Monday, August 14, 2006

And Round Again Review

And Round Again, developed and published by
The Good: Varied piece selection results in a different game each time, simple and novel mechanics, tense timed gameplay, distinctive special pieces, challenging difficulty through player mistakes and poor planning, helpful selective tutorial, games allows for multiple strategies, unlockable custom game options
The Not So Good: Not the best graphics, unlocking custom game options takes a while
What say you? An interesting “loopy” puzzle game with high replay value and flexibility: 7/8

One of the most numerous genres available on the PC is the puzzle game, which doesn’t get a lot of coverage on the “major” game review sites. Maybe it’s because those particular institutions don’t consider titles to be “real” games if they aren’t full price or released by a major developer, even if they happen to be quality titles. Luckily for you, I’ve had the privilege to review many good (and many bad) puzzle games in my day, and I like the genre for two main reasons: the games are easy to learn, and the reviews are easier to write. A wonderful combination! And Around Again is a strangely named puzzle game where you connect pipes of various shapes to form complete loops. Let’s check it out!

The most disappointing aspect of And Round Again is the graphics, and this is discouraging because the rest of the game is pretty awesome. Although the opening menu screen looks good, the game itself is not visually exciting at all. The pipes are very generic and there aren’t very many special effects other than floating numbers represented earned points. The backgrounds are non-dynamic and plain, and just add to the overall drudgery of the graphics. A lot of puzzle games pride themselves on detailed (although low resolution) visuals, but And Round Again does not. The core gameplay could have been kept intact with some added visual flair, but sadly And Round Again is devoid of any graphical panache. The sound effects are slightly better than the graphics. The background music is repetitive without being annoying, and the individual effects are good and fit the theme of the game. The ticking clock that warns you of impending doom causes an appropriate amount of stress in the player. While the sound is good enough, the graphics in And Round Again could have been a lot more enjoyable.

As I mentioned in the introduction (you do remember that, right?), And Around Again is a strangely named puzzle game where you connect pipes of various shapes to form complete loops. In fact, I just copied and pasted that directly from the introduction. See how I make my reviews appear longer? It’s magic! The pipe pieces in And Around Again consist of a straight piece, a right-angle curved piece, and over 70 combinations of straight and curved pieces, resulting in some interesting shapes. The challenge of the game is fitting all of those weirdly shaped pieces together to form a complete loop, and allowing yourself space to accommodate whatever random piece may come up next. The key to succeeding at the game is to not pigeonhole yourself into needing specific pieces, instead allowing for flexibility. Of course, saying this is a lot easier than actually doing it, and And Around Again can become quite difficult. The difficulty level of the game affects how complicated the piece shapes will be, and changes the amount of time you have to place a piece before time runs out and you lose a life. The core gameplay is very addictive and And Around Again is a good mix of frustration and accomplishment, all of which is user-induced. In order to frustrate you more, the game comes with several special pieces that can affect the game area. Examples include a balloon that lifts pieces away from the board, morphs that give you the most useful piece at a selected location, and multiplier pieces that can increase your score. Some of these are not helpful, such as the expander piece that fills in an area or the rotator that makes you change the orientation of one piece, messing up your carefully crafted loops. With its combination of special pieces and almost random pipe shapes, And Around Again definitely holds up to the old “easy to learn, hard to master” axiom. The game features a selective tutorial, where you can pick and choose which parts of the game you want to learn about and play through a simulation of that particular concept. Actually letting the user play the game is a lot better than watching a non-interactive movie like a lot of other games use. Because of the nature of the pieces, each game is different: And Around Again is not like a first person shooter where all of the enemies will spawn in the same locations each time. Thus, And Around Again has a high level of replay value, and it is extended even further with all of the special modes in the game. Each of these special game modes are unlocked through high scores (I don’t like that), but they can result in some interesting play once you’ve become adept at the basic game.

And Around Again satisfies all of the conditions needed for a great puzzle game: unique mechanics and varied play. Although the game features poor graphics, the rest of the game is splendid: simple mechanics and tense, challenging gameplay result in a compelling game experience. Add in the unlockable custom options and you’ve got a distinctive concept that’s fun to play and will be different each time you fire up the game. Plus, at $15, And Around Again is cheaper than most expansion packs that only add a couple of maps to an already existing (and $50) game. And Around Again is certainly on the high end of puzzle games, and those people who enjoy this genre shouldn’t miss it.