Brains – we've all got 'em, and up until 2006, many thought that video games would rot 'em. That's when a certain Dr. Kawashima came on the DS scene with his Brain Age training game and showed people, with the help of some (since called into question) science, that with simple math problems and puzzles intended to exercise different areas of thought, you could keep in good mental shape. Now comes Puzzler Mind Gym 3D, the first title from the genre on the 3DS, but are the exercises up to the good doctor's standard?
The puzzles here are split up into four categories: Visual, Word, Memory and Numerical, separated into 90 daily routines that gradually increase in difficulty. You'll go through one exercise from each category as a warm-up, and if you score a C or higher on all of them based on completion time and accuracy, you enter Challenge Mode and play through one more from each group. You're graded again, and the game records how well you do and allows you to track your progress elsewhere via bar graph. There are five mini-games per category for a total of 20, which doesn't seem like much, but remember, brain training isn't about variety, it's about doing something similar repeatedly and watching yourself improve.
Many of the games included are quite entertaining and serve as good mental exercises. A few of the better options are Honeycomb, a Boggle-style word search; Left or Right, where a clown holds a horn in one hand and a different object in the other, turning, posing and generally acting in a comical fashion, and you're to quickly answer which hand the instrument is in; and Feed the Frog, where a number appears on the titular amphibian's belly and flies buzz around its head, digits labelled on them likewise, and you're to tap those that are divisible by the frog's numeral.
Unfortunately, many other activities just don't cut the brain mustard. Spelling Bee has you look at a word, then attempt to spell it backwards after it disappears, but most players will simply read it backwards in the first place; hearing it out loud would have been a much preferable and challenging option. Another, probably the worst offender, is Mind the Gap, which lists a number of seven-letter words with sections missing in which you're to write three-letter words to complete them. Without any clues or context, this activity feels more like guesswork than logic.
The game's biggest drawback, however, lies in its organisation. The four categories often include activities that utilise very different skills or are, at worst, flat-out incongruous. Visual, for example, includes the aforementioned clown guessing game as well as one in which a number of blocks are removed from a 3D cube and you're to answer how many it would take to complete it, something that has more to do with geometry than training your eyes. The numerical category likewise includes a game that has you rapidly add up three digit numbers, one that challenges you to list objects from heaviest to lightest according to how they compare when multiples of them are placed on different sides of a scale, and Futoshiki, basically a 3x3 or 5x5 space from a Sudoku puzzle. This wouldn't prove such an issue if not for the fact this is a brain training game, and there's no way to tell if you're getting better or worse in a category if you're asked to try such varying tests. The game bases the progress charts solely on how you do in each of the four groupings, data that quickly becomes meaningless.
It also wouldn't end up so problematic if there were any way to organise the games besides daily routines followed by challenges, but Puzzler Mind Gym 3D does not include any such option. It's a nice addition that you're able to play through each set without waiting for the proper date, but it doesn't get any more user-friendly than that. There's no way to return to your favourite activities besides clicking through each numbered routine until you stumble upon them, nor is there any way to design your own regimen and work on specific activities. This title could pass as a decent educational mini-game collection if this were so, but sticking to this flawed structure lets it down dearly.
Further complicating scoring and decreasing replay value is the fact that when you return to a day's activity, say after performing poorly or for practise, the puzzles are either exactly the same or are made up of the same content. When so much of the grading is based on how quickly you complete something, having already finished half the puzzle before failing and returning gives the player an edge that further diminishes the system's effectiveness.
You'll also unlock brain facts and tips from Puzzler's Kawashima equivalent, Professor Ian Robertson. These are interesting, but as you earn them by completing challenges, they often don't match up to what you're working on at the moment. Every good gym should have a trainer, and in this respect, the professor falls flat. It also drives home the fact that to improve at each activity, you'll have to teach yourself the tricks and learn through trial and error, hoping that you stumble upon a strategy that applies to you. In one memory game where you're to recall items from a grocery list, a tip about pairing packets of information together to remember more things at once helps immensely, but you'll have to wait until you happen to unlock it, access it from an alternate menu and realise on your own that you can apply it to this task. It's simply unfortunate that in a brain training game, you'll have to do most of the training yourself.
The game also suffers from poor localisation, using British rather than American terms even in the North American edition. Normally this wouldn't have much of an impact, but in Word Confetti, where you're to quickly click each word in a category, it's unfair to have to wonder if kippers really are a breakfast food, for example.
Despite some jagged edges the game looks good overall, often utilising the 3D effectively. The music is decent and unobtrusive, which is ideal for a title like this.
Puzzler Mind Gym 3D includes a good assortment of educational mini-games and mental exercises, but it's let down as a brain training title, sporting an ineffective categorisation system and progress tracker as well as failing to teach specific strategies that apply to the task at hand, instead largely relying on the player to learn through trial and error. A better navigation or user customisation system would have also helped immensely, but unfortunately these are absent here. It ends up as a very average experience, including both effective and fun activities as well as several flawed ones, and can help pass the time in an educational way – but not much more.