Version tested: PC
The magic of spelling is a lost art in the European isles. Technology is now so advanced that if you say a word incorrectly it appears with wobbly red lines in the speech bubble above your head. Young people tweeting pods from their mobile Xboxstations care not a jot for the inclusion of vowels. Local Spelling Stations are closing down all around the continent. Spelling is going the way of the apostrophe.
America has a slightly different attitude to spelling. Extraordinarily, every year there's a live spelling contest for children aired on national television. ABC annually broadcasts the National Spelling Bee championships. Spelling is celebrated with trophies. God bless America. And it's from that resplendent nation that Bookworm Adventures 2 appears.
You may have played the original Bookworm Adventures. In it you played a worm called Lex who, after a disaster in the library, has to enter the books to fight his way past literary figures with spelling. Goodness me, it's fun to describe that game. Bookworm Adventures 2 is precisely the same format, with a brand new story and a few new twists.
The combat is very one-sided. Opponents simply attack you on their turn using their unique abilities. However, to fight back you're going to have to get your spell on. There's a grid of 16 tiles, each bearing a letter. From them you must create the longest word you can. The longer the word, and the higher value of the letters used (think Es and Ns being lowest, Js and Qs being highest), the more powerful an attack you'll perform.
This is made more intricate by special tiles. Various letters will become jewels, which when used will have specific effects on the opponent. A red gem will set them on fire for a bit, which will continue to hurt them for a few turns. Blue will freeze them, letting you take two turns in a row. The opponents also have access to these abilities, and indeed many more.
Baddies can cause tiles to become worthless, having no effect on the word's attack. Or they can chain them so they can't be used for a number of turns. Or perhaps set them on fire, or infect them with spreading diseases, and so very much on.
Lex also comes armed with various special tools, won throughout the game, that add various bonuses. Some are reasonably obvious - increased damage from gems, resistance from being stunned, etc. Others are more esoteric and fun, like a special book that gives bonus attacks for spelling adjectives.
This time, however, there's only room for two of the many bits of equipment you pick up, the third slot assigned for a companion. Now, as Lex adventures through the new story (as daft as it might seem, I'm not going to spoil any of it here, other than to say it involves time travel and magic pens), he meets various characters who offer him support. As well as playing parts in the narrative as you enter new books and begin new fights, you can select one to help you, endowing you with bonuses at various points. My favourite setup? Just Right Porridge to resist stun attacks, the very concept of Enlightenment that makes you immune to tile smash and tile lock, and Carroll's Cheshire Cat, who purifies Lex of ill effects every four turns.
Also new are rainbow tiles. Create a word with three different coloured gems in it and on your next turn a letter in your grid will be a rainbow gem. This is a wildcard, assigned to any letter you wish, which for the sesquipedalian creates fantastic opportunities for outdoing oneself.
So here Bookworm Adventures 2 already succeeds. It's the adorable Bookworm formula, applying pure skill to defeat opponents, in a fun and silly storyline. The difficulty curve is steeper this time (although Lex's health and bonuses are reset at the start, it does refer to the three chapters as Books 4, 5 and 6), with bonus tiles and ill effects arriving much sooner, and the game getting tough by the second chapter, rather than the third. But it goes the extra mile.
Those familiar with PopCap games may sensibly have high expectations. Peggle, a fantastic format for fun, is so much better because of the characters, wit and sound effects. It's taking a solid idea and infusing it with astonishing charm. However, PopCap has perhaps had a little trouble with sequels in the past. Peggle Nights really didn't feel like anything new at all, remarkably only adding a new character at the very end, and Bejeweled Twist seemed like a backward step from the perfect original.
Bookworm Adventure 2 breaks this habit beautifully. While the new ingredients above aren't breathtaking in the changes they make, the reason for buying a whole new Bookworm game (rather than simply replaying the original - the grids are random, it is in effect infinitely replayable) is to experience the abundance of joy that comes with it.
The humour is endlessly and effortlessly brilliant. Every new enemy (I estimate there are around 150 of them) has unique paper-doll animations, its own unique death animation, and a collection of hilarious lines to deliver. Meet the White Bone Spirit - a really quite menacing flying dragon skellington - and he greets you with, "Hello, I'll be your White Bone Spirit for this evening." An evil robot named Bezerkoid declares, "Biology is disgusting!" Encountering the moon (seriously, I bloody love this game), he sings, "When the Moon hits your eye, like a big pizza pie, that's AMORE!" Meanwhile, every character has their own description. The moon, in the early fairytale section, is described like this:
- Eeny, meeny, miney, moon,
- Catch a tiger by the tune.
- If he hollers let him swoon,
- Because the moon is the Earth's only natural satellite.
And it only gets sillier. Book 2 is perhaps a little too sensible in places, themed around Chinese literature and mythology, but Book 3's all-out insanity is a real pleasure.
Oh, another thing. Not only do they all have their own gags, and comedy descriptions, but each has his own unique collection of attacks. These boil down to the same thing - harm Lex, make him burn, lock tiles, etc. But each is given two or three of these with punning names. The sheer volume of these puns is mind-boggling. A favourite? You fight a walrus who can make Lex bleed with his, "Goo-goo-cut-you" attack. Come on - you may have thought I was an idiot with those previous examples, but that's gold dust.
Lots of other details the game doesn't boast make a difference. Spell an apposite word and you'll receive a bonus. I managed to get DINOSAUR while travelled back in time to the Jurassic era, and the game rewarded me accordingly. (Although when I spelt SEXIST for a Stepford Wife, sadly it failed to recognise my scathing satire.)
Phew, I managed to get through this without boasting about the long words I got. (Look at the screenshots! Admire me!) But that's the thing. This is a game that is more satisfying the more skilful you are. Stumble through with five-letter words and you're going to have a tough time staying alive. Throw out the odd 11 or 12-letter word and it will shout its amazement at you, and reward you with elaborate animations. (There's a moment involving dancing I'm itching to spoil, but I won't, but seriously, spell long words when you get there.)
The problems? Well, it's simply not hard enough by the end. I lost two battles the entire way through, and one was because I became trapped in a cycle of having 11 out of 16 tiles locked and being constantly stunned, not having any way out of it. The other because I didn't play well enough. But in around 150 fights, I'd hope to struggle more than breezing through 148 of them. It's always fun to get long words, and always amusing to read the nonsense on the screen, but I'd love it if it would just get tough.
However, this time there's a fabulous reason to play a second time - once completed the game becomes about gathering achievements. Spell five 10 letter words, spell five words beginning with the same letter in a row, and so on. (In fact, the Gold stage of that last one wants eight in a row - I'm not convinced that's possible). This gives fresh motivation to be better and better. There's also a couple of new mini-games, but frankly nothing can be better than the Word Master game where you have to guess the five-letter word in a sort of Mastermind (the game, not the TV show) style. I could spend the rest of my life playing that very happily. (Beat more than 39 in a row, I dares ya!)
Adorable, not only for kids as the presentation may immediately suggest, and very silly, it's another big success for PopCap. If only it would get properly challenging it would be a giant classic. As it is, it's a thing of loveliness you should buy this instant.
8 / 10