Sometimes a game comes along that utterly blows your mind and leaves you on the side of the road holding your panties in one hand, and a crumpled $20 bill in the other. You know it's just a one night stand, but still you wait by the phone, wondering, hoping that the game will call, and maybe ask you out for drinks, or to see how you're feeling, but that call never comes. You had that one instance of earth-shaking wonder, but afterwards, you're left alone again, crying.
Of course, that's a bizarre analogy to attach to a game review, but if you try not to think too hard about it, it works. I'd be willing to bet that the majority of people who completed BioShock or Portal won't touch the games again, despite the pages of forums on this here Internet proclaiming the two games as the greatest thing since pre-marital sex.
So why do I bring this up? Wordjong is not the sort of title that will make you question your philosophical views or petition a game company to design plush cubes. It won't blow your mind with stunning graphics or drastically different game design. Instead, Wordjong is like that girl you dated in high school who was nice, quiet, a good cook and would never imagine giving you head while you drive down the freeway. It isn't the kind of girl to leave you in a post-coital daze and never call, but it IS the kind of girl who you can settle down with; raise some kids with; and have a nice comfortable life with.
Hit the jump to read a review that hopefully makes a lot more sense than any of the things I said above.
Developed by Magellan Interactive
Release Date: November 13, 2007
Wordjong is a simple game that proves itself shockingly difficult to master. It combines Scrabble -- an American board game where the objective is to create words using lettered tiles -- with Mahjong -- a Chinese tile-based game where the objective is to match alike tiles. Actually, the only thing the game takes from Mahjong (other than its suffix) is the fact that the entirety of the gameplay takes place on a board covered in stacks of tiles. By plucking tiles from these stacks and combining them to form words, you both score points based on the size and complexity of the word spelled, and uncover the tiles below in an effort to completely clear the board of tiles. Upon clearing the board, your score is tallied and you either win or lose depending mainly on the quality of your vocabulary.
One would assume that in a game whose mechanics are so simple there would be a very finite cap to the gameplay, but the creators of Wordjong made sure to give ample reason for continued play. The tiny cart contains a vocabulary of more than 100,000 words (including certain swears, teehee), so most any word you could imagine is available for your use. Of course, this also leads to some bizarre inclusions such as "Quid" (a British pound sterling), "Undine" (the proper name of a water spirit who marries a knight in a French novella of the same name in order to gain a soul), "Rood" (an archaic Anglo-Saxon term for "pole") and "Massy" (a commune near Paris). Perhaps the game has certain Gallic proclivities, but those first two words were my attempts to confuse the title, and that last one was a random assortment of letters that just happened to mean something completely obscure. It would be more infuriating if the game refused words than if it accepted them, so including words unknown to 99.9% of humanity is preferable to leaving them out.
The game also includes several modes that prolong the seemingly simple gameplay. The main thrust of Wordjong is a story mode called Temple Challenge. During Temple Challenge, you complete Wordjong puzzles of increasing difficulty in a quest to ... do something. I'm sure there's some kind of zen message here about the journey being the quest's reward -- which would tie in nicely with the game's Asiatic motif -- but honestly there seems to be no goal in Temple Challenge aside from accumulating a higher score and earning new medals with ever more adorable animals etched into them.
That's not to say the journey isn't interesting, if vaguely bizarre. The puzzles themselves are always brain-twisting, and even in the earlier levels of the Temple, you'll have to restart each puzzle a few times before you succeed. This is a game that you play for 20 or 30 minutes at a time, become frustrated with, come back a day later, and feel a sense of extreme satisfaction over having become better than you were before. It may be cliché to say that these sorts of tests improve your brain power, but I'd be shocked if anyone could complete this game and not get a gig writing for The New Yorker.
Aside from Temple Challenge, Wordjong also offers players a Daily Puzzle mode which presents you with a new puzzle every day for 365 days. It's an ingenious way to prolong the life of a game like Wordjong, which as I mentioned above, is best played in short bursts, but with that much effort put into a gimmick to give the game more longevity, would it have been so difficult for the developers to create a Random Puzzle mode? If Blizzard could code random dungeons into the original Diablo in 1996, it shouldn't be too difficult to add randomized tile configurations to a puzzle game more than a decade later.
Surprisingly, the game includes online play via the DS' WFC. Since the title wasn't even remotely near release during my review, I haven't been able to compete via WFC yet, so while I'd like to tell you I crushed both the hopes and the dreams of every foe I encountered you're just going to have to continue imagining that. While you're at it, give me some bitchin' sideburns and a belt buckle with an alligator on it. I'll get you back later.
Like I said at the beginning, Wordjong is not the sort of game that's going to blow your mind or have you rushing to the Internet to tell the assembled masses about how wicked sweet it was, but it is the sort of game that will occupy your life for months on end. Combine that with the title's sub-$20 price point, and I almost have to recommend it just based on sheer entertainment-hour-per-dollar efficiency. If you've ever enjoyed a puzzle game, you'll dig it, and when it makes you smarter, just consider that a nice bonus.
Verdict: Buy it! It's only $20!
reviewed by Earnest Cavalli