Chess is ubiquitous in the realm of video games. With one or two exceptions, every home and portable console since the NES has had at least one version of the classic board game. It also means that every device outside of consoles, from the PC to the tablet to flip phones, has some sort of chess app or game. The challenge facing Pure Chess is to give players a reason to buy another chess game when so many already exist.
For some players, the presentation is a good selling point. The audio does a good job of setting the mood without being overwhelming. Whether you're hearing classical music or smooth jazz, the score brings a calming effect that lets you concentrate on the game without unnecessary distractions. The graphics, on the other hand, strive for realism and beauty. The various backgrounds do a good job of making you feel like you're playing in important matches while the pieces and board look stunning. Playing with metallic pieces gives just the proper amount of shine from certain angles, and the carved wood pieces have an excellent hand-crafted look. Even though it isn't that important, the game runs a hair below 30 frames per second; it's curious since there aren't too many on-screen elements to clutter things up. A little engine optimization would've gone a long way here, but it doesn't impact the actual gameplay that much.
If you choose to play your chess games alone, then there are plenty of elements to keep you satisfied for a long time, regardless of your skill level. For beginners, there's an extensive tutorial list that goes over the basics, such as rules and movement restrictions for each piece. The tutorial also goes through a few basic strategies and a few advanced moves that can only be done in certain situations, so even those who are well versed in the game may be able to pick up a tip or two. For the more advanced player, the game features a tournament mode against AI players, and there are three available tournament skill levels. There's also a challenge mode where you're asked to put the opponent in checkmate within five moves. There are 20 challenges for each of the move limits, so there's plenty to go through. For everyone else, you have standard matches against the AI. You can start up as many as six different matches with up to 10 levels of difficulty, and you also have your own stats to keep track of, including ELO score, the standard to rate your win/loss performance and skill potential.
When it comes to playing the game, Pure Chess is quite flexible in terms of how it can be played in both solo and local multiplayer situations. In addition to the difficulty setting, you can change a number of game options, from the ability to show valid movement squares for each piece to adding a move timer and activating the ability to take back moves. You can also change the aesthetics as far as location and piece type are concerned, so you can opt to play in a museum with flat checker-like pieces or play in a penthouse with metallic gold and silver pieces. The title makes use of the GamePad with either traditional button controls or touch controls, for those who want a more tactile experience. Both players have to pass the GamePad back and forth to play, but there's also a special tabletop mode if you place the GamePad on the table. All of the gameplay takes place on the controller screen while the TV shows the action from different angles and with a closer view. The whole package sounds great so far, but when you get to the online portion, it begins to fall apart.
First, there's the good news. As with the offline game, you can set up and play up to six different matches at a time. You can play the game in real time, but the system is designed for a "play by mail" scenario, so it's pretty common for matches to take days to complete. More importantly, the game features real cross-platform play. It does require you to create a separate account on the game website, and you can't play against anyone who owns a PS3 or PS Vita, but PC, iOS and Android players are all fair game. With the one account, you can continue your games on any device with your progress and online ranking intact.
Now it's time for the bad news. For some reason, you're never given a notification from the system that it's your turn to move in the match. Without this feature, you have to boot up your system from time to time and check the game to determine if it's your turn to move. Considering the fact that PC, Android and iOS all get push notifications to alert players that the opponent has made a move, this is a terrible slight, especially since it can take a while to do that on the Wii U than compared to the other devices. Matchmaking against random players is a crapshoot since the game doesn't bother to get confirmation from both players that a match has begun, so you have to hope that your opponent knows a new match has begun.
Even if you confirm a chess match between two people, the experience is significantly dulled by some bad netcode. For some reason, each move goes through a lengthy load process, so both players in an active game will see the loading text accompany each and every move. Those moves also vary wildly in terms of how long they take to register. In a match with a stable and fast connection, one move may be almost instantaneous while another seemingly simple move can take several minutes before the action is executed. The inconsistency in performance really dampens the desire to play in real time, and it makes asynchronous play equally irritating.
Pure Chess is both an excellent title for the solo player and a disappointment for those who want to play the game online. Solo players of all skill levels will have plenty of modes to chew through to satisfy them for a while, and local players who would rather play a digital version than the real thing will enjoy this, especially with the touch controls. Meanwhile, those looking for online play will find the system frustrating. The lack of polish in the gameplay and online functionality makes the game feel rushed even though it came out later than the other versions. That makes it a tough game to recommend, so those looking for a total package on both fronts would be better served with a chess game on other platforms — unless the Wii U is your only option.
More articles about Pure Chess