Version tested: PC
If PopCap's faintly sinister 'player profile' page is to be believed, playing its games on a regular basis will improve your reflexes, sight and memory, and help you cope with stress, autism, attention deficit disorder, multiple sclerosis and addiction. I'm not in a position to verify any of these claims but - and this might be pure coincidence - I have noticed that my athlete's foot seems a little better and my piles slightly less itchy since I started playing the brilliant Bookworm Adventures.
War of words
BA is an irresistible turn-based side-scrolling combat game where you smite enemies by building words (the bigger the better) from a random selection of sixteen letter tiles. Magic items picked before a mission endow your annelid avatar with special powers. Potions and gem tiles received as rewards for spectacular blows allow him to regenerate health, remove curses and boost attacks with poison, ice and flames.
In the time it takes a dunked digestive to disintegrate in a mug of hot tea you will have learnt the basics. In the time it takes to fish out the resulting biscuity sludge you'll be well and truly hooked. PopCap lures you from location to location with a string of imaginative monsters and loads of witty banter. The first of three campaigns throws hero Lex into a colourful cartoon world inspired by Greek mythology. Every screen brings a new, unique adversary, a new speech-bubbled wisecrack, or amusing Hitchhiker's Guide-style 'monster lore' comment. For a game that makes no great comic claims, the humour is amazingly dense and well-crafted. Not since Psychonauts has a PC title made me giggle girlyly on such a regular basis.
When BA isn't making you titter, it's making you think, or feel good about yourself. With a choice of sixteen letters, even the littlest lexicographers are going to be able to make (slow) progress through the (early) stages of the game. By bombarding a beast with a string of four or five-letter words you will eventually whittle its health down to zero and roll on to the next screen. The real pleasure and challenge however comes from vanquishing opponents with ventricose verbiage. Smash an enemy with a mammoth gem-packed mouthful and Lex utters an extravagant compliment. Fantastic! Astounding! Awesome! Finish a foe off with a whopping word wallop and you get to watch a slow-motion coup-de-grace animation, and oooh and aaah and as your letter grid fills up with powerful diamonds and rubies. Until you've mugged a minotaur with the word 'gazebo' or murdered a mummified hound with the word 'dodecahedral' you really haven't experienced BA at its satisfying, surreal best.
Moving into the second adventure - an Arabian Nights-style odyssey with genies, mirages, scimitar-wielding pirates, and a shifty Sinbad - tactics become increasingly important. Facing stronger creatures with more varied and powerful special abilities means you have to think hard before using gems and tonics, and cultivate potent grids in readiness for boss battles (each adventure features half-a-dozen such scraps). Later monsters can poison you, petrify you for a turn or two, steal your gems, devalue or disable specific tiles, or infect your grid with a spreading canker. Tense duels are guaranteed. By the time Lex arrives in Transylvania - the setting for the third and final campaign - even those with big vocabs and lots of patience will have been through a few sticky skirmishes.
The lack of time limits in the story mode keeps frustration to a minimum. Those that want to spend hours poring over a particular grid, and fiddling with different letter sequences are free to. Cogitation and experimentation would have been a mite easier had PopCap provided a way of shuffling tiles within a grid and inserting letter into an arranged word, but it's not a catastrophic omission. My biggest criticism is that the game comes without any form of embedded dictionary. Every so often you plonk down a collection of letters and accidentally form a weird yet valid term. I could reach for my trusty copy of Nuttall's Standard Dictionary Of The English Language ("Based on the labours of the most EMINENT LEXICOGRAPHERS") and (probably) find out what clavi, patrine, ungula, lum and barret mean, but it would have been nice if BA had told me instead.
Clocked in the jaw
For word-forging in a more pressured environment, there's a turnless arena mode. Unlocked at the end of adventure 3, this consists of Lex duelling a string of increasingly scary boss beasts against the clock. The creatures strike once a time bar has filled-up meaning you can't dillydally (or indeed, shillyshally). Once you've completed the story mode you also have free access to the three mini-games that punctuate the adventures. As interludes in the story these Boggle and Hangman variants are diverting enough; as standalone recreations they're a bit on the feeble side.
By PopCap's standards BA was an expensive and time-consuming game to develop (two years and $750,000). A fair chunk of the budget has obviously gone into the graphics. All 150-odd adversaries have his/her own look and movements. Assassins dart forward and jab you with poison-dripping stilettos, deck swabs sidle-up and stick their mops in your mush, hags cackle damaging curses and Erymanthian Boar bounce up and down energetically on your bonce. Money has also plainly been spent on testing. It might be tempting fate, but I don't think PopCap does bugs.
So, there you have it - one perfectly formed, endlessly absorbing, regularly amusing word game. If you're looking for some brainial stimulation, find logic puzzles like Sudoku and Slitherlink a trifle soulless, and have a nasty 'untreatable' case of leprosy or beriberi, then I really can't recommend Bookworm Adventures enough.
9 / 10