Puzzle games are ten a penny on the DS and when it's a match-three type like the popular Bejeweled series, you have to wonder about the relevance of yet another addition to the already plentiful stock of match-three titles on the DS.
Jewels of the Tropical Lost Island is City Interactive's contribution to the genre. The basic premise involves a board that's filled with different kinds of tiles and the player is required to swap adjacent tiles with each other in order to connect a row of three or more of the same. Swaps only stick if the move triggers a match, in which case the tiles disappear and the newly-created empty space will get occupied with tiles from above as they fall down.
Very straightforward stuff so far, but City Interactive has tried to do a few things differently. First up is the game's narrative. Although there's less meat on it than a discarded chicken wing, the developer has tried to offer gamers something else to tuck into other than the levels themselves. Unlike games such as Tetris where players just go through stage after stage without the need for a story, Jewels of the Tropical Lost Island puts players in the role of a budding treasure hunter who's inherited their uncle's old sailing ship. Off in search of hidden loot that once belonged to his former partner in crime, Bluebeard, gamers sail from island to island, quizzing locals on where the old pirate was last seen.
And that's about it for the most part. Locals will challenge players to tackle their respective levels in exchange for information on Bluebeard's whereabouts. After completing a few stages, it's a shame the non-essential storyline can easily be skipped without any major loss to the experience as a whole.
Levels largely stay the same throughout the game, but a few welcome variations mix things up a little. Most of the stages require players to utilise every square on the grid by including it as part of a tile match. Every now and again, there will be levels that task players to successfully use a number of specific tiles (cherries, feathers, etc.) in order to pass the stage. This certainly adds some difficulty to the stages and having to use specific tiles will be a real test for players' reaction times.
The whole game is roughly divided into different areas, each one consisting of several regular levels, periodic boss battles and "treasure stages" that mark the tail end of the area. Upon completion, players will gain a valuable piece of treasure and a clue to the next location. These levels are unnecessarily easy compared to the regular ones and actually decrease the amount of satisfaction gained from passing them. In contrast, the "boss stages" although infrequent are definitely some of the game's most enjoyable sections. Enemies such as giant squids and rival pirates can be seen on the top screen engaging in battle with the player's ship, and on the lower screen, players frantically swap tiles around in order to match up bomb tiles to inflict damage to the boss. Matching up buckets of water will replenish the player's health bar, so it's not all gung-ho, all-offence with no defence. Players will have to dish out damage as well as healing from it, carefully keeping those plates spinning as it were, and make sure that they stay on their toes.
Power-ups are at hand to offer gamers an edge when things get a little tricky, although if a player cannot make a valid move, the board will reshuffle. Power-ups range from the ability to instantly clear the board of a single type of tile, to the ability of making three separate swaps without necessarily making any matches in the process. Although the power-ups are different from each other, players will inevitably use some more than others, but at least the player has a choice in what to use and when. One feature that players should perhaps have the choice of turning on and off is the game's glittering notification which highlights a tile that can be swapped. When players do nothing for a few seconds, the game assumes they are stuck needing help, which although partly true doesn't necessarily mean they want the help. Indeed, we came away from this game feeling that too much help is pushed onto the player.
And so, after more than 100 levels, players will naturally reach the end of the game and be greeted with a rather anti-climactic finish. For replay value, players can replay any stage they want to get a high score and the accompanying "perfect" rating. Numerous "achievements" in the form of challenges require gamers to complete the levels within set parameters, and the quick play mode allows players to take on a single level of their choosing, although its inclusion is a little baffling as gamers can just as easily do the same by going into the main game and choosing the specific level there too.
The soundtrack is made up of various panpipe compositions which by themselves aren't too shoddy – imagine some of the older Monkey Island games and you'll get an idea of what to expect. However, the repeated use of one or two tracks makes the audio experience uninspired and even a little annoying at times.
Control-wise, players need only use the stylus to select which tiles to swap; nothing adventurous, which kind of goes against the adventurous nature of the game's narrative. Because the controls are as basic as they can be, it does mean less can go wrong. Should players accidentally select the wrong tile, a simple tap on the correct one is all they need to do to rectify the mistake. In the game's favour, the controls are simple, but they are user-friendly and they work.
Whilst not essential, Jewels of the Tropical Lost Island would have benefited from a multiplayer mode, even if it's just for two players via a local wireless connection. The boss levels in the main game only reinforce the idea that a multiplayer mode would not only be fun, but very engaging. Going back to the Tetris example, the star of the show was definitely the main game, but that didn't mean the two-player mode was obsolete.
Puzzle fans will get a kick out of the minor variations to the traditional match-three play mechanics, but as an overall game, it's still nothing special. Perfect for bored children in car journeys, but with a lifespan of just several hours, even the temptation of achieving all the high scores won't entice the more advanced players in the long run. As for the game's addition to the match-three genre, it certainly hasn't done any harm, but neither has it been revolutionary enough to make a significant splash in the ocean of alternatives that are already available.