Pure Chess Review
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
VooFoo Studios took on a tough challenge in not only producing cross-platform online chess multiplayer, but achieving it on both the Wii U and the 3DS. Pure Chess immediately earns credit right away, in that case, as a technical example of what can be achieved on what is relatively old tech with the 3DS. Bonus points are due, then, but drilling down into the full package produces mixed results on the portable, much like its HD console sibling.
It's apparent from early on that this download does at least put a strong foot forward in distinguishing itself from cheap or free alternatives available on various platforms. It exudes a degree of old-school class in its presentation, serving up a charming soundtrack of Classical, Jazz, Chill and Nature music. The audio experience is often sidelined or goes unmentioned in many games, but in the case of Pure Chess it does immediately establish the software as ideal for some relaxation — it's one for headphones.
Impressively, it also boasts the same core modes as its home console equivalent. Most importantly for single players new to the pastime there are some rather useful lessons in the Learn to Play section; these vary from basics that teach you how to control the cursor, to the move sets of different pieces and right the way up to more sophisticated areas such as piece valuation, learning to avoid stalemate and an insight into endgame strategy. While the lessons aren't substantial in terms of working through multiple scenarios in each area, they do establish core rules that should give beginners grounds to start in easy difficulty, or expand their knowledge through other sources.
Chess Challenges are another neat extra for single offline play, which includes 100 check mate puzzles to win matches in a limited number of moves; these can be decidedly tricky. There are also three tournaments in this area — Beginners, Challengers and Masters — that you should not only try to beat but do so as quickly as possible. It stores your most recent attempt's time to an online leaderboard, though annoyingly seems to lose your 'best' time in favour of tracking your current run. In our case we saw a mediocre time of 24 minutes in the Beginner's event — the best players have clocked around four minutes to win four games, amazingly — disappear from the leaderboard when we started a new attempt. As we messed up that second effort, we found our better time was gone forever; a minor quibble, but not the only such complaint.
Away from challenges we have the standard Play mode, in which up to six CPU or local player matches can be run at any time. The CPU options are solid, with ten difficulty levels from 'Monkey' to 'Grand Master', with plenty of challenge to be found even in the middle settings; we suspect even the very best players will find a solid challenge here. Local multiplayer is strictly pass and play, with no Download Play or Local Wireless supported; for chess that's absolutely fine. It's not a million miles away from sitting opposite an opponent at a chess board, in that respect, though this does lack the nifty GamePad table-top approach included in the Wii U version, simply due to practicalities.
As per the console version there are also three environments and three distinct chess sets from which to choose. While it's nice to have the same choices, the impact of that choice is severely blunted by technical shortcomings of the hardware — while each environment and set provide a different and beautiful backdrop on Wii U via a constantly rotating camera, the viewing angle is fixed on 3DS. The top screen is in 3D and shows rendered pieces moving, yes, but the isometric viewpoint makes the surrounding room borderline irrelevant, while the pieces themselves are less detailed as expected. Most attention is given to the conventional top-down view on the touch screen for play, yes, but the lack of flair on the top screen renders the additional DLC of sets and environments somewhat meaningless. Visually, there's little to excite 3DS players.
Rather like the Wii U iteration, problems also arise when playing online. The painful load times of launch week are marginally better a few weeks in, but it's still a rather ponderous experience when engaging with up to six online games. Getting into the online area and jumping into a match is passable in terms of time spent, but it's certainly not a snappy process.
Aside from some disappointing but manageable waiting times, the issues with online play are with design. It's clearly been designed with a "play by mail" approach, in a wistful world where playing with someone from the other side of the world will be a process over a number of days and weeks. While fine as an option, it's difficult and almost impossible to engage in a real-time match to be completed promptly, as no visual indicators are given as to whether the other player is even online. You may coincidentally make a move and find your opponent has countered within a few minutes, but a simple opportunity to see that a rival is online and for the match to move into a 'live' area would have made a vital difference to the experience.
There are other flaws, too, such as the option to invite a friend to the match but the software failing to even recognise which of those on your list even have the game. There can be technical hiccups — a welcome option to claim a win after a number of days without a returned move is nice, but in one case the game told us we could claim but didn't actually let us do so. Another example was when we 'resigned' from a match after a day despite doing no such thing in reality, and there can be occasions where the server fails to register your move, suggesting that the cross-platform infrastructure is, at times, creaking.
It's a flawed experience online, then, but it's not entirely beyond redemption. The benefit of matches across Wii U, 3DS, iOS and Android is that it's never a problem securing an opponent, and on many occasions you can avoid hiccups and — assuming you accept the aforementioned limitations of the "play by mail" style — have an enjoyable match. It's a pity that SpotPass isn't utilised to inform you of an opponent's move, but logging in once a day should allow steady progress in most matches; this perhaps suits the 3DS better than the Wii U, in a respect, while those with the free mobile version can receive notifications on their smartphone, even if the limit of one slot on the free option will then drive you to the 3DS once Wi-Fi access is available. Like much of the online experience it's workable, but doesn't fulfil its potential.
Pure Chess on the 3DS is a thoroughly competent piece of software, which in some respects stands out on the system's eShop. Classy touches such as the soundtrack and cross-platform play are to be commended, while the single player component is relatively substantial and provides solid value for money. The visual flair has been lost in translation from the Wii U, making the idea of buying attractive DLC sets somewhat moot, and the online experience is functional but falls below its potential, with a combination of design and infrastructure flaws difficult to ignore. Overall this is worth consideration for chess enthusiasts or those that like the idea of a dedicated app for the game on their 3DS; rather like this writer's in-match strategies, it has decent foundations but lacks the final touch in its endgame.