Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Shape Solitaire Review

Shape Solitaire, developed and published by Dekovir Entertainment.
The Good: Unique and interesting concept, easy to learn, good strategic and planning elements, two game modes, random card order increases replay value
The Not So Good: No level editor, low-resolution graphics
What say you? A simple and ingenious idea makes for an entertaining card-based puzzle game: 6/8

Solitaire is the card game of choice for the lonely. Everybody has probably played solitaire in one form or another at some point in their lives, dealing out cards while eating ice cream straight from the bucket. Solitaire has firmly entrenched itself in computer gaming as well, bundled with most versions of the Windows operating system. The cards have now invaded puzzle games in the form of Shape Solitaire, which combines the strategy of puzzle games with the concepts of solitaire.

Shape Solitaire features some low-resolution graphics with few enhancements. Now, we don’t really expect much from a puzzle game, but the background images of Shape Solitaire are generally pretty boring to look at and are extremely reminiscent of stock clip-art. There aren’t very many special effects present in the game, other than bonus cards, and in general Shape Solitaire looks like it could just be another one of those free java games on Yahoo!. The sound doesn’t fair much better: there are two looping songs that aren’t terrible to listen to, but other than that the effects are pretty bare.

What Shape Solitaire lacks in the graphics and sound departments it makes up for in terms of gameplay. The goal is Shape Solitaire is to fill up open tiles on a map with cards. Each card must be placed next to an existing card with an adjacent value (placing a King next to an Ace, for example). This simple concept actually goes a long way, and makes for some interesting strategies. Obviously, you want to maximize the number of cards you can place in any specific location, and the way you go about this up to the player. There’s no single best way of playing the game, and that’s one of the hallmarks of Shape Solitaire: simple yet strategically deep. The game does require some good planning in order to finish each level: limiting your options for filling in those last couple of tiles is not a viable option.

There are two ways of playing through Shape Solitaire’s sixty levels. The first is classic mode, where you are dealt four cards at a time. If you can’t use any of the four cards dealt, you must discard them and get four new cards from the draw pile. If the draw pile runs out before you complete the puzzle, you are a loser. The only time concerns you have in classic mode is a multiplier bonus for placing cards in quick succession, but this only counts towards a high score and not the completion of a level, so you can really take your time with the classic mode. For those people who want a faster pace, arcade mode is in place. Here, cards continually stream across the bottom of the screen, and any that aren’t placed are thrown in the discard pile. To compensate for the continual motion of the cards, you can earn return points by placing specially indicated cards, which allows you to draw some cards back from the discard pile. You get more points in the end for keeping the return points instead of using them, so you only really need them when your draw pile becomes especially empty. You can also earn an eye bonus that will give hints on where to place subsequent cards for a short period of time. In addition to the speed bonus for placing cards in rapid succession, you can earn a combo bonus for placing cards of the same suit in a geometric shape. This is extremely hard to do and most of the time you’ll get the points by accident instead of planning to do so. The game can also have suit tiles on the map, where you are restricted to placing a specific suit. This causes the player to think and plan a little bit more instead of placing cards as fast as possible. Shape Solitaire can be difficult, but this results from horrible placement by the user rather than restrictions imposed by the game (except for the later levels). The game does require some skill despite its straightforward rules, and players who place cards swiftly without planning ahead will eliminate themselves very quickly.

The game’s sixty levels are divided into twelve sets of five levels each. If you lose, you can start at the highest set you got to last game, so that you can skip past the more simple shapes in subsequent games. You can also save your progress at any time: good for those with more important things to do (more important than playing games?). Despite the simple level arrangements, there is no level editor in the game. Most of the files for Shape Solitaire are simple JPGs, so creating a level editor probably wouldn’t be too terribly difficult. Of course, sixty different shapes is a pretty good number, but there’s something satisfying about creating your own content. Replay value for the game is high because the card order is different each time you play (the game shuffles two 52-card decks), so you can play the same arrangement more than once and experience different results.

Shape Solitaire is a great puzzle title that almost anyone who enjoys the genre will take pleasure in. The game has simple rules and easy to understand mechanics, and allows for the use of a number of different strategies. Because of the arrangement of the puzzles, Shape Solitaire relies less on luck (like some other card games) and more on overall placement and strategy by the player. The graphics may be a little less crisp than I’d want, but the core concept is undeniably fun to play. The two games modes will satisfy numerous kinds of players: those who like constant action, and those that enjoy thinking at their own pace. Plus with the random card order, each game is different, even on the same tile arrangement. About the only bad thing about the game is the lack of a level editor where users could design their own crazy shapes against a background image. Shape Solitaire may not have the complexity of the top strategy or shooter games, but it executes its concept very well and is great fun to play.