Overall Score 89%
Helping Professor McGuffog to complete the reassembly of an ancient stone head led to quite a surprise when it began to speak. It suggested, since we had done such a great job reassembling it, that we might like to do the same for the numerous temples dotted around his home, El Dorado. Without waiting for a reply, we were whisked away!
Gemsweeper is a different game to the usual gem-matching fare. Each puzzle consists of a grid, each square of which either hides a gem or is "cursed". The aim is to reveal all the gems and smash all the cursed squares with your hammer, and the resultant image is usually a picture of some kind. You have hints to work out which squares are which in the form of numbers to the top of columns and left of rows, so (for instance) a row with the numbers 1 2 1 means there is a single gem, then a pair of gems, then another single gem in that row. Each set of gems is separated by at least one cursed square. By working out obvious rows and columns first, you can establish where the gems in linking rows and columns are.
Ardent puzzle fans may well recognise this description as being that of the Nonogram. Those not familiar with these puzzles may well be utterly baffled by my description - it's not as complicated as it sounds! Gemsweeper goes through the basics and explains new strategies as it goes along, so even a complete novice will pick it all up easily. Puzzles start off small and easy, growing larger as you progress, and mistakes are not necessarily fatal - smash a gem by mistake and you have a limited supply of "magic glue" to fix it; click on a cursed tile and you merely suffer a time penalty. The speed in which you complete puzzles affects your score, and there is a bonus for making no mistakes.
Control is entirely by mouse, aside from the entry of your name at the beginning of the game. By default you use the right mouse button to choose between hand (to select gems) and hammer (to smash tiles) and the left button to select tiles, but there is an option to make left select and right smash if you prefer. Hold down the button and you can select/smash rows or columns of squares in one go. Levels are timed, but time limits are generous (at least to begin with) to allow you time to think things through.
This is a game that gleams with a liberal application of polish. Everything is clear and easy to identify, with plenty of helpful hints from Professor McGuffog as you go through the levels. The plot is explained by a nifty comic strip, and there are some charming scrapbook photos that show your progress through the ranks. I'm also impressed by the range of pictures to reveal - someone has clearly spent some time devising them all. Areas that are a little less clear include the main map screen - you cannot select another temple to play, for instance, despite the feel that you should be able to (many games have map screens similar to this and they often do let you select previous levels). Larger puzzles can also get rather small and fiddly, though there is no real solution to this problem.
Sound encompasses smashing and gem revealing effects, the clink of accidentally smashed gems and more besides. Reveal a number of gems in one sweep and listen as the sound goes up in pitch! There's also a range of effects for Topex, the big stone head, on the map screen - last weekend he commented that it was Sunday, a day of rest, and promptly fell asleep and started snoring! You can also press his nose for a number of comments and the occasional appropriate noise.
Gemsweeper is a very easy game to get into - it takes a puzzle that perhaps too few people have experienced and then introduces you slowly to the concepts behind it. Minor touches improve playability too - for instance, you can reveal or smash a whole row or column in one go, but if your mouse hand wobbles along the way it won't target any squares outside that row/column. Mistakes are not fatal and, more usefully, are instantly reported, unlike Nonograms in paper form. And Gemsweeper allows multiple players to play at once, automatically keeping track of your progress. There can surely be no more friendly an interface to a logic-based puzzle game!
There are, however, some areas where this ease of use could be problematic. For instance, there's nothing stopping you from merely guessing when you're not sure what to do next (revealing cursed tiles will cost you time, but you could do this several times and still get away with it). The loss of the "no mistakes" bonus may prevent you reaching quite so high a score but, if your aim is simply to solve puzzles, this will prove no deterrant. I also had some issues with the larger grids when I accidentally clicked the wrong tile, smashing one I wanted to select or vice versa - those squares can get quite small!
These minor niggles aside, Gemsweeper is a fun and professional attempt at a puzzle game not yet widespread in the market. It remains to be seen whether this type of puzzle becomes popular, but the combination of pretty pictures, humour and flexibility makes me pretty confident it will find a niche of its own. This is a delightful game that will be filling odd snippets of my spare time for a while to come.
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