It wasn't that long ago that all a puzzle game had to do was be simple and fun. If it had easy-to-understand gameplay and made people chase higher scores, you had a recipe for puzzle success. After the success of games like Puzzle Quest, though, things changed and suddenly puzzle games had to have more than just a cool gameplay mechanic to stand out in the crowd. In an attempt to one-up the competition, Storm City Games and Playrix Entertainment threw every idea and gimmick they had into a new puzzle game, Gem Quest: 4 Elements. While it may be plagued with some technical issues, the experiment actually works quite well.
Gem Quest is one of the few games in the puzzle genre with a plot. Long ago, a peaceful, fairy tale-like land was plagued with calamity. Darkness reigned, rivers froze and lands became barren. Amidst this madness, the four books inspired by the four elements became powerless and could not stop what was happening. With the aid of a wise wizard and his fairy friend, you have been summoned to make everything right again. To do that, you have to restore the power to the books once more.
Whereas most puzzle games tend to stick to one type of mechanic throughout the title, this game tries to do something interesting and split its tale into three distinct puzzle types. The first is a slightly different take on the hidden object subgenre. Before you begin messing with any of the other puzzles in the book, you first have to find the book. In order to do that, you have to find each of the items listed in the top screen, all of which are broken into several different pieces. Once an item has been constructed, though, you can use it on certain parts of the screen to open up more areas, find more pieces and find the book. The interactive portions of this puzzle make it more inviting to those who don't exactly relish hidden object games, especially since it often takes some guesswork to find the item pieces. The lack of a timer frees you from any pressures you usually encounter in these game types.
The second game type is a hybrid of two popular games, namely Bejeweled and Pipe Dreams. You're presented with a multiscreen map full of gems, and your goal is to get the magical waters from one spot on the map into the altar on another spot on the map. To do that, you have to match gems, which, when matched, destroy the ground beneath and allow water to flow through the uncovered areas. While the standard match three rules are in effect, you don't have to align them so much as you have to connect them to make them disappear. Furthermore, matching more than four gems enables an explosion that takes out other gems in the area.
Gems aren't the only obstacles, though, as you also have gems trapped in ice and boulders. You have weapons in the form of bombs, spades to remove one gem, a gem shuffler, and a gem swapper you can rely on when things get tough. You can also rely on some artifacts on the field, like an arrow shooter that can help clear paths and make the path to the altars that much easier.
Ultimately, this game type ends up being the most distinct and enjoyable one in the game. You always get the feeling that the destruction of gems is leading up to a goal, and even though there's a direct path to the goal, you can approach it in any way you want, without penalty. Even though there's a timer to the mode, the timer goes down so slowly that you never feel pressured by it. Finally, there's always a bit of excitement when you trigger a mechanism on the board that helps you open a new path or, in some cases, finishes the level. The game type is fun enough that you'll be glad the majority of the game consists of this stuff.
The final subgenre is the spot-the-difference puzzle type, and unlike the previous two game modes, this one is more straightforward. Using the DS in a vertical orientation, you have to compare the picture on the left screen with the one on the right. There are four differences in each picture, and finding them all unlocks the next book with the next set of puzzles. Unlike other games of this type, there's no timer to pressure you into finding everything quickly, and there's still a help button in case you get stuck. Without any real penalties, this mode feels too easy, but for those who hate this game type, at least the frustration won't last for long.
What is interesting about Gem Quest — and this hurts the game in the long run — is that it's missing components when compared to other puzzle games in the market. Aside from creating a new profile, there's no way play through some of the puzzles again. Once you finish the game, that's it. No new modes open up, and nothing extra is added at the end. Also, despite the emblem on the box, the game contains no hint of Wi-Fi use. There are no global leaderboards to upload scores and there's no multiplayer, local or online. This is a purely single-player affair, and those looking for some competition will be severely disappointed.
The controls in the game mostly follow two tenets every puzzle game needs to adhere to: They're easy to understand, and they work. All three games make use of the touch-screen rather well for taps and small drags. Only the main puzzle mode uses the other buttons on the system. Both the L and R buttons used in conjunction with a stylus drag as well as the d-pad by itself helps move the board in any direction, though considering how cumbersome the button and stylus combination is, most players will deal with the d-pad exclusively for camera movement. As well as it works, though, the system begins to falter once the magical waters flow into other parts of the board. The game encourages you to move the camera, but since it has an auto-follow system for camera movement, you'll often find yourself fighting the camera system, thus making the controls feel slow and unresponsive.
Like the controls, the graphics are fine to a point. The boards look nice, the animations are simple but effective, and the still pictures look nice and detailed. A puzzle game doesn't really need excellent graphics to survive, but Gem Quest falters a tad in this department. In the hidden object games, there is little distinction between any element, so it's unnecessarily difficult to find objects. The spot-the-difference game doesn't allow you to zoom in to pictures, and since they are just as detailed as the images in the hidden object games, expect some furious tapping on every pixel of the screen to complete the puzzle. As for the main game, it's curious to see that it performs at such a low frame rate, making the already problematic controls when panning even more sluggish.
The use of sound in the game is minimal, but it works out well. The music is somber instead of adventurous, but it fits in well with the fantasy setting. It isn't exactly memorable material, but very few people would oppose to having it play during each puzzle. The effects don't stand out too much because there aren't many to be had. There are some nice sounds for linking gems together, finding the hidden object and activating things, but don't expect much else. The magical waters flowing in each book make no sound, and the few characters you encounter in the game don't speak. The sound does its job well enough without being bothersome.
The technical issues haunting Gem Quest: 4 Elements are the only things that keep it from being another diamond in the sea of DS games in the market. A sluggish frame rate, muddy graphics and tough controls might be frustrating enough to drive away people. Those who are willing to trudge through it and overlook some flaws, this familiar-yet-different puzzle game can provide a fun experience while it lasts.
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