"Welcome back!" bellows the vaguely Peter Cullen-ish baritone voice as you start up Bejeweled 3. Welcome back indeed. It's been six years since Bejeweled 2 hit the Internet, and the interim years have seen quite a change in technology. Digital distribution has hit its stride with Steam, XBLA and PSN all going strong. PopCap has shed its "casual" moniker and become a company with "gamer" cred thanks to titles like Peggle and Plants vs. Zombies. The Bejeweled franchise has even reached out to the Facebook generation with Bejeweled Blitz. Given all that, PopCap had some pretty hefty expectations to meet with Bejeweled 3. Thankfully, they were up to the task.
The first thing you're going to notice about Bejeweled 3 is that it's a bit heftier than its predecessor. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; after all, fancy graphics and spiffy sounds take up space, but you'll need a somewhat up-to-date computer if you expect to run it. When PopCap says you need a gig of RAM for the game, they mean it. If you meet the minimum spec (Intel Core Duo CPU, 1GB RAM) or better, Bejeweled 3 looks fantastic.
Every single aspect of the visuals has gotten a complete overhaul. Blocks, backgrounds, menu screens, animations: It's all been redone in extra crisp high definition. Assuming you have the screen for it, Bejeweled 3 supports a resolution of 1920x1200. That's a bit better than 1080p. To borrow a phrase from the announcer, it's quite excellent.
Audio has gotten a similar rework, with the music providing fitting atmosphere yet never being overpowering. The tunes range from upbeat synthesized classical during classic mode to soothing electronica that sounds almost Wendy Carlos-inspired in Zen mode. Zen mode also has the option of playing ambient background noise, such as rain or a forest. PopCap has even included some binaural beats to help you concentrate. The scientific community hasn't made any sort of judgment on the effectiveness, but it's there if you want to give it a try.
Classic mode is still the core of Bejeweled 3, playing out much as you expect. There are some fancier-looking gems, along with some new tricks, but by and large, little has changed here aside from a new coat of paint. If you own Bejeweled or Bejeweled 2, then you know what to expect. The challenge is not one of time, but one of strategy. Take as long as you want to plan out your moves, but make sure they leave you with an opening after you've taken them. If you play yourself into a corner with no more possible matches, it's game over.
Zen mode is Bejeweled 3's version of "no fail." You can keep matching until oblivion, with a fully customizable experience complete with the aforementioned binaural beats, ambient noise, breath exercises and affirmations. Some of the extras have a bit of the cheese factor in them, but if you're wanting a totally stress-free way to play, this is it.
Lightning mode is most closely related to Bejeweled Blitz. You start off with a minute on the clock and have to play as quickly as possible. Make enough matches to earn time gems, and match the time gems to add precious seconds to the next round. Every round you successfully complete increases the score multiplier, but time gems tend to become rarer and rarer as the rounds progress. Eventually, Lightning mode turns into a mad dash for matches. If Zen mode is designed to lower your blood pressure, Lightning mode is pretty much guaranteed to raise it.
Quest mode rounds out the last of the four default modes. You're presented with a series of minigames, each with an individual goal. Complete a predetermined set of minigames to unlock an artifact and move on to the next challenge. Quest mode is similar in concept to Bejeweled 2's puzzle mode, but it offers up more variety and quite a bit more depth.
Playing each of the four main modes in Bejeweled 3 will lead you to unlock four hidden modes: Butterflies, Diamond Mine, Ice Storm and Poker. Butterflies randomly adds special butterfly gems to the playfield. After every turn, the butterfly gems move up one row. Your goal is to prevent the butterflies from reaching the top of the screen, where a spider awaits. You can clear the butterfly gems just like any other gem, so gameplay is straightforward. The trick is to envision how the butterflies will move since you have to set up matches based on where they are going, not where they are at in any given moment.
Ice Storm layers the playfield on top of a background of rising ice pillars. Horizontal matches push the pillars down, while vertical matches shatter them. The pillars are always rising, and there is a water pipe at the top of the screen. If the pillars reach the top, they'll start to freeze solid and eventually break the water pipe. So long as you can keep the ice pillars at bay, the game keeps going. The trick isn't making matches right away, but rather learning to leave matches on the board and waiting until the best moment to fire them off.
If Ice Storm had you focusing on the top of the screen, Diamond Mine will have you focusing on the bottom. The goal is to dig for treasure before the time runs out. You can only clear out the dirt by making matches on the lowest level of gems, right next to the ground. Clear out all the dirt above the goal line to add extra time to the clock and raise the playfield for the next round. Diamond Mine stands out as being easy, but once the floor of the playfield becomes uneven, making those necessary matches gets a tad trickier.
Poker is an interesting take because of the strategic element. The goal is to score standard poker hands using the gem colors as suits. For example, match two purple gem sets to get two purple cards in hand and score a two-of-a-kind. Poker encourages you to plan out your moves in order to earn the highest scoring hands.
The game's only real weak spot is the utter lack of multiplayer. It doesn't even have leaderboard support, which is a shame because PopCap has shown that it knows how to do just that in its Facebook-enabled games. Getting a high score is great, but bragging to your friends is a lot more fun when it happens automatically.
Bejeweled 3 doesn't radically alter the match-3 landscape, but it does provide a very healthy set of play options that are sure to please almost any puzzle game player out there. If you're looking for a good time-waster, Bejeweled 3 will fit the bill nicely.
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