A lot of times, we casually deride games by claiming that "Game X is just a reskin of Game Y." Normally, such comments aren't meant to be taken literally, but in the case of Jewel Master: Cradle of Athena, it's actually the most accurate way possible to describe the title. This is yet another generic, banal Jewel Master title, and once more it absolutely fails to impress.
Cradle of Athena is yet another in a long line of match-three puzzle games. The hook in this one is that you must make matches over marble tiles in order to clear the board before time runs out. Once all the tiles are cleared, players must then navigate a special piece to the bottom of the play area — because the process isn't agonizingly boring enough as it is. What's supposed to set the game apart is that every time you match a set of tiles, you gain resources, which can in turn be used to build new structures to add to your empire. Building new structures unlocks new power-ups, but the process is so linear and boring that it hardly qualifies as a gameplay mechanic. Also, games like this make it hard to focus on gathering a particular resource since all you're really doing is racing the clock, so strategy is almost always tossed out the window for the sake of speed.
The whole enterprise is about as exciting as it sounds, and a gimmick that was old 10 years ago really shows its age here. It says something for the quality of this franchise that Bejeweled, which was the title that managed to really popularize the match-three model to the masses, has evolved leaps and bounds beyond what Jewel Master is currently offering. Yes, many sequels in franchises are lazy, but few reach this level of offensiveness. Most publishers would release this game as an expansion pack or piece of DLC for next to nothing (or possibly free), but the suggested retail price is $15. That's not expensive when compared to a new game, but it's steep for the derivative gameplay that awaits you.
The only gameplay element that keeps Cradle of Athena from being unplayable is the power-up system, which spices things up ever so slightly. Power-ups range in use from simple time extensions to bombs that blow up one tile to skills that remove all identical icons on the board. There's a nice variety to the powers, but the problem is they're total carbon copies of the power-ups in other Jewel Master games. Sure, they've been renamed, but that's the only thing that's changed about them. Their functions, and even the order in which you earn them, is exactly the same as it's always been.
The only genuinely new aspect of Cradle of Athena is the extra puzzle that wraps up every era of the game. Once players make it to the end of a section, they are presented with a set of blueprints set up in a slide puzzle. You must then attempt to unscramble the tiles to re-create the finished product. This is a nice distraction from the main game and a welcome change from the constant matching tedium. Unfortunately, most of the blueprints are poorly detailed, and many tiles end up looking practically alike. Thus, what should be an enjoyable changeup turns into a frustrating exercise as you strain your vision trying to figure out what little detail is out of place. Lo and behold, the one aspect of this game that attempts to be exciting and new turns out to be problematic. It's really sort of tragic in its own way.
The blemishes don't end there, as Cradle of Athena matches its gameplay with equally irritating presentation. The stages are presented in the dullest manner possible, and detail is practically nonexistent throughout. Furthermore, the tiles are very small, and it can be hard to see what certain icons are supposed to represent. The problem is particularly pronounced when resources are locked under chains, in which case they are often indistinguishable. These are the circumstances when success relies much more on luck than skill, and that's a situation that most puzzle gamers do not find favorable.
The sound design also screams budget title, as the forgettable music and unimpressive sound effects fail to provide any pop. About the only thing that works as expected is the control scheme, but even that can come up short. Sometimes tapping the stylus does nothing at all, and trying to activate power-ups sometimes results in the digital equivalent of a blank stare. It's not often that the game outright ignores you when you try to issue a command, but when it does, there's little you can do but scratch your head and let out an exasperated sigh.
In spite of all the things going against it, Jewel Master: Cradle of Athena can be a somewhat addictive game, and for those who haven't played a game in the franchise before, it could be a nice distraction for a couple of days. These compliments might feel a little backhanded and patronizing, but that can't be helped. There are plenty of other better options out there, and with the DS being deluged by shovelware as it is, it's hard to sing the praises of a game that isn't trying very hard and copies previous entries in its own franchise down to the letter and merely changes the venue. The game works, but other than that, there isn't really anything positive to be said about it.
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