Posted by Conor McMahon
Pick up or put down?
Jewel games are kind of a big deal right now. When we aren’t crushing candy we’re swiping crystals and arranging colours into pleasing lines to calm that casual OCD which mobile gaming has begun to inspire. It’s easy to get lost in the swarm of them on 3DS alone, so Gamelion studio’s latest release attempts to grab our attention with a shiny new synonym and a tropical coat of paint.
Pick-A-Gem calls itself a match-3 puzzle game, but instead of swapping adjacent gems to arrange lines yourself, players are asked to identify the matches already in place, tapping groups of three or more with the stylus in a test of fast-paced recognition. The basic layout is nothing new to anyone who’s even dabbled in the genre before, but tapping to clear instead of swiping and swapping does feel a bit more arcade-y. It’s standard fare; removing complexity in exchange for a universally accessible experience.
Each round you’ll fight the time limit to build an impressive score and level up, unlocking the selection of items that Pick-A-Gem introduces to keep things fresh. These are teased quite early on; initially dropped into stages for free so you can learn what they do in advance of buying more with in-game coins later. A sand timer prolongs the round by a couple of seconds, a detonator explodes every bomb tile in play and another helps cluster groups of colour together. Frenzy mode is unlocked within the first few levels as well, and does pretty much exactly what it implies. After filling the frenzy gauge by rapidly clearing gems, it activates automatically to create giant combos of gems for those precious few seconds.
Unlocking these features means that levelling up can feel quite rewarding for a while, even if the changes introduced are minor. We’d like to say that this feeling lasts, but unfortunately that’s just not the case. It doesn’t take long at all before you’ve earned access to everything the game has to offer, and after that it’s a simple fight for a high score. Sure, you’ll keep levelling up, but other than raising the score-ceiling this means virtually nothing. Lights flash, music plays, and you go back to the same wall of gems a few seconds later. There is an aspect of online play in the form of Leaderboards to aim for, but it’s hardly enough of a draw for those already getting bored.
The sound design does deserve some merit, as everything is crisp and gives satisfying feedback as you clear the screen of gems. Music and visuals carry a tropical theme but do little with them, not even rising to having vines split up the game board or add some variety with more themed items, for example. Pick-A-Gem could have been set absolutely anywhere else and it would have been the exact same experience, which is indicative of its biggest failing — it fails to stand out.
Pick-A-Gem was first released as a free-to-play title on mobile devices last year, boasting the innovative idea that every Leaderboard would be integrated, regardless of whether you played on Apple or Android hardware. This talking point has been lost in translation, and while it isn't the first mobile title to be ported to 3DS with an additional price tag (albeit a low one), it doesn't do much to fully justify its presence. It's the exact same game, and playing with the stylus actually ends up being a little less intuitive than just tapping rapidly with your finger. We'd like to expect extra content or some expansion of the original experience when titles come to 3DS, but very little has been changed here.
Pick-A-Gem lays all of its cards out on the table far too early, revealing every item and the frenzy mode mechanic before you've even had a chance to settle. It will entertain for a while after that, but just doesn’t give players much incentive to continue. As a budget distraction it works just fine, although a lack of imagination makes it difficult to recommend; there are better quick-play experiences to be had on the eShop at a similar price.