the game a whole lot easier to spend whatever meager gems have been earned, then turn off the bonuses and continue playing without feeling like real money has to be forked over to have any sort of satisfaction with the game.
In addition to the gem earning component during the individual rounds, ToMB also offers gamers a daily lotto scratcher card with the chance to earn anywhere from 200 gems up to 100,000 gems. Gems can also be earned by leveling up through experience points earned during each match. Other folks on a player’s friends list can share gems earned (and I’ve collected a tidy sum of gems from a few of my friends on multiple occasions). PlayStation Vita’s Near functionality also lists when gems are available from friends or random people.
One of my favorite features of ToMB is the fact that matching six tokens at once unlocks Kickout Mode, which means tapping on the rear touch pad of the Vita destroys the corresponding tokens. Another devious unlock is called Dark Mode, which clouds the screen with a thick black fog, obscuring the view of tokens that can be matched up. Tapping on the rear touch pad briefly clears the fog which allows for token swapping to occur. A final feature that I really appreciate is a Hint bonus, which briefly flashes which tokens can be swapped (although sometimes a token can be swapped in more than one direction and the game doesn’t offer hints as to which direction will provide the best point or gem outcome).
As I mentioned earlier, many free-to-play games offer a social aspect these days. Near is one of the simpler social links, but the one that really shines in this game is the ever-present leaderboard. Each week the game resets the leaderboard so that taking the top spot is fair game, and while I’ve been at the top several times early in the week, I often find my score trounced by one or two of my friends by the end of the week. The weekly resets add one more layer of fun and replay challenge to a game that combines a bit of luck and skill with what could be considered a tired formula.
Treasures of Montezuma Blitz is a shining example of what the future of gaming on the Vita can be, offering traveling gamers quick pick up and play sessions mixed with social challenges and vibrant, addictive gameplay. As a free-to-play game, Treasures of Montezuma Blitz is a title everyone with a Vita should download and try at least once, especially now that Alawar has patched the title with a number of important upgrades.
+ Fun, chaotic match three puzzling
+ Multiplier system adds strategic depth
+ Leaderboard chasing adds plenty of replay
– Matches are only 1 minute long
– Buying gems could potentially cost as much as a retail Vita game
– Use of both front and rear touch panels on the Vita can be a bit challenging
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Publisher: Alawar Entertainment
Developer: Alawar Entertainment
Release Date: 4/10/2012
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Source: Game is free to play