Xbox Live Arcade Review - 'Brain Challenge'

by Glenn "Otter" Juskiewicz on June 20, 2008 @ 2:05 a.m. PDT

Brain Challenge is an entertaining brain training program that helps players develop stress-management skills through a wide variety of games. A personal coach helps players develop their abilities in five areas of cognitive function, including logic, math, memory, visual thinking and concentration, in a fun and easy way.

Genre: Edutainment
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Gameloft
Release Date: March 12, 2008

Brain Challenge fits into the ever-growing niche of casual puzzle games disguised as self-improvement devices. The game offers a brain training mode, a daily rating/tracking feature, and a stress management mode. Each mode is chock-full of different types of puzzles that fit into primary categories such as focus, logic, math, memory and visual. Likewise, the stress mode likewise uses puzzles in these categories to help you manage stress, but I'll get to that in a moment.

I sat down with a fresh Monster Lo-Carb drink because nothing epitomizes learning and calmness quite like a huge infusion of liquid energy. Brain Challenge starts off innocently enough with a statement that I took as a challenge: "It's said that people only use 10% of their brains. What about you?" I've got to use at least 50 percent, right? And with the Monster drink, that's got to take it up to 55 or 60 percent, easily. I jumped into the initial challenge to check my supercharged brain rating.

Brain Challenge presents a blonde female avatar in a lab coat to exert an air of authority, lest you think that you're just playing a large collection of minigames. She might have even introduced herself, but I'll just call her Ms. Labcoat. She gives you a brief explanation of each puzzle type, and in the case of the daily challenge, she'll start things off by asking you a pseudo-trivia question. I didn't know that going in because the question that I got asked was, "Has the skull ever been drilled into to release demons?" I thought she was referring to me specifically. My bad.

First up on the block with Ms. Labcoat was a set of logic puzzles, which tasked you with guessing which group of objects weighs more. You see a representation of a scale (or set of scales), with one side weighing in heavier than the other. It starts off easily enough, with pretty obvious graphic representations of bananas, cell phones, ocean liners, oranges and other assorted objects, but then more and more scales fill the screen, which force you to figure out that Object A weighs more than two Object Bs, which in turn weigh less than one Object C. The images themselves are designed to make you look at the lowest common denominator, as one puzzle had a cell phone weighing more than three ocean liners. Let's be honest, even with an extended-life lithium-ion battery, a cell phone is likely not that heavy.

Visual puzzles involve a lot of matching mirror images of objects, spatial recognition, and general acuity. I found the first sets to be pretty fun, as I've always had a pretty good grasp of spatial relativity, but then a few of the other tests managed to reboot my brain, such as "Orange Circle + Red Square = ?" I mean, if a cell phone weighs more than three ocean liners, how can I even begin to guess what the correct answer would be? Purple triangle? Chartreuse rhomboid? Okay, so it wasn't that hard, but it did make me analyze the questions a little more carefully. It was also at this point that I took a couple of long, hard sips from the Monster because I didn't feel that it was adequately improving the puzzle areas of the brain.

In the memory puzzles, I had to re-create directional routes, à la the old-school Simon game. I had to remember which shape was missing after a set of shapes went behind a screen, things like that. I felt confident here, managing to get many five- and 10-in-a-row happy sounds, as well as a little announcement on the screen that said, "Fast!" Brain Challenge, similar to other challenge-style titles, lives and breathes by the clock and your ability to things as quickly as possible. All told, the memory section ended up being my best-scoring challenge in the game.

The final two categories were math and focus. Math is pretty obvious, asking you to find a missing number to an equation, such as "2 + ? = 7" and "15 – 7 = ?" It's pretty simple and straightforward mathematics. The only catch is that, again, you're battling the clock, and on a few occasions, I tried hammering a double-digit answer through the on-screen numeric pad, only to miss a number and get the answer wrong. Likewise, focus puzzles were pretty straightforward and included brainteasers such as Which Ball Bounces the Highest. Now, I might have a problem with overall ocean liner mass, but let me tell you, I'm totally king of Which Ball Bounces the Highest. I ruled that one too.

It was only after I had completed this mental gauntlet that I found out that Ms. Labcoat was asking a general question of historical context regarding any potential demons and subsequent skull-drillings. She informed me that no, I was wrong, for people really did drill into skulls in an attempt to release demons. All I could do was yell at the TV that I knew that, but that I thought she was poking fun and having a good-natured ribbing with me. That's also when I finished my Monster Lo-Carb drink because I was feeling suitably twitchy.

The results were rather expected, as my mental capacity for weighing things came in dead last on the report card, with memory and ball-bouncing totally kicking butt. I ranked at 9 percent brain capacity. Given the initial learning curve of some of the game expectations and false positives, coupled with the driving desire to prove that I was indeed smarter than that, I took the tests again. This time, Ms. Labcoat started the challenge by asking me, "Aside from listening, does hearing have any other purpose?" Now, I wasn't going to get tricked again, so I analyzed the question. Did listening have any other purpose? You could argue that the inner ear is responsible for coordinating balance, and orienting one toward a given sound. You could even take a metaphysical approach and further ask does listening really mean that something is heard? At its root, listening and hearing are synonymous, though, so I answered "No" and proceeded.

As you play through the challenges, you'll step through the same categories each time, but often with different random puzzles. Depending on how well you do, or if you set a new record, you can then unlock other minigames for later challenges, or to play individually in Creative mode. The categories seem rather arbitrary and nearly pointless, since almost every game could fit into any other category. However, the title needs to quantify your results somehow, and if you can't tell which ball bounces the highest, clearly the visual center of your brain is flawed. Conversely, being able to weigh cell phones and ocean liners results in high logic. You'll have more fun if you just go with the flow and don't analyze it too much.

While the categories remained the same, different variants of the games presented themselves, which was good; I didn't feel like I was just going through the same motions but that I did much better this time around. I figured that three oranges weighed more than two bananas, and I was more cautious in entering my math answers for accuracy. I completed puzzles faster too … or maybe it was the Monster hitting my brain that made me think I was doing puzzles faster.

I completed the puzzles, only to have Ms. Labcoat once again scold me and tell me that I was wrong. Listening was also responsible for balance and orienting on sound. So, if I can pass on one little nugget of wisdom on the "fun" questions, it'd be to not overthink them. Go with the obvious and easy answer because if you're a type-A, obsessive-compulsive, anal-retentive gamer, you'll just end up knocking over your empty can of Monster Lo-Carb while shaking your fist at the TV. I ranked 10 percent this time, which is a slight improvement to some of the initial false positives, but also a measurable expanse of fail.

One thing I noticed is that Brain Challenge doesn't accurately calculate the "daily" brain challenge. Since I did two back-to-back, it registered it linearly as day one and day two. It's nitpicky, but it would've been nice if the game stored things by date. If you have multiple people in your home wanting to play under the same profile, the results will really just end up being bragging rights, since the chart doesn't do much for multiple same-day tests.

Since my brain was absolutely burning from dominating with my lowly score of 10 percent, I figured that it was time to try the Stress Test mode, which I assumed was supposed to be a stress relief mode. Instead, the mode adds warped visuals, sounds and other distractions to test your intelligence while actively trying to stress you out. One puzzle included a panda bear balancing on a ball on the top half of the screen with a group of challenges below him. You have to do math problems or figure out visual problems while occasionally pressing the RB or LB buttons as they flashed on-screen to balance your decidedly non-Kung Fu panda. Other modes had the screen looking hazy, obscuring part of the puzzle to see how well you can discern the information, or little spiders crawling over puzzles to challenge your focus.

Apparently, my stress level is at 70 percent. I would've assumed that would be pretty good, but I guess you're actually aiming for a low score here, as the gigantic, flaming thermometer on the screen indicated that my result was "bad." If you really enjoy playing puzzles with distractions, then I suppose this mode is right up your alley. I'd put it in the same category as trying to play Jenga while a hyperactive four-year-old is screaming and kicking the table, but that's just me.

Brain Challenge also includes a Creative mode, which allows you to play individual minigames that you've already unlocked; a Kid Mode, which allows you to challenge your Which Ball Bounces Highest abilities against a younger friend or family member; the option to change your Personal Coach from Ms. Labcoat to the guy I call Mr. Labguy; and then the Brain Chart, which lets you look at your awful scores in pretty graph form.

Once you feel brainy enough, you can even tackle the aforementioned multiplayer mode and play with two to four players, either on- or offline. The game puts a nice twist on things again, this time by dealing out cards to each of the players. Think of it as poker meets minigames; each card represents one of the puzzle games, and whichever card is played, you go up against your foes to vie for best time. Players who fail to even meet the minimum time for the challenge get dealt a new card, and play continues until the one super-brain plays his or her last card. It actually adds some versatility to what would ordinarily be a simple pick-up and put-down game, and it's worth checking out.

On startup of Brain Challenge, a soft synth-techno pop tune greets you, and it fits the bright candy-coated options. It did start its life off as a mobile phone game, after all. I selected the Daily Challenge mode, and roughly 15 minutes later after counting matchsticks, balancing pandas, and watching bouncing balls, I realized that I had completely forgotten to check out the audio features of the game. Another 15 minutes later, I realized that I had once again become so engrossed in the puzzles that I had tuned out everything else. The background music might be Gwar or Bach, but the odds are that you'll never notice it either. In terms of raw sound, though, the title gives very good feedback for your button pushes and switching options, but again, this game started out on a cell phone, so we shouldn't expect jaw-dropping audio effects.

Brain Challenge is the kind of game that you can play every day or once a month, and you'd still get the same enjoyment from it. Being an XBLA title means that it has Achievements for improving your scores, and hitting new milestones unlocks new game modes, so there is always something new to try, and it has a very low learning curve to boot. Stress Mode is a bit too much; I just enjoy puzzle games without the forced obstructions, but that may be someone else's cup of nervous, jittery tea. Of course, Brain Challenge is also ripe for bragging rights as a party game; it would be socially irresponsible for me to suggest that the loser take a shot every time the panda falls off his balance ball, but I think you know what I'm saying.

Score: 7.0/10

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