Publisher: Got Game Entertainment
Developer: Terminal Studio
Release Date: July 31, 2006
Anyone else feel like starting things off with a cliché? No? Well I'm going to anyway, because I can't really think of any other way to begin this review. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Running with that trite quip, we can presume that whoever first came up with Bejeweled must exist in a 24/7/365 state of blushing gratitude, because there sure have been a lot of games out there that are identical to it. Take, for example, today's subject, Atlantis Quest, a click-and-drag gem/treasure matching "portal" game developed by Terminal Studio and produced by Got Game Entertainment. This is a meta-clone: It replicates a game called Jewel Quest that itself replicated Bejeweled. There are layers and levels of philosophical meaning here that I cannot hope to understand. Will the original please stand up?
Now, it is possible you don't know what I mean by "portal" game. Essentially, there is an entire genre that has been on the rise for several years now. The target demographic of this digital milieu is women aged 30 to 50, and I suppose early-30s game reviewers who are real suckers for arcade simplicity. (Pay no attention to my guilty look.) The titles themselves are mostly puzzle- and logic-based, extremely easy to pick up and play, and are all small downloads that cost little money. It's rare that physical retail versions are produced, as it's rare that hard copies are even needed; there are ever-increasing numbers of websites that redistribute/publish each new release. This is where the term "portal" comes from; it refers to the web sites that host the files for download and purchase. Think of PopCap Games, Yahoo! Games, or Big Fish Games – these are all web sites that offer portal games. Now that I've abused my rules on word repetition, let's get back to Atlantis Quest itself.
The story of this game is one of discovery. Basically, you're trying to find the lost city of Atlantis by travelling throughout the ancient world collecting pieces of broken artifacts, re-assembling them and reading the clues they provide to find your way to the fabled city. The best I can gather is that in reality, you're a greedy grave robber, because the ultimate goal seems to be a giant solid-gold statue of a Chimera that reputedly sits in front of the Temple of Poseidon. Thou shalt not worship false idols, but the appropriation, smelting, and redistribution of that idols wealth is "in the clear" from a Biblical perspective. Hey, ho, let's go!
The basic breakdown of play is this: You are presented with a grid, which is covered with various pieces of treasure like "Aes Grave" coins, Roman legionnaire helmets, small statues of the Egyptian cat Goddess Bast, Ankhs, and so forth. You can click and drag these items one space horizontally or vertically, with the goal of matching three or more of the items in a row. Each time you match items in this way, the treasures vanish, and more fall into place from the top of the grid. There are also artifact pieces randomly placed on the grid, and the goal is to move these off the board by getting them to the bottom. As a final challenge, you are on a timer to get this all completed; if you take too long getting the artifact pieces to the bottom and the timer runs out, you lose a life and have to start over. It sure sounds complicated for such a simple game, doesn't it?
Each collected piece that you move off the grid contributes to the artifact you're assembling. These relics are all connected to ancient-world legends, such as the Amphora of Dionysius or the Shield of Nebuchadnezzar. There are usually several pieces of the relics on each grid, and as you progress, that number increases. There are power-ups you can collect as well, which randomly appear at a rate of one or two per level. These must be removed from the grid in the same way as artifact pieces, and once you've got them, you can save them for later use. There are four of these powers: the Hammer, which smashes specific treasure tiles; the Shovel, which removes all tiles sitting directly under any artifact pieces currently on-screen; the Hourglass, which adds more time to your timer; and the Magic lamp, which re-arranges all the tiles around artifact pieces into groups.
These are the basics of what to expect. However, Atlantis Quest carries two grievous design flaws that in my opinion prevent it from being a better example of the portal game genre. For starters, there aren't enough power-ups at all. By the time you clear about halfway through Egypt (the third stage), you'll be eating through these far in excess of the rate at which you collect them. They also don't really do that much; the amount of time you get from the hourglass, for example, is hardly even noticeable.
Next, we have what is, in my opinion, one of the most glaring oversights in balancing these games: The timer doesn't pause while combo chains are in effect! This means that the more successful of a combo you produce, the more you penalize yourself. Usually, a long combo is a good thing, and we're cerebrally-wired to see them as a successful action. Trust me when I say that, when you're down to the last moments with your timer in the red, and you only have one piece left on the board to remove, the last thing you want to see is a lengthy combo. It can mean the difference between winning and losing.
I could get really picky and comment on the lack of graphical acuity, but really, these games aren't quite as reliant on the display as more "traditional" PC games. The artistic direction isn't all that strong, but that's fairly minor compared to the issues I just detailed.
To be blunt, Atlantis Quest is just too hard, and after a few levels, the entertainment gives way to frustration. Now you might think that a game with absolutely no original concepts at all would be at least easy enough to polish into a well-balanced experience (from a developer's perspective). Sadly, this isn't the case. In my opinion, if you're in the mood for an item-matching puzzle game, you're better off sticking with Bejeweled.