Version tested: PC
Offering criticism of a Bejeweled game is a bit like a medieval peasant giving you his opinions on the Bubonic plague; PopCap's match-three classic is ready to chew through human society regardless of what people have to say about it.
Bejeweled's a force of nature. It's simple, colourful and compulsive. Because of all that, it's easy to underplay how well it's put together. And it would be easy to ignore the fact that the series' latest instalment offers a quiet range of clever variations that bring new life to the game.
Building on Bejeweled is not an easy gig. PopCap's tried tinkering with the magical formula before and been gently slapped around for it. By anyone else's standards, the sales of the polished and rather clever Twist would probably have led to champagne celebrations amongst the cubicles. For this team, however, used to selling bucketloads of games every few seconds, it seems to have been a mild disappointment.
Twist messed with the basics too much for the series' core audience so Bejeweled 3 represents something of a regrouping – albeit an elegant one. PopCap's latest keeps the central game the same as it ever was, and it's as terrifyingly effective as usual.
But built around that time-honoured jewel-matching mechanic is a web of bright new ideas, spun off into a range of chunky additional modes. Bejeweled 3's cautious, but it isn't a lazy update by any means: it's much more inventive than you might have suspected.
It's not lacking in character, either. Its pink and purple tones are filled with all the bizarre trappings players have come to expect, such as wonderfully kitsch fantasy artwork in the background (the floating castles and stone ponies suggest some of the design team spent the eighties locked in a branch of Athena before freaking out, pretty thoroughly, in a moonage daydream).
Then there's the Wendy Carlos Lite music, the Dr Who time-tunnel interstitials and that always-unsettling voice of encouragement, which seems to emanate from the man with the least encouraging voice in the world.
His regular chants of "Excellent", with their deep, apocalyptic rumble, could split skyscrapers in two. His interpretation of the word "Awesome" sounds like it's spoken by someone who would rather be telling you he's just eaten all your children and is moving on to your extended family.
So what's new? The core of the game is still Classic mode but there have been a handful of very slight tweaks. New special gems, like the board-blasting Supernovas, ensure that the Bejeweled arms race continues nicely, while the improvements to your ability to swap jewels while others are falling really speeds things up.
That said it's as much of a mindless pleasure as ever, even if seems – and I might be getting into conspiracy theory territory here – that Bejeweled 3's a bit more willing to throw the No More Moves chestnut at you than the previous games were.
This hardly matters: if anything, it makes rounds a little more tense and encourages best practice, like matching from the bottom of the screen to maximise drops. It's a nice inheritance from Blitz, perhaps.
Speaking of which, Lightning mode is the first of the three main variants - limiting the game to a very familiar single minute but throwing in time extending jewels alongside the multipliers. It's great, but without that friends-powered leaderboard, you might be better off sticking with the Facebook game where winning has a bit more kick to it.
Zen mode, meanwhile, is the mode you literally can't lose at: the game will just keep going and going until the sun burns out, the Milky Way unravels and the universe drifts into its terminal frosty slumber.
It's zone-out gaming at its most likeable and it's been weaponised here by all manner of new age battiness - there are options to turn on binaural beats, ambient sounds, mantras and a breath modulation indicator.
All told, you can have quite the Age of Aquarius barn dance with it - as I did, until my housemate came into the kitchen unexpectedly and I had to explain why I was wheezing, Darth Vader-style, to the sound of yelping seagulls, while phrases like "I love you courageously" scrolled across my computer screen.
Will Zen mode ultimately help balance your chi? Who knows – but it's a pleasantly quirky addition regardless.
Quest mode rounds out the first four offerings, its series of 40 mini-games rendering it more of a Bejeweled tasting menu than an epic adventure. Although presumably that didn't sound so enticing when the team was naming things.
As well as presenting swifter, time-limited versions of the other game types it offers a range of sly reinventions - burying you alive in new jewels every time you make a match, say, or having you clear away a wall with explosive gems.
These are all more than strong enough to keep you playing, and could presumably have decent lives as iPhone downloads if Bjorn the unicorn ever stops bringing home the money.
Beyond the initial modes, four unlockable game types provide the designers with a bit of space for gentle experimentation. They all build on the central match-three mechanics but twist it in unexpected ways, genuinely screwing with the ways you're used to playing.
Poker's probably the standout here. It sees you matching gems strategically in order to make the best hand – zeroing in on the purples, for example, to get 4 of a kind, or piecing together pairs.
With a great lounge-lizard soundtrack it's villainously moreish, even before a complication has the game randomly disallowing certain combinations of cards as the match progresses.
After all that, Butterflies sends you out to match special winged gems before they work their way off the top of the board. Diamond Mine nudges your attention to the bottom of the screen as you match jewels to dig downwards through piles of dirt, picking out golden nuggets.
Finally, Ice Storm is pure panic mode, forcing you to focus your efforts on specific parts of the playing area to defeat shards of ice as they advance upwards. The ability to create combos in just the right spot becomes the order of the day here, and the vertical match becomes the equivalent of a head-shot.
It all adds up to another quietly fearsome package: a classic game trying on a range of smart new outfits. If you've come to PopCap through Steam, Xbox Live, Facebook, or the iPhone, you might just feel the absence of the meme-age wit that has marked the company's more recent output. If you were there from the start, you'll feel right at home.
Either way, be warned: Bejeweled 3 is one-more-go gaming at its most polished.
8 / 10