DSiWare isn’t just for games, you know. Comprising a small, inconspicuous corner of the market, a handful of language applications serve to assist those who can’t quite afford a pocket translator or a class at the civic centre. So far we’ve seen entries in German, French and Spanish, and now comes Play & Learn Chinese. And while it won’t let you pass as a native speaker, it does a decent job of filling that somewhat niche void.
Mostly, this will help travellers to China who would like some assistance getting around or preparing for their journey. It includes 700 words and phrases like the series’ previous entry, Play & Learn Spanish, as it’s simply the same software with a new language overlaid. It comes with the same positive aspects and flaws as well, then, with the additional downside of lacking Chinese writing, each term instead translated phonetically into Latin characters.
From the main menu, you can access Common Places, Everyday Language and Family Album, each of which let you play in either Learn or Play Mode and contain a number of subcategories. The first option shows you one of six settings, such as a doctor's office or a restaurant, generally full of people interacting with each other, frozen in time. Everyday Language switches from settings to groups of illustrations and lists of phrases about them in nine categories, and Family Album has you look at photos of four different families to learn words for mother, brother and so forth.
Learn Mode lets you either click on objects to see the English word and its Chinese equivalent or, in Common Places, switch over to click on people and see bits of conversation in both languages, allowing you to continuously tap again for different examples. Everything is said aloud in Chinese, an extremely helpful feature, and you can also press a button to have the speaker read through every sample without your having to click between them. Play Mode gives you a word in Chinese and three tries to click on the corresponding object or person, deducting and adding points to a tally that the game keeps track of in one of four save files. There are no individual leaderboards for each mode, just the one score record, which is just as well as this will keep you in mind of how you're doing overall.
It’s quite the positive aspect that you’ll actually view objects as you learn their corresponding words, which helps immensely in language learning. But Play & Learn suffers from a few problems, some somewhat substantial. The phrases under Everyday Language come in a list enumerated "Phrase 1," "Phrase 2" and so forth, whereas actually seeing some clue of the content before clicking would make this immensely more practical as a tool for translation on the go. The conversation bits in Common Places suffer a similar problem: if you're after a specific sentence, you must tap through until you find the one for which you're searching. The Family Photo section is also nearly useless in Game Mode as there's no way to tell the difference between what you’re to click when choosing between sister, girl, daughter and so forth. Also, when you make three mistakes in a row in this mode, the game simply shows you the object you should have clicked on without letting you know the English translation; when a hand gripping a wad of cash is supposed to represent "loan," this small oversight goes a long way. There’s also no help in constructing sentences of your own, making the “learn” side of things suffer in any respect beyond casual translation.
Besides that, the game has a serviceable presentation with settings that are easy on the eye and simple animations, though overall it’s pretty dull fare. Additionally, when you click on an object the game attempts to centre it on the screen, but it almost always does a poor job of it, generally arranging it correctly vertically but not horizontally. The speech samples are easy to understand and at a decent enough speed to tell the words apart, though there is no option to make them play more slowly if you're having trouble.
Play & Learn Chinese makes for a decent casual translation tool, with a 700-word and phrase database and an easy way to study them, though there’s no helping you if you’re here for higher-level learning. Chinese characters and sentence construction are absent, but visual and audio cues make this a useful piece of software, even if some interface issues make this suffer in certain areas.