Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Beanbag Studios
Release Date: October 21, 2008
Making the brain do things so that it can do related things better is a pretty good and well-established idea. Doing lots of basic math really can help you with the hard stuff and keep your brain working better. Nintendo has turned this idea, and the research that inspired it, into a cultural phenomenon and system mega-seller via the Brain Age series. Since this is the video game industry, if one person leads, many others will follow very quickly. Electronic Arts took a surprisingly long time in developing Brain Training for Dummies ... and unfortunately, the effort that may or may not have been put into the development effort doesn't really show. As a piece of software, it is decent, but as a game and as a brain training tool, it is surprisingly limited and rather boring by design.
Brain Training for Dummies is, per the name, based on the Dummies series of books and, more recently, video games by Beanbag Studios. Unfortunately, the elements of this are largely superficial in nature, with the series mascot showing up once and some extremely loose takes on the design style of the books' covers. There are no little comics, almost none of the silly attitude that defined every version I ever read, and absolutely none of the internal hallmarks (warning bombs would have been an excellent way to switch up exercises). In other words, the game's designers failed at reading Dummies Style for Dummies. (A more likely scenario is that the licensing probably wasn't very thorough in the name of keeping this cheap.)
Basic gameplay is split amongst 15 exercises, each categorized as focusing on two of six skills: language, logic, math, memory, reflexes and spatial. Players are asked to either run a full circuit of all 15 exercises, a mini-circuit where each skill is practiced twice over six exercises, or all of the exercises in one skill. By running exercises, you raise statistics in each area, on an arbitrary percentage scale. That's about it; there are no unlockable content or real rewards for exercises.
The exercises range from modestly to moderately creative, often with themes running a little too strong; most of the memory exercises, for example, have you looking at cards, memorizing them, and then they're flipped down and you answer questions about them. Spatial exercises tend to get the greatest creativity, while reflex exercises all too frequently involve doing things with falling objects, which ends up feeling more like a simple speed exercise rather than anything resembling reflexes as a gamer would know them. The logic exercises would be nice, except so many of the other exercises turn into much better logic exercises when you realize that several of the combinations produce exercises that can almost entirely be broken using logical skill — often faster than you can using the skills you are ostensibly supposed to use.
The end result of the exercises feels mostly slammed together, like the team just took the first idea that fit and wasn't directly already in a Brain Age game, and then moved on without really testing to see if that game did what it was supposed to. The scoring system also has a rather phoned-in feel; all exercises are pass-fail, usually with the condition that if you mess up three times, you fail. If you pass, your percentage scores go up by 0.8% in each area related to that test. These are then shown on the main screen as a symbol of a brain, initially all grey, and gaining increasingly saturated color in each of six areas — which, of course, have absolutely no correspondence to actual brain areas — until your brain is a Technicolor mess. Take a day off, though, and your scores will drop. There is absolutely nothing to which to relate your brain scores, and the only reward for higher scores is harder versions of the existing exercises. The leveling system also makes no sense.
One minor quibble is that Brain Training for Dummies is obviously designed for laptop and on-the-go gaming, so why do you have to have the CD in the drive to play, killing the laptop's battery life?! This turns into a clear case of Defective by Design DRM, crippling one major area of the game's functionality for no visible reason.
About the one thing the game gets unequivocally right is the graphics and sound. Sure, the graphics don't resemble the Dummies book series whatsoever, but they are clean, simple and effective. Not once will you be mistaking one shape for another in a memory exercise, nor determining the difference between blue and cyan in a speed exercise. Sounds are simple to the point of repetitiveness, with music that is extremely ambient and really mostly just there. By avoiding exception, the graphics do their job nicely, without any really high system spec requirements or unnecessary special effects.
Between a modest array of games, inapplicable scoring system, and generally lacking feel for making these sorts of exercises enjoyable and producing the effect that you're actually progressing in training your brain, Brain Training for Dummies lacks what it would take to make a good experience in the edutainment genre. You can do far better for the same price or less, so why even bother with this title?